The Art of Creating a Community
I admit it: I’m a user-group junkie. I got my first taste of user groups when I worked for Apple—speaking at their meetings was one of my great pleasures. Their members were unpaid, raging, inexorable thunderlizard evangelists for Macintosh and Apple II.
These folks sustained Apple by supporting its customers when Apple couldn’t—or didn’t want to—support them itself. Now that Apple is the homecoming queen again, there are lots of people receiving, taking, and claiming credit for its success. The Apple user-group community deserves a high-five tribute too.
Now that I gotten that off my chest; I can move on to the topic of this entry: how to create a kick-ass community. I anticipate many comments to this entry, so I am warning you in advance that I am going to modify and supplement this entry frequently. RSS readers beware! :-)
Create something worth building a community around. This is a repeated theme in my writing: the key to evangelism, sales, demoing, and building a community is a great product. Frankly, if you create a great product, you may not be able to stop a community from forming even if you tried. By contrast, it’s hard to build a community around mundane and mediocre crap no matter how hard you try.
Identify and recruit your thunderlizards—immediately! Most companies are stupid: they go for months and then are surprised: “Never heard of them. You mean there are groups of people forming around our products?” If you have a great product, then pro-act: find the thunderlizards and ask them to build a community. (Indeed, if you cannot find self-appointed evangelists for your product, you may not have created a great product.) If it is a great product, however, just the act of asking these customers to help you is so astoundingly flattering that they’ll help you.
Assign one person the task of building a community. Sure, many employees would like to build a community, but who wakes up every day with this task at the top of her list of priorities? Another way to look at this is, “Who’s going to get fired if she doesn’t build a community?” A community needs a champion—an identifiable hero and inspiration—from within the company to carry the flag for the community. Therefore, hire one less MBA and allocate this headcount to a community champion. This is a twofer: one less MBA and one great community.
Give people something concrete to chew on. Communities can’t just sit around composing love letters to your CEO about how great she is. This means your product has to be “customizable,” “extensible,” and “malleable.” Think about Adobe Photoshop: if it weren’t for the company’s plug-in architecture, do you think its community would have developed so quickly? However, giving people something to chew on requires killing corporate hubris and admitting that your engineers did not create the perfect product. Nevertheless, the payoff is huge because once you get people chewing on a product, it’s hard to wrest it away from them.
Create an open system. There are two requirements of an open system first, a “SDK” (software development kit). This is software-weenie talk for documentation and tools to supplement a product; second, APIs (application programming interfaces). This is more software-weenie talk for an explanation of how to access the various functions of a product, and it’s typically part of a good SDK. I’m using software terminology here, but the point is that you need to provide people with the tools and information to tweak your product whether it is Photoshop, an iPod, or a Harley-Davidson. Here’s a non-tech example: An open system school would enable parents to teach courses and provide a manual (SDK) for parents to understand how to do so.
Welcome criticism. Most companies feel warm and fuzzy towards their communities as long as these communities toe the line by continuing to say nice things, buying their products, and never complaining. The minute that the community says anything negative, however, companies freak out and pull back their community efforts. This is a dumb-ass thing to do. A company cannot control its community. This is a long-term relationship, so the company shouldn’t file for divorce at the first sign of possible infidelity. Indeed, the more a company welcomes—even celebrates criticism—the stronger its bonds to its community.
Foster discourse. The definition of “discourse” is a verbal exchange. The key word here is “exchange.” Any company that fosters community building should also participate in the exchange of ideas and opinions. At the basic level of community building, your website should provide a forum where customers can engage in discourse with one another as well as with the company’s employees. At the bleeding edge of community building, your CEO participates in community events too. This doesn’t mean that you let the community run your company, but you should listen to what they have to say.
Publicize the existence of the community. If you’re going to all the trouble of catalyzing a community, don’t hide it under a bushel. Your community should be an integral part of your sales and marketing efforts. Check out, for instance, this part of the Harley-Davidson web site dedicated to the HOG (Harley Owners Group). If you search for “user group” (with quotes) at Apple’s site, you get 112 matches. (The same search at Microsoft’s site yields 16,925 matches—I’m still pondering what this means!)