Two Tips From a Sailor for Creating Successful Community Engagement
One of the things I love to do with my father is sail. Every since I was a kid, we would jump on his boat and head out into the Atlantic for a few days to visit different ports and then we’d head back to the marina, tired, yet satiated from our trips. As I got older, I was able to get involved in sailboat racing and be crew on a variety of boats, and as a result was exposed to a diversity of leadership styles and skill levels. With these experiences I have been exposed to some fantastic people & experiences, but have also seen how seemingly simple mistakes can compound upon themselves and lead to dangerous situations.
Since 2003, I have been helping firms build engaging, online communities for conducting market research, accelerating innovation, building loyalty, and educating customers. In my experiences with the enterprise I have found many similarities to my sailing experiences, and have a few tips that can be transferred to your own online community build and operational efforts.
1. Make a sailing plan. Cardinal rule number one in sailing whether you are off for a simple afternoon lark, racing on the Wednesday night club circuit, or heading offshore for a hardcore trip is to make a sailing plan. This entails, reviewing up to date charts, setting goals for reaching waypoints, marks and ports, checking the weather & tides, communicating your plan & considering alternatives in case things change. This should be done every time you head out on the water, even if you have been in the same place a million times. It only takes one rock, one wind gust, or failure to heed a command to put you and your crew in a bad spot.
When setting up an online community, planning is also incredibly important. I don’t care if this is your first, or 50th experience, rule number one for a positive experience is to:
Establish a Clear Objective. I know, I’m sure many of you are thanking me right now for being Captain Obvious, but the reality is many firms I’ve worked with usually have a lot of trouble establishing a clear business objective for their online communities. This often happens when working with a vendor to ‘trial’ or ‘pilot’ a solution to get your organizations temperature, and to set performance metrics. In these cases, a lightweight question gets asked, which unfortunately starts people off on the wrong foot. For example, one firm I worked with asked the group, “What can we do to improve our work environment?” After a few days, and a little cajoling, the pilot team came up with about 35-40 ideas, and after voting on them, the top idea was…. (drum roll, please)…. to place ash cans outside the buildings front doors. While at the surface, this seems like a good idea, and a great example of a successful trial (who wouldn’t want to have a front entrance clear of cigarette butts), it actually had adverse affects when it came to budgeting. The reason was that one of the business unit VPs simply thought that placing ash cans outside, while helpful, was simply common sense, and the outcome did not enhance her business case at all. She saw it as a giant waste of time, and her team did not participate in other collaboration efforts sponsored by the communications team. Soft question + toe in the water tactics = fuzzy outcome & low adoption.
A chemical company I worked with, however, had a much more sound approach. They identified 3 specific areas of concern for their business, invited their entire division to participate (in this case about 350 people), and not only asked their team for input, but they also clearly spelled out what the division would gain from the team’s participation. That project resulted in over 180+ ideas generated, and 3 of the ideas went into production mode in the ensuing quarter. The end result here was ‘proof’ for the rest of the firm’s business units that collaboration was indeed a viable process that could deliver tangible results. Relevant & business-centric question + clearly stated goals = high participation & productive results.
2. Adjust to the wind. One of the things I love about sailing is that every time I am out on the water I experience something different. While the tides have a rhythm, that rhythm can create currents and eddies that shift around unseen objects, impacting your boat speed and your ability to cross the mark first in a race. In fact, a sailboat race is designed to make a boats crew adjust its sailing tactics to maximize speed with respect to the wind. In a steady breeze, that’s relatively simple, but just like customers, the wind can often be unpredictable and require course corrections (sometimes dramatic ones) in order for you and your crew to stay in the hunt and be in a position to win.
Understanding What Makes Your Community Member Tick is an incredibly important part of establishing and maintaining an online, customer facing community. It is not enough to have a clear business objective, it is also about creating an environment where members want to participate. Here, content is king, and acts as a powerful motivator to get customers initially involved and for them to maintain a healthy level of activity. With consumers facing communities, this can be about entertainment, empowerment, co-creation or a sense of exclusivity. With a B2B community compelling content could include stats about their customers, thought leadership, best practices and exposure. A sailboat uses different types of sails (spinnakers, jibs, genoa’s) to help maintain maximum speed in respect to the direction of the wind and its goals. In a healthy community, multiple tools (discussion, chats, ideas, multi-media, polling, surveys), must also be used in order to best match your business objectives with the expectations and personal objectives of your community members. In sailing, the wrong sail in the wrong wind can mean last place. The same thing can happen to your community if you aren’t paying attention.
One example of this was a well know manufacturer of building materials. They had a need to engage architects and engineers in a discussion on ways to apply a new construction methodology (that of course required a proprietary version of their materials) to flex space commercial office buildings. They chose an online community vendor with a nice list of customers to help them solicit and discuss ideas around large groups. Sounds pretty reasonable, right? Unfortunately, what no one took into account, including the vendor, was that asking for customers for ideas (especially business customers) right out of the gate was a disaster. It was additional compounded by the lack of experience this vendor had at the time with external customer facing communities. In this case the manufacturer and the vendor failed to comprehend that asking for an idea from a business person is:
• A big deal
• Time consuming
As a result, although the site was branded, slick looking and dynamic, the community members never even came to bat. The marketing worked. Open rates on emails were high, but once these architects and engineers realized they had some work to do, they abandoned the site and never came back. Like a boat with only one sail, the manufacturer was ill prepared for this endeavor as they were forced to use what their vendor had, and could not adapt to the change in the wind.
Establishing and maintaining productive online communities is hard work. Setting yourself up to win, however, is more achievable, when you clearly identify the objectives for your community, and you create content that connects and engages your audience in a manner that they consider to be fun. By inviting the business leaders you support into the discussion, you can co-create your community objectives with their business goals in mind and ensure their financial support. If you simultaneously monitor and listen to community, then adapt, throttle and curate content that is in sync with your communities pulse, you will also deliver results that will last. Sounds like a good trip to me!
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