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Community Management vs. Community Leadership

Posted @ 12:02 pm by David Kilimnik | Category: Community & Social Media | 0 Comments

Over the past year, I have worked very closely with the community managers for over a dozen large enterprises, several of which are in the Fortune 500. Using a social community in business is no longer a new concept, and by now there is a body of widely accepted best practices for achieving community success. Certainly all of my clients would agree on one of these practices, which is the importance of having a dedicated community manager. This person is the business owner of the community, the evangelist, the person responsible for the community’s success. Typical community manager responsibilities include promoting the community, moderating content, measuring success via analytics, training internal folks, encouraging community participation, gathering community feedback, and planning for new features.

One challenging (and sometimes new) area for community managers is handling the changes that come with a large platform upgrade. While yesterday’s community platform may have been limited to discussion forums and wiki documents, today’s platforms offer a host of new features — blogging, social groups, friending, following, Twitter integration, video, and more. Upgrades like this require significant effort on the IT side — new hardware must purchased, custom features must be developed, user generated content must be migrated. Because the IT side is necessary, and the work is significant, it is easy to focus efforts there. After all, if you don’t execute well on the IT side, then the upgrade is not going to happen.

But these upgrades have another side to them, which is the reaction of the community members to a large change. Even though the community members are going to be trading in something old and limited for something newer and better, they may not always react positively. My two year old son Isaac has a beloved little stuffed blue dog, which he calls “blue dog.”  The little man does not go anywhere without blue dog, but at this point, blue dog’s stuffing is coming out of his nose, and blue dog’s tail is little more than a gnawed stump. So of course I decided that Isaac needs a new blue dog, and that his next blue dog is going to be even better than the last.  This new blue dog  has all kinds of new features — it is multi-colored, it barks when you squeeze it, it even has floppy ears.  But what happened when I swapped the old blue dog for the new?  Nothing short of complete revolt.  A furious little man screaming, stamping his feet, and throwing himself prostrate on the floor, in an epic tantrum that lasted for an hour and probably made our neighbors consider calling Child Protective Services.

The same thing can happen during a community upgrade. Members of a business community may be a little bit more mature than toddlers — but don’t forget that they always have the upper hand, since they can create user generated content. With a static marketing website, you may never know that people are disappointed with a re-design.  But on a community website, there is nothing to stop a very vocal user from starting a discussion thread entitled “Disappointed with Site Upgrade, Please Comment.”  If something like that happens, you can end up with a public feeding frenzy of negativity — not because anything is wrong, but simply because things have changed and people were not expecting it.

Change is scary, and navigating people through change is an art form unto itself.   One of my b-school professors once summed up the difference between management and leadership as follows:  Management is about handling complexity, whereas leadership is about handling change.  So when a large change comes to a community, the challenge for the community manager is to become a community leader, and show others how to navigate the changes that are about to take place.

Here at SolutionSet we have been putting more effort towards consulting and advising our clients through these types of transitions.  Of course, there is no one-size-fits-all solution, but here are some best practices and ideas that have been yielding successful results:

  1. Identify your most vocal and involved users.  Do this early, and engage them in dialog about what they would like to see in a new site. Gather their feedback during the requirements phase of your upgrade project, and take their input seriously.
  2. Make a beta version available to key users.  Do this 1-3 months before the launch. Engage with the users, solicit their feedback, and make sure that you can implement at least 5-10% of their ideas into the final release.
  3. Place a teaser on the existing site.   Prepare ALL users that change is coming by constructing a simple “Check out the new community” piece using Flash.  Include information about new features, and some screenshots of the new design.
  4. Announce the upgrade to all users.  2-4 weeks before the launch, announce the upgrade to all users via email, a banner on the existing site, or prompt that users see at log-in.
  5. Include a “Welcome to the new Community” feature.  Do this concurrent with the launch.   We have built these using either Flash or Camtasia technology.  Provide a tour of the new site, and a brief tutorial on new features, and highlight the benefits of the upgrade to the users.
  6. Engage in dialog about the upgrade.  If there is any public discussion on the site about the changes, then participate in it, and direct it.  If the feedback is at all negative, be sympathetic and explanatory:  “Jim, thanks for pointing out that issue.  I agree with you that it’s an important thing to improve, and there is an enhancement planned to be released next week in order to address it.”   Or “Thanks for the feedback.  We actually discussed this issue at length during our requirements phase and decided to attack the problem in a different way.  Here’s our thinking on it:…”

No change is ever easy.  But from what I’ve seen, the community managers who lead their members through the change with some combination of items #1-6 have smoother transitions, and their community members are less likely to behave like screaming toddlers.

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