Online Community Roundtable at SAP

Online Community Forum I visited SAP Labs last night to participate in the Online Community Roundtable hosted by Bill Johnston from Forum One Communications. I made the dumb mistake of writing my notes directly into my blog’s Web form, and subsequently lost all my notes when my browser crashed. But I’m going to recreate some of my notes here, because I found a lot of value in the insights from some of the participants in the dialog. What impressed me most was that among the 20 or so people who joined the roundtable, there was a tremendous amount of real-world experience from people who are managing vibrant communities among some very influential brands, including SAP, Intuit, Cisco, WebEx and Schwab.

There were three or four issues that stand out in my memory:

Points of Pain. Bill Johnston recalled an experience he had developing a community portal for a large software company. The company was excited about the portal, and placed it at the front of their application, forcing users to log into the portal every time they accessed the application. Participation was low, and user frustration was high. The adjustment that improved participation in the community was to move the entry point to the portal to so called “points of pain”—places where users were running into problems with the application and seeking help—particularly the customer service link on the applications navigation bar. There was a lot of head-nodding and affirmation about the importance of the contextual entry points to community sites.

Signs of Life. An executive from a company called Public Square—a provider of a social network publishing application—talked about the importance of demonstrating to users clear signs of community participation when they log into a community. These can be “latest posts”, “latest comments” or “logged-on users”—anything that clearly displays the participation of other users so community members can see “signs of life”.

Profile Completion. Many communities encourage participants to fill out user profiles, but general experience among roundtable participants shows that only 25% of users typically fill out the complete profile. A few strategies were discussed to increase participation. One recommendation was to clearly demonstrate the value of filling out a profile, for example by providing affinity feedback to users about similarities with other users in the community. If you indicate an area of professional interest, the system might show other users who share similar interests. Another strategy offered was to enable the incremental development of profiles, rather than expecting users to fill out a complete profile all at once. Linked-in was mentioned as an exemplar of this method.

Building Community Value. There were a number of threads in the discussion that touched on the importance of providing real value to the community as a core ethic to support growth. Jeremiah Owyang, from PodTech, also talked about the importance of rewarding participation—something he does by making sure he acknowledges active members by calling out their participation and linking to their blogs or Web sites.

One of the most impressive aspects of this group to me was the genuine focus on building the value of communities, rather than a single-minded focus on extracting value from the community. I asked the group about this, especially in light of the growing interest in community development among business executives. Among companies actively pursuing community development as a business goal, I hear discussions about scaling and monetizing opportunities growing alongside discussions about building community participation and value. Indeed, many community leaders acknowledged that one of the core business metrics they track is the size of their community. It will be important for community leaders to watch this trend as the goals of building value and extracting value come into sharper focus with the growing popularity of community as a marketing expense.

Thanks to Bill Johnston at Forum One for driving the roundtable, and to SAP Labs for hosting at their beautiful building overlooking Palo Alto.

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