Marketing Expert's Corner

This article written in 2002

Part 1:  Creating Your Customer Community

In some businesses, marketing boils down to advertising and merchandising. But in information technology, market education is usually required: your product can't be appreciated until the problem it solves is in focus. Vendors must do a series of awareness- and need-building activities to focus a prospect's understanding and sense of urgency.  Unfortunately, market education and evangelism are hugely expensive unless you use the leverage of a customer community.

This three-part series will discuss creating and harvesting a customer community around your company.

Examples of IT vendor-sponsored communities:

  • Network administrators such as Novell Certified System Administrators Microsoft Certified Systems Engineers,
  • Open Systems code developers such as Linux, Apache, Eclipse, and NetBeans,
  • Developers, DBAs, System Administrators User groups, portals, and newsgroups.

Your community will certainly start via the internet.  But cyberspace-only communities aren't enough in the long run: you'll need to have meetings or forums to have a vibrant and profit-generating community.

That said, do not confuse building and monetizing a community with lead generation: the community creates credibility, visibility, and customers willing to do business with you.  But that willingness is a precursor to a sales cycle, not the start of one. We'll talk more about harvesting your community in the third chapter of this report, but we have to start at the beginning.

Ironically, the best book about the principles of community marketing isn't a marketing book at all. It's a social psychology book, "The Tipping Point," whose topic is really about propagating fads and building popular consensus.

You'll need to be prepared for timely and consistent execution. Don't start until you've got some sort of a plan: you'll burn resources and worse, credibility, if you don't execute fairly consistently and respond quickly as your community develops.

How to get started -- the seven habits of highly effective community builders:

  1. Choose a target audience, and be very specific about their interests, values, job titles, and roles. It's a great idea to write a paragraph or two about their demographics, background, education, technical proficiency, preferences, and location. Describe their goals, how much time per month they might spend in the community, and other behaviors. Anticipate their constraints (e.g., time, language skills), and what they'll dislike. The more focus you can bring without limiting your audience, the better.  

  2. Develop a manifesto, a set of external principles that explain who your community will be and why people will want to participate. You'll eventually publish this as the mission statement for the community. Describe the benefits people get from participating, and the basic agenda for the community (e.g., building the world's best resources for optimizing MS SQLserver). Don't kid yourself about the community's motivations, which usually involve getting smarter, wasting less time, or building an information asset (and usually don't involve "gee, how soon can I buy this vendor's product?").

  3. Develop an internal mission statement (even if you've already "sold the program" to management) that contains:
  • Clear metrics of success and deadlines,
  • Basic guidelines (what content will be there, what the membership criteria will be),
  • Roles and measurements (who is going to provide the content? how often will each contributor deliver? who will monitor newsgroups and be the voice of the company?) ,
  • Resources and budget for the first year (you can't do it without at least one person's worth of bandwidth, and most communities require dedicating at least a person for each 5,000 registrants).
  1. Develop a model for Community Participation and escalation, for example:
  • Initial browsing, anonymous with little access,
  • Registration, allowing community membership and significant information / participation access (keep the registration minimal: nobody wants to fill out a 10-line form just to get a white paper),
  • Product evaluation (it's ok to ask for more information before downloading the software),
  • Senior registration, allowing higher levels of information access and participation. This is usually reserved for business partners, customers, industry analysts, and open-source code contributors, and
  • Current customers (it's good to have customer-only interactions), which tends to link to the customer support site.

Describe the conversion steps of how a prospect starts a sales cycle and becomes a customer. Be brutally honest with yourself on this:  over-optimism is deadly.

  1. Check that you have access to the rights / property you need:
  • A memorable URL,
  • A trademark-clear name for the community,
  • Permission to use or syndicate content (e.g., book chapters),
  • A dedicated web server with proper security/access privileges for majordomo lists, newsgroups, etc.,
  • The right kind of legal verbiage (privacy, data handling, and site use policies are required for western Europe and will soon be in the US), and
  • A data-handoff mechanism to automatically feed all your registrant data into your company's SFA and CRM systems (make sure to have distinct lead-source coding).
  1. Design your site launch activities -- you must do a lot more than just flip the switch on the site:
  • Seed content (white papers, tutorials, code samples, etc.),
  • Initial call to action ("contest to find the most bugs during beta!"),
  • Initial incentive (these can be amazingly cheap, but you do need to have something),
  • Kickoff press release with a message focused on the community and the pain, NOT your product,
  • Kickoff meeting, usually linked to a relevant user group, conference, or other forum where you can have an informal "birds of a feather" meeting for the community (BOFs are best when they involve beer),
  • Develop a Google AdWords "haiku-ad" for your community, and
  • Design a "countdown" email series that talks about the problem, and how the community will help.
  1. Design a timeline for your first 100 days. You'll need a minimum of 60 days to prepare for a launch, and at least 180 days to build the community before you try to sell it anything.

Once you have all this, design and implement the specifics of your community (web site features, number and topics of newsgroups, calendar of activities). The most important thing is to work quickly and flexibly:

  • know that you just can't anticipate how your community of interest will respond,
  • be ready to change any detail to make the community happy,
  • avoid perfectionism.

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