Community Next Speech Challenge

When I spoke at Community Next earlier this month, I focused on six best practices for companies who want to interact with existing, grassroots communities that have built up around their product/service. Here’s the quick recap of the six:

  1. Redefine Success – What does success really look like? If you want to bring community input into product design, for instance, can 5 people be as effective as 5000? If so, why would you subject yourself to all that extra work?
  2. Share. A lot. – Information is the currency of community/company interaction. What you may think is insignificant is what fuels the passion community members, so make sure you’re doing your best to get out as much info as makes sense to all involved.
  3. Constantly Adjust –  Like any relationship, community/company interaction is always evolving. What was wonderful yesterday is overused and annoying today. Don’t forget that you’re never "done".
  4. Skip the NDA – For far too long, the Non-Disclosure Agreement has been the handshake of community/company interaction. Everyone assume that to share anything first required a signed NDA. But the problem is that an NDA is a tool to STOP communication. Once signed, community members are no longer clear what they can and can’t share, and opt not to share anything at all. This is a huge problem when the people you’d want to sign NDAs are likely the best and brightest of the community!
  5. Set and Maintain Expectations – When you start working with the community or giving out goods and info, be sure to set the expectations immediately and clearly or you risk creating perception problems when you can’t deliver again. There’s a significant risk of blowback when you don’t have clear conversation about what you’re contributing. Community members are very likely assume that what you do once you will do again – they see the impact, and naturally assume you do too.
  6. Train Your Colleagues – Learning all this stuff yourself is only a minor part of the process. Getting everyone around you trained and clear about best practices for interacting with community members is your goal. After all, if you train your colleagues, the impact for both the company and the community is far better.

After the conference one of the attendees, who knows more than a thing or two about community interaction, sent me an email challenging one of the examples I used to back up #5 – Set and Maintain Expectations.

The Example
A few years back, I received an urgent call from the organizer of one of the bigger LEGO fan events. After several years of getting the venue for their event free, their attendance had grown to a point where the venue was going to charge them. They hadn’t budgeted or considered the $1700 they were now required to come up with.

I happily pulled the $1700 from my team’s budget and passed it along. (As a side note, this was about 2% of my yearly budget, a relatively huge amount of money) But I failed to fully set the expectation and the next year it was assumed that $1700 would be there again. The problem was the next year was the same year that the company lost $213 million dollars – more than most companies gross in a year. Needless to say, the event organizer was disappointed and a bit upset when I couldn’t come up with the money.

The Challenge
The attendee that emailed me challenged my decision to no "find the money" within the company. After all, her argument went, $1700 was a minor amount of money when compared to the millions spent on traditional advertising. Why not just go bug my colleagues until they coughed up the money?

Long story short, there were several reasons I didn’t find the money:

  • The event in question was successful and interesting because it was grassroots. I’d been working for some time to try to help them figure out a way to develop ways to be self-sufficient.
  • At that point, I was still working to get colleagues to understand why community was cool. Those who would give up money had already given it. I was begging, pleading, and guilting colleagues into kicking in on a range of issues. This additional money presented a picture that the community couldn’t sustain itself, and I didn’t want to send that message at that point.
  • There literally was zero money available, or at least that anyone would give up. In a marketing organization money is power. When people were being laid off, and every budget that existed in teh company was being slashed in an effort to balance the books, nobody was willing to give up a penny that they didn’t have "direct ROI" on.

It might seem like I didn’t "go to bat" for the community, but that’s simply not the case. Working as a community member is a game of balance. You’re constantly trying to balance the needs of the community against the needs of the company. The needs of one company team versus the needs of another team.