Although I can’t say that followed Dan Gillmor’s citizen journalism venture particularly closely, having acquired a respect for Dan from his writings I’m sad to see it come to the end of the line. One of the lessons learned from the experiment that was Bayosphere, however, struck a chord with me given the number of discussions we have that are related. In what was clearly a sincere and genuine take on what went right and wrong, Dan said the following:
Tools matter, but they’re no substitute for community building. (This is a special skill that I’m only beginning to understand even now.)
While we happen to do a fair amount of consulting with our clients on community related topics, I sympathize fully. Knowing how to interact with communities is relatively straightforward – mostly common sense, and definitely learnable for all but the most intractable corporate types. Knowing how to build them, however, is another task altogether.
Despite the often monumental difficulty of the task, however, it’s virtually imperative for software vendors to build communities around their products – because it’s becoming increasingly obvious that community is a critical ingredient to longevity and sustainability. This isn’t news, of course, as notions of software communities go back decades: just look at Lotusphere.
But as Dan notes, community building requires both skills and time that may be in short supply. Where does a software organization with already stretched resources begin? Here are a couple of suggestions that I’ve been imparting to our customers:
- Give the Community a Chance:
Just as you wouldn’t sow a bunch of seeds on top of asphalt and expect much, so too should you avoid limiting the community by giving them no foundation to build from. While many of the vendors we speak with recognize the obvious value of larger communities – such as those developing around the various Apache or Eclipse projects – few take the necessary steps to build even modest communities. This would be understandable if it took tons of cash to build communities – but that myth has been sufficiently invalidated at this point, I should think.
- Don’t Worry About Community Size:
When I talk to aspiring or new bloggers, I often hear complaints that no one’s reading/commenting/participating/etc. It’s the same deal for communities; more than one vendor we’ve spoken with has decided not to create a user forum, for fear of suffering from the embarrassment of ’empty-forum’ (at which point I usually recommend a wiki, but more on that later). While that may or may not be true, it’s besides the point. I’m not going to tell you that having a large community isn’t beneficial, because obviously it is, but even small communities can have huge benefits. We’re living proof of that, I think; we’re just two people, but our community has shown real benefits in our research, visibility, etc.
- Help Connect Users w/Users:
This one surprises me on an ongoing basis: vendor X devises a product Y that includes some sort of extensibility framework, or maybe is just the type of product that would benefit from generic templates, code samples and such. Vendor X, being comprised mostly of intelligent folks, has put up some form of very basic user help site with some soon-to-be-outdated tutorials along with a bunch of confusing patches. This is the point in the conversation where I usually ask: do you have any mechanism for a user to share an extension/template/code sample/etc with other users? Almost invariably, the answer is no, and I think this is a big mistake. Users helping users is one of the most important trends within software support. Yes there are questions of IP ownership and potential economic conflicts, but not actively giving users a chance to make your product more valuable for whatever motives drive them is silly, IMO.
- Dedicate Time and/or Hire:
One of the things that we occasionally have a difficult time doing is explaining why dedicating part or full time resources to community fostering and the like is important; fortunately, there are enough high profile folks doing this now that it’s less of a challenge than it once was. But we’ve gotten significant pushback from a number of folks who contend that they simply don’t have the time for anything community related. Given how busy we all are, it’s an understandable argument, but one that I think overestimates the time required to, say, blog. There are enough bloggers with full-time responsibilities that manage to find a half hour or so a couple of times a week to make that argument weak. Communities can benefit you, but they require time and input: and if you can’t make that time, it’s not really something easily outsourced like, say, bookkeeping.
What suggestions do you guys have? What do you tell people trying to build and foster communities?