4 Things to Avoid When Managing Online Communities

Now, more than ever, companies are looking for ways to keep their customers engaged outside of the purchasing or customer service process. One great way to engage customers is to build authentic relationships with them by hosting and growing active online communities. Community interactions can help foster a sense of trust and familiarity between members and companies. When users feel that they have a strong relationship and open dialogue with a company, they're more likely to remain a customer and make recommendations to their peers and friends. This can be incredibly valuable to your business and can build a sense of loyalty among your customers.

But, to build a community that brings value to both the members and to your company, you must be thoughtful about your process and how the community is managed. Avoiding these common pitfalls will help you build an engaged, authentic, and active online community:

Relying on The Contest Model

At the start of my career in community management, contests and giveaways were all the rage. At the time, they seemed to be a great method for getting people to participate in online communities. However, those wins can be short-lived. If you're really looking to build and nurture a community of people who will continue to be engaged and remain in the community, the motivation for them to participate needs to be more intrinsic. If people are only in it for a prize, they aren't going to engage as authentically, they're less likely to return, and the motivation isn't focused around quality. An occasional contest or giveaway is fine, but it shouldn't be the focal point of your strategy. Rather, you should focus on strategies that build authentic relationships and reward participation over a period of time. Look for ways to help users develop their expertise, connect with other members, and foster a culture of collaboration. These are much stickier rewards than company swag or prizes.

Failing to Implement Customer Feedback

Most companies recognize that their communities can bring a great deal of value as a direct channel to talk to their customers and receive feedback on their products. Product development teams can gain invaluable insight that informs their roadmaps and decisions with what their customers need and want most. But this is only effective if the feedback channel is well-thought-out and consistently managed.

At Zendesk, we're working on refocusing the product feedback area of our community into a more conversational model than it has been in the past. Rather than just taking requests or ideas from our users as a data point, we're looking to have more in-depth interaction between Zendesk and community members about how they use the products and what problems need solving. We're beginning to lead proactive discussions with thought-provoking questions so we can gain better insight and understanding into what our customers are trying to do and can then build comprehensive solutions.

This two-way communication and relationship-building is ultimately beneficial for both parties. Customers feel heard and empowered to help shape products or services in a way that is useful to them. Businesses are better able to build products that fit their customers' needs and are truly resolving a pain point. At Zendesk, we've had dozens of product features and functionality adds that have come out of conversations that began in our community.

Talking at Customers Rather than with Them

It's crucial for community managers to be communicative, transparent, and authentic. People come to communities to connect, share, and help one another, so there needs to be a genuine, human feel to the conversation. It's important that community managers and moderators can speak as themselves in the community rather than sounding like the brand they represent. You have to strike the balance between the company voice and who you really are as a person if you want your users to feel an authentic and real connection.

You want to make sure your community members feel as though they are truly being heard and are being spoken to on a peer-to-peer level. The worst thing you can do is appear robotic or condescending towards someone who is simply volunteering time to assist the community or offer product feedback.

It's also important to facilitate relationships between community members and recognize member contributions. One of the ways we do this at Zendesk is through a "shout-outs and gratitude" thread in our community, where users can highlight other members or moderators who have been particularly helpful to them. All of this helps foster a warm and welcoming environment that will make your community members want to return time and time again.

Not Being Responsive

Building and fostering a group of community members takes dedication and consistency. Once an online community has been established, the work doesn't stop there. Make sure you are checking in on your community members frequently and providing them with the proper care and attention. This means being timely in your responses to any questions, comments, or concerns your community pose, and constantly evaluating what's working and what might need to change over time.

Make sure to stay on top of the conversations that are happening about your company online. If someone is frustrated about a product or process, follow up as soon as possible. The last thing you'd want to do is upset your community members by making them feel that they are speaking to a wall or that the community manager isn't taking them seriously.

There are many benefits to cultivating online communities. By being mindful and avoiding these common mistakes, you'll have a flourishing, engaged community of members who can become the biggest advocates for your company.

Nicole Relyea is senior community manager at Zendesk, overseeing all aspects of the online community strategy and helping to develop the online self-support experience for Zendesk customers. She has worked in both online and offline community management for tech companies and startups since 2009. Follow her on Twitter @nicoleinmadison.