Cultivating Community In Technology

Through the years, I have been blessed and cursed by technology communities. Some foster cooperative atmospheres, pour in valuable content, and stoke ingenuity. Others are deserts and catacombs of enigmatic data with often similarly convoluted support structures.

I recently put together some feedback points for a burgeoning community and wanted to share it with the wider realm. Hopefully other organizations can read and improve their user groups and the domains they provide for collaboration.

Special thanks and credit to SolarWinds and their awesome investment in the Thwack community for many years. You’re one of the benchmarks for the thoughts below.

Recommendations & feedback for online technical communities
  1. ​​Provide multiple ingress vectors
    • Converge the areas of:
      • Support
      • Call-home data & analytics (expose to customers if they aren’t already)
      • Community forums (questions & open discussion)
      • Knowledge bases & wikis
    • Customers should be drawn into conversations more often than just when they themselves have a question
  2. Convert static documents to dynamic, active formats that are linkable & commentable
    • Examples: Best practice & deployment guides
    • ​Non-file formats help conversations continue rather than bluntly ending with responses of “Go read the PDF of ____”
    • Benefits: URLs and bookmarks are much more reference-able than bulk PDFs/files
  3. Plant seeds & spur conversation by forum organization & sub-division
    • Fires (good ones) often need a spark to get started–a loose framework can do that​
    • Add sub-forums for thought streams much like you might categorize support tickets
      • Installation, deployment & design
      • Common use cases (i.e. virtualization, database, big data)
      • Bugs & troubleshooting
      • Interoperability & Ecosystem
    • Enable customers to configure “watching” of certain forums for notifications of activity beyond their own–allows the platform to reach back out to willing participants
  4. Assign or hire a Community Manager
    • See SolarWinds’ model around all of this, including their CM, Danielle Higgins
    • Cultivation of quality community needs energy & more than just passing attention
    • Find congenial, positive, upbeat, and encouraging people
  5. Spotlight customers in periodic blog posts
    • Feature their use cases, scale of implementation, pain points & wishes–and personal, non-product info
    • Be diverse–men, women, ethnicities, and company sizes
    • ​This adds an increasingly personal quality to the 1’s and 0’s of content
  6. Invite guest blog posts from partners, industry leaders, and active customers
    • Encourage a wide scope of relevant topics (not just your products)
    • Spur new and visionary thought through these posts–give people something to talk about
  7. Create an “ecosystem” area with links or references to partner and integrator components
    • No product stands alone–how does your integrate and interact with others?
    • Invite others to build upon your product’s idea & platform
  8. Encourage inter-product discussions so that customers are prone to engage the community as a validation step when ruling out issues
    • ​​VMware forums are a great example of this
    • Your product may not be part of the problem, but it could be part of the solution (data points, other customer experience)
  9. Use community as an instrument of education & to mitigate bad practices
    • Exposing “debug” or technical details in products can lead to unproductive support calls, product tweaking, etc
    • A healthy community can help correct these before they turn into support cases (or be easy reference points for support to provide for resolution)​
    • Poor practices, false ideas, and general frustration increase in isolation
    • While constructively correcting, do guard against flaming and demeaning attitudes
It is important to implement many of the above points before aggressively drive customers to the community. Focus first on getting these key pieces together before moving on to gamification, feature voting, etc–these things magnify lacking participation. It’s awkward when crickets are chirping in the community, so don’t make the silence measurable. Bring the attention & take it to the next level once things have taken off.

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