It’s hard to get your community members to be more active in your community. Even more difficult? Getting them to evangelize and promote your brand, product or community for you.
Yet it’s not exactly uncommon for companies to expect their community managers to leverage the community and drive marketing value. Without getting into whether or not a community person SHOULD be responsible for marketing, the truth is there have been many companies who have found a lot of success building evangelist programs alongside their customer communities.
To learn more about what it takes to build a successful community evangelist program, I reached out to community rockstars from Reddit, Sprout Social, Searchmetrics, Sidecar, Mightybell and Baluff Sensors.
I’ve boiled it down to five ways to get more of those evangelists on your side and to inspire your community to share your story on your behalf.
Step 1: Acknowledge individuals who contribute to set the example.
The first step is to acknowledge the contributions of your members, no matter how big or small. First, do this manually, but then you can add in product features to showcase contributions.
Getting your first responses may be the most difficult part of your job – but it’s one of the most rewarding when it finally happens, says Audra Lindsey, community strategist at Mightybell. “You’ll [communicate with your audience and] write a lot, but you won’t get any response,” she says. This can persist for a long time until you find the right person to contribute and kick things off. “It just takes seeing someone just like you participating, and you know it’s okay to join as well.” So keep at it each day and acknowledge those who do participate.
From there, inspiring others to participate alongside your first contributors can also be a challenge. Erik Martin, General Manager at Reddit, says it’s important for community managers to pay attention to what users are already doing to guide any product features you may put in place or conversations you should start to keep people contributing and talking about you again and again.
“The most important thing is to start where people already are,” he says. “What are people already doing organically to spread the community? Start augmenting that, even if [what they’re doing is] really small. Encouragement is important and underrated.”
Profile and user metrics are another way to encourage greater participation. “[We gave] early Reddit users and moderators as many stats as possible,” Martin says. “We felt the more stats we could give them would give the indication of what they were accomplishing on their own.” This Reddit metric, called “Karma,” is one way top users are recognized on the site.
So start by setting the example and highlighting the actions that you want other community members to take.
Step 2: Give your community different ways to get involved
Once users start to get involved in your community, it’s important to find ways to extend that core experience to the outside world.
One of my lessons learned from my own projects like Colonel Tribune, the3six5 and KmartGamer is to provide additional ways for users to get more involved with the experience by contributing in different ways.
While at the Chicago Tribune, we encouraged our fans and followers to get more involved by sending us news tips, and they did. Once the3six5 was up and running, we found that contributors not only wanted to become editors, but wanted to start their own local versions. With KmartGamer, we found followers wanted to contribute content as well.
So talk to your users and figure out how they want to get involved, then empower them to do it.
At Reddit, they gave some users additional site functionality, moderator status, or the ability to create new sub-communities (e.g. forum threads or subreddits).
Maria Ogneva, head of community at Sidecar, says her community’s influencers, or “captains,” as they call them, are a key part of her approach. These influencers are responsible for driving engagement in its various markets. “They can organize meetups, but they also act as liasons between Sidecar and the local driver communities,” she says.
By doing this, key community members feel empowered and engaged, and not just to grow the community, but in all decisions, Ogneva says. “Find ways to collaborate deeper and earlier, and more transparently.”
Step 3: Promote your community through content.
Once users and other community members are more involved, crafting content around them is a great way to drive additional growth.
My own company, G2 Crowd, promotes high-quality business software reviews in weekly highlights blog posts. At Mightybell, Audra Lindsey finds she is able to create customer-related content for the community. Once she develops relationships with community members, she compiles their stories through Q&As and other types of spotlight articles, which she uses on the website and in company e-newsletters.
“Content that features other members or what they’re learning (or want to learn) does really well, especially in the beginning phases of launching a new community,” she says. “We’ve learned people like to share their personal experiences with each other, rather than advice, and we promote them throughout our communities.”
While the bulk of your content can – and should – be about your community, crafting content around engaged non-users is a tactic that can helped a company’s content calendar, according to Sarah Nagel, a social marketer at Sprout Social.
“We’ve written community manager ‘survival guides,’ some with Sprout users, some not,” she says. “We’ve also participated in and hosted a number of community manager Google Hangouts. There, we do ask our customers to get involved and talk about their day-to-day experiences and strategy.”
Once this connection is made with non-users, it also provides additional opportunities for outreach. “When people help us and contribute to our content and marketing material, we want to make sure we’re acknowledging their time and efforts,” Nagel says.
Unfortunately, not every company can participate in these types of efforts, especially ones in industries that are secretive about processes and other proprietary information. It’s important to be clear about what you can do and what is truly possible.
Tonya Goldbach, digital marketing manager at Balluff Sensors, worked with the company’s channel and distributor partners to help them tell the Balluff story through their own channels. This is a super smart tactic.
“We [ask our partners] to be guest bloggers on our corporate blog, and to share our posts via Facebook and Twitter to increase awareness,” she says. “If customers of our distributors are seeing our brand in [their] communities, then hopefully we can increase awareness and sales from them as well.”
“We have a lot of applications and posts that would increase community involvement, but our customers don’t always want to share them… to protect them from their competitors,” Goldbach says of Balluff Sensors. “Or, sometimes the customer is a very large global customer and reaching the right person to get approval on doing a joint story can be a challenge.”
One way around this, according to Liv Longley, Marketing Manager at Searchmetrics, is to co-create content – especially thought leadership and original reports – with her customers. “We write blog posts and white papers that we can either post on the Searchmetrics website, or… on our customers’ websites.”
Step 4: Connect with your community offline as well to build relationships.
Another way to connect with users is to build personal connections offline. At Sprout Social, Nagel says events are a growing part of Sprout’s approach to community building. “It’s important to meet people in person, and form that personal connection,” she says. “It really helps strengthen the bond [between a community manager and their community], and [inspires them] to look at your brand in a way they hadn’t before.”
Longley says she has hosted 10 to 15 Searchmetrics events so far this year alone, up from zero in 2013. One community-building benefit, she says, is that it demonstrates that you’re genuine in your efforts, and not simply using your community members as marketing tools.
“If we’re going to build relationships, we really want to develop them, as we value the insights [our customers] can provide,” Longley says. “[Our customer base has] increased 200% globally this year alone. That’s in part due to our [community-building] efforts.”
Step Five: Let your community ultimately lead the way.
While enthusiastic community members, helpful content, or real-world connections can eventually grow a community, it’s critical for community builders to be flexible in their approach.
“[Many community managers or brands] have a preconceived notion about what their communities should be about,” Erik Martin said. “You never know where that organic interest from users will lead.”
You can stifle organic interest in many forms, from over-moderating your community, asking too much of users without giving back, or asking them to do things that are too specific or scripted. While it’s important for community builders to have goals and objectives, it’s more important to be able to improvise and go off-script when needed.
Longley says she doesn’t guide or train her Searchmetrics evangelists on any company talking points. If they’re coached, she believes this natural interest will fade.
“From a community standpoint, having people who believe in you is the best thing you can have,” she says. “They will then speak [on our behalf] without us doing anything…and it’s always organic .”
Conclusion: Driving growth through engagement
Community builders not only play a role in growing and connecting a company’s customer base, but making customers and other contacts excited about the company as well. This requires an approach that’s structured enough to track progress but flexible enough to encourage different types of engagement.
But hey – this is what community managers do every day, right?