Why and When Should I Start a Community Forum?

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A week ago, we launched a community forum for Alfred and I couldn’t be happier to have done so.

This series of post covers why we chose to start a forum, as well as some tips for setting up and running your own successful community forum.

Part I: Why and when should I start my own community forum?
Part II: Setting up your forum: Top tips for using Get Satisfaction
Part III: Making the most of user feedback

Don’t forget to sign up to the RSS feed if you don’t want to miss the rest of the series!

Why choose a forum

When we launched Alfred, our main means of support for users was Twitter. When we needed more than 140 characters, we’d swap over to email.

As our community grew, once we found ourselves with a few thousand users reading our tweets (gasp!), yet many asked the same question frequently (eg. Will you be adding x feature?) because they hadn’t seen the older answer to it.

Let’s face it: Twitter is today’s news but tomorrow’s virtual chip paper. It was time to look for a new way to provide answers. That isn’t to say we’ve entirely dropped email; on the contrary, we’re now able to focus email responses on those who really need one-on-one answers.

We chose a forum because it allowed us to answer publicly, leaving longer-lasting, more valuable answers which could be revisited the product evolved. So is a forum right for everyone?
Read More

BarCamb 3: Bringing Cambridge together with geekery

BarCamb 3 in Cambridge

On Monday morning, my arms, legs and brain felt like jelly. There was a sleeping bag and some schwag strewn across the living room. And I couldn’t stop smiling. Must’ve been the morning after a BarCamp!

For those who don’t know, the past few months have been spent organising BarCamb with a few other volunteers. The aim of BarCamp events is to bring people from a variety of fields of interests together to do short talks, exchange experiences and generally geek about. For more on this, I’ve written a BarCamp Virgin’s guide last year.

Since this weekend, I’ve recovered so I thought I’d gather my thoughts and write a wrap-up post before my goldfish brain forgets all the best bits.

This weekend included:

  • 54 presentations
  • 10 sponsors
  • 26 trays of sandwiches
  • 45 litres of fizzy drinks
  • 30 pizzas
  • 100 BarCamb mugs & tshirts
  • 1 episode of Doctor Who on the big screen
  • 2 knackered organisers & some sleepy volunteers
  • half a dozen games of Werewolf
  • a few months of preparation
  • 80 or so people who hopefully had a great time!

As an organiser, I attended more sessions this time than with the previous two BarCamps I organised. Probably mainly due to having a fantastic co-organiser, Lee, and a brilliant venue provided by Red Gate in the Cambridge Business Park.

When we kicked off the event, I asked for a show of hands to see how many newbies we had – I was both thrilled and worried that we had nearly 50% newbies. Why worried? Because usually newbies are a bit nervous of presenting and leave the board looking a bit bare for the first day. I couldn’t have been any more wrong because as soon as I invited people to put their topics up on the board, it was like the IKEA stampede and I had to flee the area!

Saturday went by like a blur, attending a few good sessions, feeding over 70 ravenous BarCampers at lunch, more sessions in the afternoon including my own on baked-in virality. As we stretched into the evening, it was comedy to see a group huddle into one of the rooms to religiously watch Doctor Who over pizza and beer.

As all good BarCamps must do, the evening turned into a night of Werewolves, Settlers and the occasional snorer in the corner…

On Sunday, the turnout was smaller but the sessions were still great. We finished mid-afternoon, cleared up the Red Gate office and many of the survivors headed to the pub. (I was pooped, I went straight home!)

You can find a few of the presentations of the weekend on Slideshare, with more coming soon, I’m sure. Some of the presentations topics are listed here, and we’ll aim to add the full list in the near future. There are also some great (and some not so great) photos in the BarCamb Flickr group.

A few attendees asked whether Cambridge Geek Nights were being revived and, in the light of how much interest there is, I suppose we might just have to do that! Beers, geekery and chatting coming soon to a Cambridge pub near you.

