Community Best Practices

The blog is brand spanking new, but the first entry shows real promise. From engage Community Blog, the 5 Best Practices for setting up an online community. (I’ve also inserted a few additional thoughts of my own – expansions only, not at all "corrections")

1) Establish and post community guidelines: Community Guidelines set the tone for the community. They are the official agreement between the site host and each member regarding use of the site. They set members’ expectations for the kind of conduct that is and is not appropriate on the site and outline the actions the community manager will take to address any violations. Links to the community guidelines should be persistent on the site and it should be made clear that by participating in the community members are agreeing to abide by these terms of use.

Jake’s Note: Derek Powazek has a great bit of this in his book. His advice is to keep these short, clear, and written for people, not lawyers. The guidelines aren’t (or shouldn’t be) about protecting yourself as the Webmaster. Rather they should be the foundation of what you hope and want your shared culture to be.

2) Make it easy for people to register: In most public communities, any user is free to browse the site but must be a registered member to submit a post or provide contributions. Requiring too much information during the registration process is likely to become cumbersome or be seen as intrusive, thus driving away many would-be contributors. So your desire for detailed customer information must be tempered with the user’s desires for privacy and ease of use. During registration, the key pieces of required information should be a username, password and e-mail address. (Some sites will employ an e-mail verification process to ensure the e-mail address is indeed valid.) You can still ask for additional information (such as first and last name, geography, products owned, etc.) but consider making those fields optional. You will still end up gathering additional information on some of your customers but are more likely to have users complete the registration process and become active participants.

Jake’s Note: The key in determining how to create registration is to really think hard about the process. In fact, this is probably the most important thing you’ll do in designing your community. Since a community is really just a group of people, having the right group of people is the basis for success or failure. Additionally, it’s not necessarily a bad thing to ask for quite a bit of information from your about-to-be-new user. After all, if they’re not interested in filling out a bit of info to gain entrance, what kind of user will they make? Probably a hit-and-run user, only in for single question. If the community you’re building is one of a support nature, this could jive fine with your goals. If it’s a hobby community where your desire is to have longer term users, this may not be inline with your goals. The key is to figure out what the "right" info and the "right amount" of info actually is.

3) Ensure the community is easy to navigate and to use: When users come to your site will they know where they are supposed to go and what they are supposed to do when they get there? Is your customer support community isolated off to the side or is it well integrated into the other support options available to customers? Are your users tech-savvy or are they Internet newbies? Having a strong understanding of the needs and habits of your end users should play a key part in the layout of your community and in the functionality that is deployed. Consider having a beta group of potential users explore the site and provide feedback before finalizing design details and rolling out to additional users.

Jake’s Note: OK, I’ll be the one to say it – If you’re designing a community without getting input from your current users, key consumers, and/or early users of the site, you’ve failed already. Don’t consider having a beta/early-user group… do it.

As a starting point, include a forum specifically dedicated to feedback from users. And make sure site/company leadership is responding, even if only "Gotcha, thanks for the input – we’ve passed it along".

Most community applications will include lots of bells and whistles and configuration options that you can choose from. However, sometimes less is more. Do your users really need four different ways to view your forums or will this end up confusing the lion share of your members. For newbies, and they are out there, consider adding instructions to key community web pages or providing links to short community tutorials. They will help new users from feeling overwhelmed while they get comfortable using the new tools.

Jake’s Note: Features are wonderful – if handled correctly. Try to start out with a basic amount of features, as mentioned. But as requests come up, and/or as time goes on, slowly roll out new features. This does a couple of things

    • Shows clearly that the community is trying to stay up with the technology – which, as much as content sometimes, gives a feeling of freshness.
    • Gives the community something to talk about
    • Creates a sense of "expert knowledge", where existing old-time users can help newbies as they come into the community.
And of course, a guided "newbie" tour, activities like user run help forums, regular newbie events like "Tuesday Night Introduction Webcast" (or web chat).

4) Provide a mechanism to receive feedback: It is important to include a mechanism on your site where users can provide feedback about their experiences using the community and provide recommendations for future enhancements. Allowing users to contribute in this way will improve the community, increase loyalty, and build stronger bonds between your company and the members of the community. This can be done in a special forum or through a web form that is submitted directly to the community manager. Using a forum allows users to respond to each other’s comments creating, in effect, a 24/7 focus group. In addition to a feedback forum, the community manager should have an e-mail alias posted in plain view on the site where users can send questions about using the community or report technical problems.

Jake’s Note: As much as possible, try to ensure that all help/feedback requests stay in the public forum. This helps eliminate repeat questions by allowing people to see if others have had their same issue. Additionally, the way that this type of help/feedback is handled by a sponsor company is a huge reflection of the relationship between that company and its consumers. That means that it’s crucial for there to be a clear understanding of when the company will show up and assign someone to ensure that it happens.

And totally agree about showing clearly how to get ahold of a community manager. They should also be clearly identified in their own forum postings as well. And any type of bio information can be highly encouraged – show off your leaders! The more they seem like real people, the more their decisions will be accepted.

5) Be prepared to “seed” content early on: Prior to launching the community, each of the forums should be seeded with some initial content so that the community already looks like a vibrant place. Just like nobody wants to be the first person on the dance floor, the same applies to participating in an online community. Even after launch, it will take some time for people to find the community and for participation to grow. During this time, you should be prepared to not only post additional seed Q&A, but also to provide answers to actual customer questions. Typically, you will need to have your own people support the forums during the first few weeks to ensure that a customer coming to the site always gets an answer. This can be done by setting up alias user accounts so that the community thinks these posts are coming from other users. After a few weeks, as the community develops and your base of participants grows, you can slowly cut back on the presence of your support people.

Jake’s Note: To add to this very good point, I’d also say that during your start-up, it’s important to start to learn who are your "power users" are and get them on the team. There are always power users in the community – people who really enjoy helping others, and helping is their main motivator for participation. These are the people who help even more when empowered… so empower them! Send them a private note of thanks. Ask them for their opinions about the site or product development or anything else. Publicly recognize them.

You can send them products, but it’s typically something that happens at the end of the list of ideas, not at the beginning. You can effectively kill their ability to lead the community if the community think they are "working" for your company (which is what giving products can feel like).

So what do you think? What else should be added to these Best Practices?