Five More Community-Prep Steps

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So you feel ready to launch your customer community? You’ve established goals and metrics; researched and selected the software, platform, and vendors; and determined the time and resources needed not only for implementation but for ongoing management as well. A decade spent working on interactive initiatives, however, has revealed several often-overlooked community management issues—issues you should consider before launch. Adding the following practices to your prelaunch checklist will prepare you:

1. Write and post official guidelines. Your community guidelines should explain the behavior you expect of members, and how you’ll handle any violations. Written in the voice you’ll establish for your community management, these guidelines should be vetted through internal stakeholders and posted publicly on the community site. (For a good example, check out Flickr’s Community Guidelines: http://sn.im/flickrcomm.)

2. Think beyond spam and swearing. Virtually all community platforms have automated filters for typical bad language and automated-spam postings. Your guidelines should mention how you’ll deal with those issues, but be sure to address the gray areas as well. Where does your company draw the line between constructive criticism and abusive posts that need deletion? Will you allow off-topic comments? At what point in an argument between members will community managers step in? 

Keep in mind that some controversial activity between members can be a good thing. It means that emotional connections are being forged that are making your members feel comfortable enough to have casual conversations and to want to return to your brand’s space day after day. 

3. Encourage members to help each other, but respectfully correct bad advice. One of the benefits of an established community is that expert members often will answer questions about your product more quickly than you’re able to. You can encourage this behavior by publicly thanking members who offer even minor advice and simple answers to others’ questions. Those answers won’t always be totally accurate, though—and it’s important to correct misconceptions because any negative feelings resulting from a bad experience with your product will likely be directed toward your brand rather than the community member who provided the inaccurate advice.

You’ll be able to correct the mistake without hurting your most-loyal members’ feelings if you include small rhetorical gestures that make the answering member feel appreciated for jumping in, and let that member know that he’s not alone in his misconception—perhaps by taking some of the responsibility. After all, there may be some lack of clarity within the product itself.

4. Respond to suggestions and questions, even if you can’t give the members what they want. Be transparent. Occasionally, a member will ask you for information that you can’t share—questions about your budgets, your competitive research, or your product plans, for example. Many brands simply ignore these requests, but it’s better to convey your appreciation for the members’ interest before letting let them know that you’re not able to share that info—and why, if applicable. This will further humanize your brand, and help educate your members on the kind of information you’re willing to discuss. Over time the off-limits questions will pop up less frequently—and your loyal community members will help you explain why.

Create a process to evaluate all ideas your members suggest to improve your company, brand, or products. By having a process by which you analyze, select, and respond to these ideas, you’ll not only reap the benefits of any improvement, you’ll also turn your community members into brand evangelists. At Forrester, we call this community objective “Embracing.” One example is the MyStarbucksIdea platform, where customers post and vote on ideas and Starbucks employees discuss if, when, and how the company will implement them.

5. Enforce these policies consistently. When it comes to rules, mixed messages can often lead to worse reactions than the rules themselves, so be as consistent as possible in enforcing your community standards. Commit yourself to your policy even when navigating the gray areas to create a structured and welcoming environment for your brand as well as your customers.  

Melissa Parrish (mparrish@forrester.com; @melissarparrish on Twitter) is an analyst at Forrester Research serving interactive marketing professionals.

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