I’m sure Justin has tips on this one to add. Maybe he’ll chime in now that the Oracle blogs migration has ended; by the way, I’m really peeved that OraNA.info is clogged with reposts from Oracle blogs.
Not really, but it’s funny to me. Won’t someone please think of the children?
But I digress.
People frequently come to me wanting to start this or that community as a done deal, e.g. I want to start a social network like Mix for my own product. To me this feels backwards. Usually, the reasoning is fine; they want to share content (product or support related) with their users. Great.
However, they tend to jump past the fact that there is already a huge Oracle community, spread across several sites (Mix, Oracle Wiki, OTN Forums) that is bound to include most of the people they hope to reach.
So, why would you want to do all that development and maintenance work? Reinventing the wheel is wasted effort.
In reality, starting a community has nothing to do with software or Interwebs. Communities already exist IRL, so moving them online is a natural exension that benefits everyone.
By going online, you can bring the community closer together, across geographical barriers and draw in new members. Interwebs +1.
So building a community isn’t really the goal; it’s finding the community and attracting it to wherever it is you want it to be. This is beauty of the social network. People coalesce around affinity groups, and chances are they’re already out there talking about your product or brand or whatever. This gives you a logical place to start.
Again, don’t reinvent the wheel. Join an existing community; asking people to please come over to another community is work. Take the path of least resistance.
OK, so you found a network, but it’s too general. How can you stake your claim and get your users talking about your product? This is where social apps, deployed within a network rule; think Facebook’s F8 platform and OpenSocial.
You found where your users are, now build them a space within that network where than can talk about your product and, mostly importantly, where you can engage them to collect their thoughts and share your own. Create a group. Ask questions. Share insights. Talk to them.
Now comes the tough part, managing the community. Community manager is rapidly gaining acceptance as a real job. Starbucks and Dell both have dozens of community managers whose job it is to interact with people who submit ideas online.
Protip: People like to be heard. Bonus points for a quick response.
Many times when I get feedback about Mix or Connect, it’s a bug. I often feel badly when I have to tell the person sorry, but we can’t fix that right away. Bugs suck.
Oddly, at least to me, people tend to understand and are forgiving. Frequently, they thank me for getting back to them so quickly, even with bad news.
You can see the same behavior on blogs, which are micro-communities (some are macro, I guess). Commenters want to have a dialog. If you’re blogging and not replying to comments, you’re doing it wrong.
The community manager’s job is to make everyone feel welcome and heard and help them find answers. It’s like being a concierge or a Walmart greeter, and yes, it’s a full-time job.
So, the main points here are: 1) the Field of Dreams approach doesn’t work well enough, leverage an existing community and 2) manage and cultivate your community, listen and respond.
Yeah, I glossed over some stuff like promotion, moderation and content, but that stuff’s secondary IMHO. After all, it’s moot if no one shows up to your community.
What did I miss? I know a lot of good community managers who could chime in with points I’ve missed.
Update: Dawn Foster, a season veteran of community management who frequently speaks about this topic at conferences, has companion posts on Hiring a Community Manager and How to Get a Community Manager Job over at her blog. Required reading. Another Dawn update: She posted another good read about corporate policy dos and don’ts. Why haven’t you subscribed to her blog yet?
Another update: Ted over at badgerworks reminded me of a couple other key pieces of advice. Know your users and be patient. For example, although it’s obvious to me what the orange RSS icon means and how to use it, that’s not a given for everyone. Taking this for granted will put off your users; that’s where the patient part applies. No community was built overnight, even the biggest community took time to develop, e.g. MySpace took several year to grow to hundreds of millions of users.
So, be patient and know your users as much as possible. And be agile, because just like blogging, you can’t always predict what will be interesting or useful, even if you know your users. So, you’ll want to recognize and capitalize on what works quickly.