[Photo credit: Networking through the day, photo by Martin88, All rights reserved]

SXSWi: Connecting Community Managers

Do you work as community manager? Fancy meeting a few others who work on the front line representing their company?

After meeting a few other company bloggers, customer care people and other community folks at South by SouthWest this week, we thought we’d arrange a little informal gathering before the week ends. It’ll give community managers who work for companies, big and small, a chance to meet others who play that role.

Join us (Ros Hodgekiss, Kelly Rusk and myself) on Tuesday 16th March at 3:30pm at Iron Cactus on 6th Street for a drink and a chat.

Hope you’ll join us there!

[Note: It’s TUESDAY, not Monday as I’ve stupidly been tweeting all afternoon!]

Facebook Fan Pages: Redirect the Spotlight Onto Passions

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Recently, I seem to have had this conversation time and time again with businesses, individuals and consultants who are beginning to take Facebook seriously as a place to peddle their wares, so I thought I’d immortalise it here for future reference.

Facebook started as a way to network students of a single college together, with a firmly teen-to-early-20’s audience. In recent years, my mom (and probably yours too) has joined and the average age of Facebook user is on a steady increase. It can no longer be dismissed as “kids’ stuff” by businesses who have a direct to consumer audience, hence the many discussions about creating fan pages.

The problem with creating a fan page for your business is that, unless your brand is incredibly sexy & fun, nobody wants to be a fan of it. I’m lucky to have a great local baker & cake maker, but would I really want to be a fan of her business on Facebook? And what good would come out of me becoming a passive fan?

Facebook can facilitate something much greater than just the digital equivalent of a bumper sticker promoting someone’s business.

Facebook gives these business owners the opportunity to be an authority on something they’re passionate about. Taking the example of the cake maker, she would no doubt get much more participation from her customers if the fan page was for cake lovers, for example.

Lead the conversation

Encourage fans to talk about the best cakes they’ve eaten, the cutest cupcakes they’ve seen, the failed homebaking attempts (we all have them, don’t we!?) and the healthy alternatives for those weeks where we need to eat a bit lighter.

Share recipes and tips

Realistically, no skilled baker will lose business over this, as we’re all too busy or lacking the skill to make the kind of cakes we’d buy from a real cake artist!

Listen to hardcore cake fans

What do they want? What occasions do they buy cakes for? Even if the fans aren’t local, this is a goldmine of information which can help a perceptive business owner plan future promotions.

Bonus: You’ll have more fun

Best of all, taking this approach will make content creation much easier and enjoyable than trying to keep it solely focused on your business. You’ll be recognised as a cake-baking authority (or whatever your business may be) yet not be known as the navel gazer who only talks about your own products!

By celebrating a shared passion rather than simply asking people to be a fan for the sake of accumulating numbers, you’ll find that your Facebook fan page will have much more interaction and that people far beyond your existing customer base will join. Go out, have fun and talk about things you’re passionate about.

[Photo credit: Super Mario Brothers Nintendo Cupcakes by clevercupcakes on Flickr, Creative Commons license]

"Blogs & Social Media in Business" Workshop: 19th Nov in London

pepsmedia_workshop_artAs I’ve mentioned before here and there, one of the most successful Pepsmedia activities these days is training courses. It also happens to be something I truly love doing.

The next “Blogs & Social Media in Business” introductory workshop day is next week, on Thursday 19th November, at Wallacespace St Pancras in London and due to a change of plans with one company (who have now opted for an in-house training course for their whole team), all of a sudden, I have 8 places available on the course.

In order to fill the course and have enough participants to make the course interesting, I’m offering these places at cost, only £95, instead of the usual £395!

If you secretly wish you understood why people use hashtags on Twitter, how to work social media tools into your existing marketing plan, need to manage online relationships or just wonder how to approach bloggers in your industry, then this one is for you. We tackle all the jargon that flies around the web, and make it make sense.

Complete this form and mention the blog post to get the course at the awesome low-cost of £95 + VAT (I feel like Billy Mays in an infomercial, help!) for a full day of training, as well as tasty breakfast, lunch and snacks throughout the day.  

