“We give them a voice”

Feature Article | February 21, 2012 by Jennifer Lankheim

Social communities offer many benefits in the enterprise, reducing the number and severity of support incidents, speeding technical resolutions, and encouraging outside-in product innovation. They also humanize the connection between companies and their customers.

At Social Media Week 2012 on February 15, Mark Yolton, senior vice president of SAP Communities and Social Media, shared best practices for building a community around a brand. Yolton manages SAP Community Network, or SCN, an online social network for users in various information technology roles, including developers, business process professionals, and business analytics experts.

SCN began in 2003 as the SAP Developer Network and focused on informing and supporting coders. A few years in, Yolton and his team noticed demographic changes in their audience. “There weren’t just developers in the community, there were other people,” he explains. “So we had to figure out how to start new communities to meet their needs and also match with our business objectives.”

Today, SCN has a million and a half unique monthly visitors and is growing at an average rate of 30,000 new members a month. “The holy grail of social media and social networking is to form strong ties with the members of your community – your market – that are really important to you.”

Yolton offers these nine key pieces of advice on how to get there.

1. Sharpen the focus

“Don’t try to be all things to all people,” Yolton says. Instead, pick one segment of your customer or partner base and focus on, talk to, and connect with them. Deliver that audience something they can get nowhere else and from no one else.

2. Start small  

“That one piece of value that you’re going to deliver doesn’t have to be world-changing.” Yolton says. “It can be something as simple as a better way for your customer to connect with your support organization.”

Do that one thing effectively to make your mark, and expand from there.

Next page: Growing your community

3. Build to critical mass

How big is big enough?

“Big enough is when you have a membership with sufficient numbers, diversity, and expertise to generate conversation and sustain it over time,” says Yolton. “If you’re a smaller company, it might be a thousand people. If you’re a bigger company like us, our tipping point was a million members.”

Whatever your number is, until you attain it, there needs to be a strong focus on attracting new people by marketing your community, content, and capabilities.

4. Get newbies productive quickly

As you grow your community, new members can often feel overwhelmed. “It’s kind of like walking into a party and it all being foreign to you – you don’t know the people; you don’t understand how they’re interacting; you don’t understand the norms of behavior.”

Help your newest members get up-to-speed by providing them special tools and support.

5. Create a community culture

As the host, you set the tone and pace of the culture you want to create, but let the community guide you. “Ask your membership what kind of attributes they want to see in the community,” says Yolton. “Is it openness, transparency, sharing? Is it innovation – big ideas? For SCN, it is members helping each other to be successful.”

6. Make it easy and personal

Remove as many barriers to conversation and contribution as possible, and keep things light. “Use photos and stories,” says Yolton, “and provide outlets for off-topic ranting. Make it possible for members to control and customize their experience.”

7. Embrace the quirks of human behavior

The science of community management – providing a platform and content – is only half the battle. The rest is art. “You have to figure out how to use levers – carrots and sticks –to encourage certain behaviors and discourage others,” says Yolton. “People are motivated by many different things, but we find that people love to be called out as special or as providing particular value. Praise is a very powerful incentive.”

8. Activate the core

The “1-9-90 rule” is standard in online communities. It dictates that 90 percent of members will be passive consumers, nine percent will be occasionally engaged, and one percent are the core user base, producing a disproportionate share of the content, asking and answer questions, evangelizing, and helping new people engage in the community.

Yolton says it’s important to focus resources and attention on the one percent. “We give them more. We give them more access, we give them more control, we listen to them more carefully, and we give them authority and recognition. We give them a voice and an influence on where we will take the community in the future.”

9. Fail forward fast

Favor action over analysis, and experiment.

“Don’t get stuck in paralysis by analysis,” says Yolton.  “Move forward, do some experiments – if what you try works, do more of it. If it doesn’t work, do less of it. It’s that simple.”

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Note: Photo on page 1 depicts left to right: Mark Yolton, SVP SAP Communities and Social Media; Maggie Fox, CEO Social Media Group; Srini Tanikella, Director IT Solutions at SMART Modular Technologies; Deirdre Walsh, Social Business Program Manager Jive Software. Source: Inga Bereza

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