Maintaining a Successful Corporate Community

Apparently, this is corporate community week on the Fast Wonder Blog. I decided to follow up my post on Monday about Custom Corporate Communities: Planning and Getting Started with this post containing tips about what to do and what to avoid doing if you want to have a successful corporate community. While some of these tips are specific to corporate communities, most of them also apply to other types of communities as well.

The are many ways for a company to encourage or discourage participation in their community just by the way employees behave in the community, the way the community is facilitated, and how the infrastructure is maintained. There are a few things you can do to help ensure that the community successful, while other activities are likely to drive the community away. This post will cover both the do’s and don’ts along with some tips for maintaining a successful community.

What makes a community work

Being open and transparent. Being as open and transparent as possible will improve trust within the community. It often helps to explain the “why” behind some of your decisions to avoid being seen as closed or defensive. In general people are more understanding, especially about difficult topics if you can explain why the company responds in a certain way.

A company who listens (to good and bad). It is easy to listen and respond when people say nice things about you or your company, but you should also be responding when people complain or provide negative feedback. The key is to respond constructively with something helpful: a suggestion, information about upcoming changes, or just a simple thank you.

Actively engaged in the community. The company should not dominate the community, but they should be actively participating by creating new content, responding to feedback, and in general being visible in the community.

Encouraging new members. Whenever possible, welcome new members of the community, especially if they are particularly actively in the community.

Making it easy for people to participate. Reduce the barriers to entry for people to participate and make it as easy as possible to join the community. Allowing people to view content before joining and a simple sign-up form with very few required fields can go a long way toward reducing the barriers to participation.

Integration into other relevant areas of the site. In most cases, it is simple to pull information from your community into static areas of your website. This makes your static website seem less static, and it drives more people to your community when they see a piece of content that they are interested in reading. For example, if you have a static page describing your efforts in sustainability, you could pull the 5 most recent blog posts or discussions from the sustainability section of your community into a sidebar on the static page.

What to avoid

Community is lip service. People can tell when a company creates a community to give the appearance of listening, while not really considering it a serious endeavor. If you aren’t serious about engaging with your community, then you might be better off not spending the effort to create one.

Pushing marketing messages. When pushing marketing messages out to the community members takes precedence over 2-way conversations and collaboration, you will start to see your community disappear. A community is about conversations between people, and you can talk about your products, but it should be done in a relevant and conversational tone, instead of sounding like a pitch or advertisement.

Deleting the negative. You should be responding to criticism, not deleting it. Again, communities are about conversation. If people feel like you are putting duct tape over their mouths when they express anything negative about the company, these people will simply leave their negative comments somewhere else on the internet where it is likely more people will see the criticism and not hear your side of the story.

Barriers to collaboration. Community software, configuration, or policies can often create barriers to collaboration. Configure the software to make it easy for people to find content and sign up for the community. Your policies should create guidelines for use that help keep the community healthy without being so heavy handed that people aren’t interested in participating. Flickr’s community guidelines are a good example of how to write guidelines that are simple and even fun to read.

Neglected communities. Nobody wants to participate in a corporate community where no one in the company monitors or responds to questions or feedback. There are too many of these floating around the internet, so make sure that you have the resources to give your community care and feeding over the life of the community.

Dealing with the difficult

Every community has its fair share of difficulties. While you can never anticipate every difficult experience, many of them seem to fall into one of these four categories.

Negative Comments. As I mentioned earlier, do not delete negative feedback or negative comments. I generally hold off before responding to the negative feedback to see if other non-employee community members come to my rescue first. If not, you’ll need to respond constructively and honestly with as much information as you are able to provide, and you need to respond without getting defensive.

Spammers. Spammers are a huge, painful thorn in a community manager’s side. You should put aggressive, automated measures in place to deal with spam; however, also be prepared for them to find ways around your spam filters. Spammers are a creative group, and they will find ways to spam your community that you never thought was possible. Deal with the spam as quickly and completely as possible.

Pain in the ass. There are always those people who are just a pain. They complain that your documentation has a typo, you don’t file bugs quickly enough, or anything else that isn’t getting done to their exacting standards. In many cases, these are people who really do want to make things better. My advice in this case may sound counter-intuitive, but you should put them to work if possible and reward their efforts. If they complain about the documentation, see if you can convince them to re-write a section. If that works, you might find other ways to put them to work to channel that energy into fixing instead of complaining.

Don’t feed the trolls. These are the people who complain and act out because they want attention. They will take up as much of your time as you give them in pointless arguments and distractions. It can be difficult for many people not to take the bait. Ignore them and resist the urge to give them the attention they crave. If they don’t find someone to argue with, they will generally move on to another community where they can make trouble.

No community is perfect

You need to keep in mind that no community will ever be perfect: things will go wrong; your community software will have bugs; and people will get defensive or irate. In addition to the internal factors in the community, there are external influences that can creep into the community. Companies have PR nightmares that drive people into the community in droves to complain, but in great communities, the company responds effectively, addresses the issue, and works to resolve it quickly. When you have one of these crisis situations, keep the focus on summarizing and fixing, instead of blaming and justifying. Maintain open communication channels and deal with these imperfections and issues as quickly and openly as possible.

What are your favorite tips to help companies have great communities?

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