In the past, we’ve had attendees from a range of industries – solicitors, travel & tourism marketers, luxury fashion retailers and small business owners – all of whom said they thoroughly enjoyed the course and learned a lot.

Grab the workshop brochure here for more details, and join me next Thursday for a fun and insightful day on social media.

Community building means making members feel special | Community Building

Members of your community do a lot. You rely on them to make the community a success. You can influence the direction of your community, you can influence its content and you even have an influence over the type of members you want in the community. However, when it comes down to whether your community is going to be successful, your members are all that matter. You need to not only attract members that will help your community grow and continue to develop, but you need to keep them. You can do this by making sure they feel special.

via communityspark.com

Community Spark has turned out to be a real gem in explaining how community building works and why community management is such an art.

The best thing a company can do to its community management efforts is to put a passionate and dedicated person in charge, and give them the *time* to do their job well.

Corporate Blogging: Why you SHOULD publish press releases on your blog

This morning, I came across the excellent “10 Harsh Truths about Corporate Blogging”, published by Paul Boag on Smashing Magazine. I was nodding emphatically at each point, until I hit the 5th one, which jarred me in the back like a bad pothole in the road when you’re daydreaming on the drive to work.

Funnily enough, a year or two ago, I would have militantly agreed with Paul.

5. Press releases shouldn’t appear on a blog

[…] a press release preforms [sic] a different role to that of corporate blog. As the name implies, a press release is meant for professional journalists. It is designed to encourage journalists to write about your product or service. It is not designed for your customers.

A blog, on the other hand, is meant to be read by prospective and existing customers. It should be engaging, informative and helpful. When writing a blog post, you should always have the end reader in mind. What will they learn? What insight will this give them into who we are? How will it help build our relationship with the reader? You should never simply copy and paste press releases or news stories.

The other problem with press releases is that they are corporate statements. A blog should have a more personal tone.

Here’s why I now disagree; Bloggers are both journalists (in the broad sense of the term at least) and, one can assume, interested customers or prospects. Yet bloggers are journalists who often don’t get paid to deal with PR agencies’ bullshit (eg. embargoes) and don’t necessarily have the research resources that a professional journalist has access to.

Realistically, a corporate blog won’t be read by the vast majority of customers. Even with cool companies like Flickr, 37Signals or Twitter, what percentage of users really care about what’s being said on the corporate blog? [Note: There is a difference between a corporate blog & a blog directed at the end users. On a blog solely directed at end users, press releases are unlikely to have a purpose. This post refers to corporate blogs specifically.]

The beady eyeballs who will find most relevance in a corporate blog will be:

  • Existing and potential investors;
  • Competitors (As Paul says, get over it!);
  • Potential employees;
  • Active developers & geeks who want to use your API;
  • Journalists & Bloggers;
  • The occasional day-to-day user.

Don’t fool yourself, the majority of users will only care when the service goes down. As long as your site/ service/ product is available, they don’t think about what you do as a company an awful lot.*

So why does it still matter so much? The bloggers and the passionate users give a damn. They’re a key player in spreading the word about your business, and when they want to write about you, you should provide all the information you can so that they can feel smart and well informed. Yes, including that nasty old-world press release. Why? Bloggers cannot divinate information. Bloggers find themselves with only a short amount of time to write an entry and will be grateful for the stats you provide or the CEO’s past startup that can be confirmed via the release’s boilerplate.

So go for it, publish that press release. But wait! Don’t publish it alone. Accompany it with a summary in informal tone, some context to help readers understand the relevancy of the PR push, and a bucketload of useful resources (links, images & further information).

If your press release is so officious that you’re embarrassed to publish it on the blog, could it be that you need to rethink your releases altogether? Journalism is changing too, and a fresh, no-bullshit press release will most likely appeal to traditional journalists too. Why not try that for a change?

[* Here’s another tip: If your livelihood is dependent on being available on the web, host your blog elsewhere so that you can still provide status updates when your service goes down.]