So you’re a software company, and you want to have a community. What next?
“Why community” is a great place to start: the stated reasons and budget are often somewhere in marketing, but the community is equally important for customer support. Community is where soft guidelines are communicated, FAQs are advertised, and newcomers are made welcome.
All of that means reduced customer support costs, because the folks that are answering these questions aren’t on your payroll. Note that also means you don’t have a lot of control over what they say, so we’ll dig into that in a bit.
A software community is a forum for discussions about your software and the problems that it solves. This may take many forms, non-exclusively. Asynchronous email lists (Mailman) and fora (Lithium). Synchronous channels like Slack, or face-to-face user groups and conferences.
In an ideal world these are all options on the table, but there’s a very definite cost gradient to consider. The more synchronous you get, the more it costs for fewer people; but they get better results. Support may be a major beneficiary, but they have no budget power.
Marketing is the team paying for this if anyone does, so the dollars are entirely dependent on the community’s ability to meet marketing’s agenda. That can be an issue for the types of folks who offer free support for someone else’s software.
Who are those community members, anyway? They are wonderful gems. Customers, pro service partners, maybe internal employees who just can’t get enough. They’re putting “spare time” into your support forum because they care about people being successful, with your product.
They’re also doing work for themselves, building a community reputation. They’re the pool you’ll hire from as you grow. In the meantime, are you offering them a path to stay with you? Certifications? Awards? Where’s the public recognition of their effort?
Unfortunately, people are people and those nobly motivated activities might get blurred by bad behavior. While solving your problems, your community may also air views on race, sex, religion, politics. Fights happen. Do you even know, and are you prepared to keep the peace?
Moderation is absolutely required if you don’t want your community to turn into a cesspool. And so we return to the question of budget. Moderation means people, and people gotta eat, and quality people expect quality pay and tools for their job.
At a tiny scale, your company is able to do this work “on the side”. Just like the social engineering of people and project management, your star employees quietly shoulder it all while you congratulate yourself on not actually needing those functions.
Don’t kid yourself; there’s someone taking care of the social work you’re not seeing, and you’d better recognize their contribution before it stops. Keeping people working well together doesn’t just happen.
At a massive scale, there’s so much moderation and so much community that tiny and medium communities are forming around the main communities. If you’re getting a B-Sides, you’ve got a whole new set of problems.
The medium sized scale is where things are toughest. Big enough to truly need part-time or full-time paid help, but small enough to question that need and try to half-ass it. So, for those in that boat, let’s consider what a successful community looks like.
New users are welcomed & their problems are answered correctly. People are free to be themselves, but bigotry and bullying are not tolerated. Thorny problems get redirected to proper channels. Fights are resolved promptly without collateral damage.
The stars of the community are recognized and rewarded, regardless of where their paychecks originate. They keep magnifying your reach because they’re feeling good about doing that.
If that doesn’t sound like your community, you might be better off shutting it down until you hire someone to do it right. Buying tools isn’t going to help.