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User Community and ROI

Every time I give a talk, someone always asks, ”That’s all good and nice that helping users learn is the key to creating passionate users… but who’s going to do all that extra work? Who’s going to make the extra tutorials and better docs?” Answer: your user community. Think about all the things a strong user community can do for you: tech support, user training, marketing (evangelism, word of mouth), third-party add-ons, even new product ideas. And that’s not including any extra sales you might make on community/tribe items like t-shirts, stickers, and other gear.

Yes, there’s still a budget… but we’ve all seen third-party fan/user groups that got no support at all from “the mother ship” and yet thrived and gave users a level of support and training the company didn’t provide. But there’s still that little of issue of getting users involved, and for that–the single biggest factor is getting users involved at a much earlier path on their learning journey than typically happens.

This picture is from an earlier post:

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In Building a User Community Part 1 we talked about the importance of not only a strict “There Are No Dumb Questions” policy, but also an even more dedicated “There Are No Dumb Answers” message.

Today, this post will offer a few more tips on how to use your marketing budget (tiny as it may be) to build, support, and grow a user community from the beginning.

* Host some kind of discussion forum (can include chat, wikis, and blogs as well), and do whatever it takes to get people there as soon as possible, ideally while the thing is still in beta (but it’s never too late to start!)

* Look on other third-party forums where users are discussing (which usually means struggling) your product, and find the most active people. Reach out to your earliest adopters or strongest new users and offer them non-paid incentives for becoming active. Chances are, if you have any users at all and your product is even the least bit complicated, people are discussing it somewhere. This could be anywhere from Amazon product reviews to technical discussion boards and even comments on related blogs.

* Make these folks life-time “charter members” with special privileges and recognition as ‘founders’ that nobody else will ever get.

* Have levels and rewards for participating (but again, not money–that totally changes the motivation, or at least the perceived motivation). The rewards can simply be status, early access to betas, and especially restricted access to the developers where they can discuss their ideas or at least listen to the engineers and designers describe why they made the choices they did, etc. [Don’t reward people for post quantity alone… if post-count is the only criteria, you end up with a zillion useless posts]. Study successful user group communities for examples (like, say, javaranch.com–3/4 million unique visitors a month).

* Teach users how to help other members by creating documents (or getting other users to write them) on how to ask and answer questions in the most productive way.

* Include some just-for-fun activities in your community, like one (usually ONLY one) totally off-topic forum.

* Make sure there are interesting, easy-access ways for users to get to know more about one another. Be SURE to have user profile pages that include gender, photos, and some other personal info in addition to the specifics related to this particular community. Which leads to…

* Encourage members to meet offline! Hold a dirt-cheap User’s Conference, ideally in more than one city, to get things started. Start a forum from the people who sign-up for the conference, and offer user group or forum leaders free entry to the event (and be sure to have a private user group or forum leader cocktail reception). Tips for that are in this recent post on face-to-face). Create a document on How To Start A User Group, and make sure users know how to get it. There is a great series of posts on how to start a user group written by the guys behind the Edmonton .NET User Group. (Thanks guys)

* Encourage forum moderators or other community leaders to have their own private discussion space.

* Don’t tolerate abuse of the beginners, but don’t force the experts to have to put up with newbie issues. As any community matures, you must provide separate areas for newbies and experts… if the community culture is one of generosity and motivation, there will still be enough experts who want to spend time helping newbies.

* Why not help your top community leaders get a book deal? You never know… if it’s a tech topic, direct them (or yourself) over to Wiley publisher Joe Wikert for some excellent and candid advice (search his archives, and you’ll find everything from how to write a proposal, whether you need an agent, etc.)

* Consider starting a monthly “official” user group membership subscription, with something that comes in the real mail each month. Think about it. Think about how you feel when Fedex or UPS pulls up with that little Amazon box with the smile on the side. Each month, send them a newsletter or DVD. Where’s the budget for that content? Get your users involved! Have them submit things, and use the small monthly membership fee to cover the cost of materials and mailing, etc. Maybe you can partner with a sponsor on this, to include other things in the monthly “kit.”

* Create limited-edition, not-for-sale t-shirts, stickers, and other gear JUST for the founding community members (if you’re just getting started in building a community). For ongoing communities, do the same thing and distribute them randomly, for free. Use the principle of “intermittent variable reward” that works so well to make slot machines and twitter so addicting ; )

* Make your community leaders or even just active participants HEROES. Create “superhero” Moo cards for them. Plaster their photos everywhere. (Cute story I heard from a reader here — she met her husband online while they were both moderators for an Autodesk CAD forum.)

* Host an offline retreat just for the key community leaders. Can’t afford to do what Microsoft does with its Search Champs? Can’t afford to put people up at the “W”? Have a campout. Supply the marshmallows.

* Above all, keep teaching members to teach other members. Give everyone a crash course in learning theory. The better they become at helping others–the more skills they develop in mentoring/tutoring others–the more meaningful and motivating it is for them to keep on doing it..

These are just a few tips for now. And of course, please add your own… while I have quite a lot of user group/community experience having launched several groups from scratch, they were all technology-related, and many of you are from very different domains.

Written By: Creating Passionate Users
Posted By: Situated Research, LLC

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