I can’t believe it’s been 8 years since I lost the argument and we decided to launch our own community. (That’s a story for another day – catch me at the 10 year.) Of course, I’m glad I lost that argument, because of all the benefits the community has brought to Lithium, but also for something else: because it’s given us the chance to “walk in our customers shoes,” and experience for ourselves the kinds of things you only learn by creating a branded community for your own brand.
Because I was involved in launching the community and remain involved as the Lithium Community’s “executive sponsor,” @JennC asked if I could put together a list of some of the things we’ve learned. So, here are 8 things we’ve learned over the past 8 years of running the Lithium community.
It’s hard – maybe impossible – to do everything right. We’re the experts, so of course we wanted our implementation to be flawless in every way. Guess what? No matter how intentional you are, or how well you scope your effort to your capacities to plan and manage, you’re going to make mistakes. Recognize them, address them, move on.
When you don’t do something right, sometimes it’s best to just start over. We learned this with our VIP program. After a few years of middling success, we started over with the Stars program, and life is so much better for us and our members.
Community focus will ebb and flow. Over eight years, sometimes the community has been a main focus of attention for our business. At other times, it’s been purely about keeping it going at steady state while other priorities take precedence. Don’t fight it – use this time to take stock and prepare for your next turn in the spotlight.
There is no maintenance mode. While the community might be the focus today and merely the sidelight tomorrow, make no mistake – there is no point at which the community can be put on autopilot. In reality, the community is the focus every day – for those who are using, joining, and participating. Be there for them.
Ownership dictates focus. We all know that community has something to contribute to many aspects of the business, from marketing to sales to product development to customer care. In the end, though, the community has to be owned by somebody, and the things you do best will probably relate most closely to the function or department that funds the community.
Your community team will change. That superstar you have running the community today? In all likelihood, he or she will be moving up or moving on at some point in the future. Make sure you have your operation well-defined, and have other team members who can step in when the time comes.
Your superusers are in it for the long haul. While your community team will change, many members of your community will not. It’s surprising to see how many of our earliest members are still among our most active and influential in our community. Increasingly, they carry the history of our community forward as much as we do.
Your superusers will continuously amaze you. Maybe it’s a fact that people in general are pretty amazing if you really pay attention. Or perhaps there’s just something special about those who devote their time and effort to helping their fellow community members. Regardless, in any venue, from on-sites at our headquarters to dialogues in our private superuser forum, I am always in awe of the insights and perspective these folks have to share. Don’t underestimate yours.
It’s been a fun 8 years – looking forward to many more.
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Thanks, Cy - and I agree that it can be easy to lose sight of these principles. Maybe we should add this as a item in the annual evaluations that I recommend community managers perform. Not just, how is the community doing, but how are we doing as sponsors and leaders of this community.
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People have asked me what I think about the recent problems at Reddit. A lot of other community experts have shared their thoughts, including Gina Bianchini, Rachel Happe, Patrick O’Keefe, and Chuq von Rospach. But for people who build brand communities, I think a few more words are necessary.
Everyone has a frame of reference. Not everyone knows it, but everyone has it. My frame of reference is shaped by the hundreds of brand communities that I work with every day as Chief Community Officer at Lithium. These communities are different than Reddit. For the vast majority of the companies who create them, community is a critical part of their business, but it isn’t the business itself. In other words, they make money from selling products and services, not directly from operating a community.
They are different in another way, too. Collectively, they generate more than a hundred million unique visitors every month, just like Reddit does. But, individually they are much smaller, ranging from one-tenth, to one one-hundredth, to one one-thousandth the size of Reddit. There are some unique problems that come from massive scale. It isn’t the same when you are significantly smaller.
But there’s another big way that brand communities are different than Reddit. Reddit is dedicated to the principle of free speech. This is a promise — sometimes explicit, always implicit — that Reddit makes to its members. Now what I’m about to say may sound controversial, but brand communities don’t make that promise to their users. They make a different promise. A computer hardware manufacturer promises that people who are looking for help and ideas for using its products will get that from its community. A retailer of beauty products promises that people who are interested in beauty will get advice and how-to information. Both companies, like most other brand communities, also make an implicit promise that you will have an experience consistent with their brand — which means, if you visit the community, you will have a positive, rewarding experience — not a negative, offensive, or irrelevant one.
What that also means is, if you want to debate the superiority of your religion over other religions, you won’t be permitted to do that in a brand community. Not because they don’t approve of your message, but because the topic conflicts with the promise the brand has made to its community.
As our chief scientist, Dr. Michael Wu, often notes, creating satisfying customer experiences doesn’t begin with delivering the experience. It begins with the promise you make about what that experience will be. Fall short of the promise, and you will have dissatisfied users or customers, regardless of any other ways your experience might be objectivity good or even superior to others.
Let me cut to the chase: I have no idea how to fix Reddit. But I think perhaps there are lessons here for anyone who runs a brand community. First, here’s what the lessons are not . For brand communities, the lesson is not that the internet is a wild place and cannot be tamed. That may be true of the Internet at large, but it isn’t — and cannot be— true of brand communities. Because if it were, you can forget keeping those promises.
The lesson is also not that empowering members is a bad thing because they will use their powers against you. You can’t have a successful community without a partnership with your users, and empowerment is part of that partnership.
Finally, the lesson is not that you should avoid relying on key members of your staff because those members may leave, either voluntarily or because you decide they should. Change is the nature of organizations and communities. We have to build communities that can survive and even welcome change, not resist it.
Ok, so are there lessons for brand communities from what’s happening at Reddit? I think there are, and as Patrick O’Keefe notes, they are not new. In fact, they testify to the principles I see at work every day at the most successful brand communities:
Leadership is communication. Communities, like other forms of social organization, depend on leadership to achieve their goals. If you’re in a position of leadership in a business or in a community, you may be doing many things, but if you aren’t communicating, you aren’t leading. Reddit CEO Ellen Pao noted that failure in her apology: “We haven’t communicated well.”
Superusers should know more, and know before. Communication must begin with your superusers — in Reddit’s case, their moderators. Your most active users feel a sense of ownership over the community — and that’s a good thing. Don’t present them with major changes they don’t see coming and don’t understand. Pao: “We have surprised moderators and the community with big changes.” Know more — communicate — and know before — don’t surprise.
Empower your community manager. If your community manager can’t get things done for the community, they will lose members’ trust. Even worse, you will lose your community manager’s trust, and they will “go native” or leave. In either event, you’ve lost the power to lead the community, which depends entirely on trust. Often these failures center on platform issues, as happened at Reddit. “We have apologized and made promises to you, the moderators and the community, over many years, but time and again, we haven’t delivered on them.”
Make no mistake: I have respect for the ambition of Reddit’s mission, and also for the efforts of its better members, moderators, and manager. Don’t be surprised if some more positive lessons come out of this. I’ll be following their efforts in the days and weeks to come.
This article originally appeared on Medium.
Joe Cothrel is Chief Community Officer at Lithium Technologies. He is Lithium’s top expert on community and social best practices and has helped more than 300 companies execute successful social efforts.
He is active on Twitter @cothrel and is a regular contributor in the Lithosphere where he is JoeC .
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