Every year, The Community Roundtable collects data from communities across the spectrum for the sixth annual State of Community Management report. The 2015 report will track trends and developments in online communities, and apply a rigorous research lens on the “truths” we assume about communities and community management.

The survey is still open, but each year, certain data points grab our attention almost immediately. In 2015, we’ve already noticed a huge untapped opportunity for communities to build structured advocate and leadership programs.

Our past research has shown the power of advocacy programs to strengthen and advance community goals, and community leaders such as Salesforce’s Erica Kuhl and Matt Brown (in our new Community Manager Handbook, released this month) have documented the impact these programs can have toward business goals.

But as it turns out, formal leadership programs are still far from the rule. Our early responses find that fewer than half of those surveyed have any kind of formal community leadership or advocate program. Of those, a majority offer recognition through badges, a spotlight in the community or a special page in the community.

Don’t Just Recognize Your Advocates, Give Them Access and Opportunity

It’s one thing to be recognized, it’s another to feel valued. That’s why most of those with formal advocacy and leadership programs offer a variety of benefits in their advocacy programs.

The top benefits for advocacy programs include (in order):

  1. Visual recognition in the community
  2. Increased access to the community team
  3. Opportunity to give early feedback on products and services
  4. Opportunity to test features and functions
  5. Private collaboration space
  6. Advanced access to news and information
  7. Swag
  8. Access to executives
  9. Invitations to exclusive events

Recognition and swag, while common, are just one piece of what advocacy programs provide. Four of the other benefits focus on exclusive access – to the community team, executives, events and collaboration space. The other three are early opportunities – to get news, test features, and give feedback.

Access and opportunity have measurable benefits to the community member – and they benefit the organization. Exclusive access is a two-way street – customers/community members get the attention of those they need to be more effective, and the community builds a stronger relationship with its most active members.

Early opportunities to test, give feedback, and react to information help ensure your key community members aren’t surprised or burned by changes in major elements of the community. Together, these elements allow for regular interactions that build trust between the members and the organization and among the members themselves. That doesn’t just help scale your community, it creates an even stronger bond within it.

5 Ways to Move Forward with Your Program

Not all of these rewards make sense for all communities, certainly, but as you look at what you do and the goals for your community, you can see how these investments could pay off. Some guiding rules:

  1. Recognition is a good place to start. If you don’t have an advocacy program, or have an informal one, recognizing your current community advocates is a great way to open the conversation.
  2. Make the rewards for advocates proportional to your expectations for them. If you want your advocates to be an active set of leaders for the community, make sure that you the benefits for advocates are equally weighty. A great way to do that is to….
  3. Include advocates in the development of your program. Give them a stake it building it up and making it successful.
  4. Have your expectations, and member requirements ready day one. Spelling these elements out early can help protect feelings and preserve relationships when things don’t go perfectly.
  5. Keep the goals for the program front and center. Be honest about what you want to achieve – both for members and for the organization. The last thing you want is for your top community members to feel used or betrayed. 

We see potential for those communities with programs to further deepen their relationships with leaders and advocates. A growing number of communities are giving their top members administrative privileges and access to executives. Others are taking opportunities to ensure these advocates and leaders connect with the broader community by providing financial support for them to attend events, giving them discounts on products and services in recognition for their efforts and highlighting them in in-person events as well.

There are dozens of other topics we hope to explore – and with a broad survey response, we plan to examine the data across crosscuts of industry, community size, and much more. Community management may feel like it’s been around forever to some of us, but it’s still a new and evolving discipline – nearly half the communities in our survey are less than three years old thus far.

We believe strongly in the power of research to advance community – and we know that no one has all the answers yet. But we all have something to contribute and something to learn.

The State of Community Management 2015 survey period is open through February 27. Individual responses are kept confidential, and we are seeking survey participants from across business and industry, as well as nonprofit, gaming and other communities. To take the survey, visit http://the.cr/socm15survey – and to learn more about the State of Community Management, go to http://communityroundtable.com/socm2015.

Ted McEnroe

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