5 Best Practices for Building an Online Customer Community So you’ve decided to build a community. Congrats! As an unbiased (cough, cough) Community Manager myself, it really is an excellent way…

5 Best Practices for Building an Online Customer Community

Patrick Hellen

Patrick Hellen is the Community Manager for Connect, CloudLock's customer community. He spends his days conversing with customers about cloud security and the CloudLock Security Fabric.

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CloudLock - Patrick Community ConnectSo you’ve decided to build a community. Congrats! As an unbiased (cough, cough) Community Manager myself, it really is an excellent way to work closer with your customers, provide excellent information for your prospects, crowdsource improvements to your products, and ask for feedback in real time. It’s a little daunting to start anything from scratch, so here are 5 quick best practices to help get your Community up and running in short order.

1) Build Internal Support

When faced with the prospect of opening up your business to, “Teh Internets,” there’s a pretty normal fear reaction. I’ll go even farther, and say, “abject terror,” for people that have spent any amount of time reading online comments. It’s for this reason that a good internal support conversation is the first and most important step for any external online community.

First, it allows you to discuss the potential pitfalls and concerns that various team members have. Your marketing department might be gung-ho about the idea, while your support team is petrified at the prospect of opening up more cases, without a specific plan to address them. This first step conversation allows you to recruit people for areas of the community, help build out what their roles will be in the future, and gives you the opportunity to ask for volunteers. If someone from your products or engineering teams is interested in blogging, or in capturing and addressing customer requests, giving them that role makes the entire community run smoother.

2) Hire a Community Manager

Now that you’ve built up your internal support team, it’s time to hire someone to make sure that this team is accountable, and that the community has a champion. Some of you are looking at my title, and saying to yourself that this is a bit of a self serving best practice, and you’re absolutely right. Having admitted that, it’s still the best second step you can do, regardless of my employment concerns.

A community is kind of like a 7th grade dance, in that it needs a chaperone and party planner, and someone to get the boys lining one wall of the gym and the girls lining the other to come together in the middle. You can have someone handle this in their spare time, but at some point their real job takes precedence and to fully exhaust my analogy, you end up with empty punch bowls and no dancing at your sock hop.

So before you try to force Bob from accounting to track customer issues, why not hire someone who will give your customers a voice, and your community a direction.

3) Leverage External Support

I’ll assume you’ve got far more prospects and customers than you have employees, so at some point you’re going to have a great deal of information and activity going on, that you might not have the resources (human or otherwise) to address right away. This is where your super-users come in.

If you’ve got a small community, your manager can probably address anything that comes up, or he/she can find someone to address something internally. When you start to get hundreds or thousands of community members, it’s often more rewarding to have your best and brightest customers step up to a more helpful role – and to really build that peer support network that everyone who is using a community looks for.

I know that if I’m looking for a fix on a piece of software, often times the user in the field has a fix that I can just copy – instead of opening a case, etc. Thus – find, support, feature, and reward your most active community members, as they’re helping you, and often times, helping themselves by being so connected.

4) Content, Content, Content.

I spend more time deleting emails than I want to admit – and your customers are doing the same thing. They’re faced with ever increasing amounts of data and information coming from dozens of vendors they work with, and they probably don’t have the time to address all of it, or to find the pieces that might actually help them.

If only there was some way to post all the content you’re developing for email campaigns, customer education, best practices, FAQ’s and to have people able to access it at any time, and comment and ask for more….wait, Community?

You’re sending some information about your new product out to your customer base, and only getting a 10% open rate? Why not send it, and post it on your community page – and track both. You’ve already created the content – so sharing it in multiple places can only help you, and when you add in social media to get the word out about this piece of content existing, you give your customers the ability to consume your content the way they want to – be it email, twitter, your community, etc.

5) Don’t Forget About Sharing and Security

The previous steps are all excellent (especially #2!), but the entire community endeavor falls apart if you’re not able to get information out to your customers in a way that protects them and yourself.

Every company is worried about putting too much information online, and every vendor has competitors who would love to have access to roadmap or product plan information. The security and sharing options in your community have to walk a fine line between these competing interests – so the community is functional, but you’re not releasing your information to the world at large, either.

The simplest way to check this? Ask your vendor! Have them walk you through the data security options, show you how sharing occurs, why they have set their policies in certain ways, and get the overall details of their options and how deep they go. If you don’t go through these steps – you’re going to be looking at a press release from another company with your roadmap decision outlined in bold – either presented at a contrast to their own plans, or just blatantly adopted.

Getting Started

Now, this list is certainly not exhaustive. There’s a million and one tiny other points to consider as you adapt every community for different audiences, but these five steps can at least get you started, or give you some ideas to incorporate.

This has been Patrick Hellen, CloudLock’s Friendly Neighborhood Community Manager. To keep up with the latest community news, all things CloudLock, or to share and exchange more community ideas follow me here.

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