Managing Online Discussion Groups and Expert Communities

Social media is not just for hobbies!

Even experts in deeply technical, specialized areas are gathering online in discussion groups and expert forums. I have worked with discussion groups and forums for many companies in high-tech and consumer markets. It requires an investment and a long-term commitment but can return tremendous visibility and credibility with users and influencers.

discussion groups and expert forums exchange ideas

Here’s how you can be present, learn from your customers, establish credibility and authority, and be found by search engines. Some points to ponder:

  • Your users and potential users may already be using online communities to solve each others’ problems. They may already be talking about you! What are they saying, and how can you influence the conversation?
  • If you’re not part of the conversation, how do you become known? Can you become part of the community without seeming like a self-promoter?
  • You can offer support in public forums. Often, users will step in and do the support job for you.
  • Communities are a great place to see the voice of the customer first-hand. What are their problems and needs? What will they need in the near future?
  • If there are no communities, maybe you should start one!

Why?

Consider the benefits of online community participation. Online forums:

  • Foster learning and creates a loyal community.
  • Turn users into experts. They are especially good in fields where just a few people have expertise and many want to learn.
  • Can assist product definition. In three companies where I managed the online programs, developers were on the boards, hearing first hand from customers. One said they had a “fast measure of what customers want, motivated programmers. The design team … felt a calling to not let members down.” I often saw product development debates settled by talking to the online communities.
  • Help develop and enter new markets, by building reputation and establishing authority.
  • Lead to an intimate understanding of customer problems through close relationship with real customers. One R&D Director told me that their group “reaches (their technical customers) on their own time, in their passionate pursuits, where they are more available and have greater discretion.”
  • Bring up ideas that lead to new products. In hockey, you skate to “where the puck will be.”
  • Can serve as a technical support vehicle. These groups usually develop gurus who answer the bulk of the questions.
  • Can develop into an excellent loyalty vehicle: Members generally champion the company. Members who evangelize on our behalf have high credibility, as impartial third parties. When I led the marketing for a consumer electronics that produced video editing equipment, our forum was frequented by fans who jumped in and supported each other and championed our products.
  • Fosters company image as the expert.
  • Can deliver heavy reach into universities: A semiconductor company whose products required development and application found that “professors and students participated and created class projects.”
  • Provide a competitive edge. If your competitors are neglecting discussion groups, you become the leader and own the conversation. In one discussion group populated by influencers, our startup company dominated Sony, Canon, and Panasonic, because they weren’t there. Conversely, if they are present and you are not, you are operating at a disadvantage.

Risks

  • It is hard to demonstrate the value. It is easy to judge the costs (which can be considerable since we’re investing the time of some of our most valued employees) but depending on the business, may be hard to show revenue.
  • It’s definitely not for all products and businesses.
  • You are open to fire from disgruntled customers. Your mistakes (e.g. product issues) are fodder for public grumbling. However, consider that unhappy customers will vent one way or another and you can benefit from being present when it happens. I have good experience with controlling the conversation. In a well-managed forum, loyal list members generally defend the company and in the end, it generally ends up positive.
  • There is no way to keep competition out. You must assume they are present.
  • If it’s someone else’s forum, you need to obey the local customs and tread lightly, especially with commercialism and the forum operators’ egos or sense of ownership. The whole thing can backfire if you irritate the locals.

Where are the communities?

  • You can establish a presence on expert communities such as Facebook groups, LinkedIn groups, Twitter, Quora, Reddit, or industry-specific sites like StackExchange.
  • There are still web-based discussion groups and “bulletin boards.”
  • Many platforms and technology ecosystems have user groups associated with the product.
  • Some trade magazines maintain discussion boards.
  • You can use comment capabilities on your own content such as blogs or technical articles, using commenting platforms like Disqus.
  • You can also build your own. The infrastructure is pretty easy — the hard part is promoting and running it.

Running the Group

Running a group is probably easier than you think but it does require a commitment. You need two people (to provide coverage for vacations and such) who commit to visiting at least once a day. Once your presence becomes known, visitors will develop an expectation of response within a day.

Listen

Step one: Listen. Visit the group and just read for at least a week. Learn the cadence and tone. It’s an extremely bad idea to walk into a room and start talking.

Who’s in charge?

When you’re new to a discussion group, find out who the moderators are. It’s a good idea to introduce yourself and ask if there are any guidelines. Moderators can greatly support you (and if you do make a mistake, forgiveness will come much more readily if they know who you are.)

What (not) to say

General rule: Less is more. The less often your staff speaks, the more likely members will participate. If you jump in on every question, group members will almost never chime in. You want to avoid killing a thread by satisfying the question too quickly!

Members have an impartiality that gives them a special credibility. In the video editing forum I ran, we had a 24-hour rule and it worked perfectly. An interesting thing happened: Members responded to almost every new visitor or question.

Knowing that we were present, group members rarely said anything critical of the company and were quick to chime in if visitors were critical. Supportive comments from a third party always carry greater clout than anything company employees say.

Our guideline was that the company never answers unless:

  • Someone says something that is blazingly wrong and no member corrects it.
  • Something goes unanswered for 24 hours.
  • The question is specifically aimed at the company and no member answers. But we learned that even questions aimed at the company were usually better answered by members!

Discretion

Remember that the group is public and archives mean you can never un-say anything. All communications must be professional, polite, and restricted to public information. Assume that everything you say will be read by customers, the press, your competitors, and your boss.

Fostering Communication

Much more important than answering questions is fostering discussion. Leave answers incomplete, with room for others to chime in. Leave a hook for further discussion. Steer people to the website wherever possible (e.g.: “Good question. There is an technical note that covers that here: <list the web address>“).

Abuse and Problems

In case of technical issues, offer massive support — jump in with free replacements, a phone call from the right person, a private message from a company director — whatever it takes to make these people happy. Even if it’s just a college junior or small company engineer, what you do is in public view of an important community.

Most of the time, hot situations are best answered completely candidly and if appropriate, taking the detailed discussion off-list.

Credibility and authenticity

Having a company in a user community can feel like having a fox in the hen house. Your commercial interests may seem at odds with the community’s common interests. How do you become part of an online community in a way that enhances authority and credibility and makes the community a better place — all the while, avoiding the appearance of self-promotion?

Be very careful about anything promotional. Announce new products but keep in informational. Tie it into discussion topics if you can. You want to scrupulously avoid having people think this is an advertising forum.

I have had great success with an approach that sounds strange: Freely mention competition. For instance, if someone asks who makes a certain product, mention the competitors as well as your own offerings. This impresses people and makes them think you are confident of your products. And it really gives nothing away — you know they will find the competitors anyway.

If someone asks about your products, it’s perfectly ok to answer but avoid sounding like a pitchman.

Steering the Discussion

After the list has matured, feel free to toss in thought-grenades to stimulate discussion. Ask about what people would like in future products, how they have addressed certain challenges. Ask legitimate market attitude and product feature questions. You want to stimulate interest without appearing to manipulate or control.

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