Every software vendor dreams of having a vibrant user community to provide input, buzz and maybe even someday help make money! When I joined ActiveGrid
six months ago, the user community on SourceForge was dead, with one to two posting per day. Now the community has over 15 posts a day, a more than ten-fold increase in less than six months.
This describes the steps we took to go from zero to somebody in the enterprise tools forum world. ActiveGrid is a visual tool for building web apps, sort of an MS Access for the Web. Our success as a tool is closely tied to the strength of our community.
1. Crown a community czar
Taking care of the community had been an ad hoc activity at ActiveGrid. As usual, whenever something is everybody’s job, it ends up at the end of everybody’s todo list.
The most important step we took to kick-start our community was to assign a full-time employee to manage the health and well-being of the community. The skills required for success include good technical and writing abilities combined with a genuine interest in open source communities.
2. Put all your eggs in one basket and watch that basket!
For historical reasons, ActiveGrid had several different forums. There was even an abandoned community started by an ActiveGrid fan. It was thriving, but only because spammers had loaded all the forums with postings that were off topic to say the least. It took over a month to get all the forum traffic funneled into just one community board.
3. Use best of breed forum tools
We found that the ActiveGrid SourceForge forums were hard to navigate and didn’t allow attachments. Our community czar moved the community to Drupal and rehosted it at dev.activegrid.com. The new Drupal site helped make it easier to post content, helping to drive a flood of new posts. In addition, the Drupal forum software handles attachments and graphics, making it much more valuable for sharing information.
4. Connect with your base
The first thing our community czar did was to reach out to the people who were actively posting (even though many of their postings had to do with how un-loved they were feeling). He contacted them directly through email and built personal relationships with what we called the “Fab 4” – the top 4 posters who became the foundation for the rebirth of our community. One important lesson is that a small core of active posters is the soul of a healthy community.
5. Turn off the spin
At the risk of sounding cluetrain manifesto-ish, we made an early decision to err on the side of transparency in communicating with our community. We admitted that we had been lax in our support of the community and asked for their help. We also kept the community strictly separate from the commercial side of the house. Using community to flog commercial ideas will go nowhere. It’s like the joke about why you shouldn’t teach a pig to whistle – it doesn’t work and it annoys the pig.
6. Coddle early adopters
In a new community, one active poster is worth 1,000 lurkers. Given this, anything you can do to help incubate people with the gift of gab is worthwhile. We gave away ipods, bought lunches, but most importantly built personal relationships with our community champions.
7. Foster healthy competition
Each posting at dev.activegrid.com earns the poster points, that aren’t redeemable in any way except in our rankings. Anyone in the community who wants to be seen by their peers as an ActiveGrid expert has to work pretty hard just to stay at the top of the rankings.
8. Find work for your users
Many of the posters in the ActiveGrid community are consultants. Every chance we get, we put our corporate customers in touch with community experts. This is classic win-win – our customers get their jobs done and our community champions have even more reasons to be enthusiastic about our products.
9. Take your lumps
Not all postings are positive. Not all community members are polite. Having a community manager actively working to address issues as they arise has proven the most effective way of keeping the overall tone of the community constructive.
10. Explore the boundaries
We are now at the fun stage in working with the community, where we are exploring the boundaries of what you can do with a passionate and committed group of people, all of whom are focused on helping you deliver a great product to market.
For example, the community has provided invaluable beta testing on our last three releases. Top community members have also had one-on-one meetings with our engineering team to help us engineer our next generation product. On the business side, we have asked the community for help in devising our pricing and licensing.
We have not yet fully tapped the potential of the community, but have absolutely turned the community into a powerful driver of momentum. It has been extraordinary how quickly the gains in the community have been reflected by increased business activity and enthusiasm among our commercial customers. Success is infectious!