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User Community and ROI


Every time I give a talk, someone always asks, "That's all good and nice that helping users learn is the key to creating passionate users... but who's going to do all that extra work? Who's going to make the extra tutorials and better docs?" Answer: your user community. Think about all the things a strong user community can do for you: tech support, user training, marketing (evangelism, word of mouth), third-party add-ons, even new product ideas. And that's not including any extra sales you might make on community/tribe items like t-shirts, stickers, and other gear.

Yes, there's still a budget... but we've all seen third-party fan/user groups that got no support at all from "the mother ship" and yet thrived and gave users a level of support and training the company didn't provide. But there's still that little of issue of getting users involved, and for that--the single biggest factor is getting users involved at a much earlier path on their learning journey than typically happens.

This picture is from an earlier post:


In Building a User Community Part 1 we talked about the importance of not only a strict "There Are No Dumb Questions" policy, but also an even more dedicated "There Are No Dumb Answers" message.

Today, this post will offer a few more tips on how to use your marketing budget (tiny as it may be) to build, support, and grow a user community from the beginning.

* Host some kind of discussion forum (can include chat, wikis, and blogs as well), and do whatever it takes to get people there as soon as possible, ideally while the thing is still in beta (but it's never too late to start!)

* Look on other third-party forums where users are discussing (which usually means struggling) your product, and find the most active people. Reach out to your earliest adopters or strongest new users and offer them non-paid incentives for becoming active. Chances are, if you have any users at all and your product is even the least bit complicated, people are discussing it somewhere. This could be anywhere from Amazon product reviews to technical discussion boards and even comments on related blogs.

* Make these folks life-time "charter members" with special privileges and recognition as 'founders' that nobody else will ever get.

* Have levels and rewards for participating (but again, not money--that totally changes the motivation, or at least the perceived motivation). The rewards can simply be status, early access to betas, and especially restricted access to the developers where they can discuss their ideas or at least listen to the engineers and designers describe why they made the choices they did, etc. [Don't reward people for post quantity alone... if post-count is the only criteria, you end up with a zillion useless posts]. Study successful user group communities for examples (like, say, javaranch.com--3/4 million unique visitors a month).

* Teach users how to help other members by creating documents (or getting other users to write them) on how to ask and answer questions in the most productive way.

* Include some just-for-fun activities in your community, like one (usually ONLY one) totally off-topic forum.

* Make sure there are interesting, easy-access ways for users to get to know more about one another. Be SURE to have user profile pages that include gender, photos, and some other personal info in addition to the specifics related to this particular community. Which leads to...

* Encourage members to meet offline! Hold a dirt-cheap User's Conference, ideally in more than one city, to get things started. Start a forum from the people who sign-up for the conference, and offer user group or forum leaders free entry to the event (and be sure to have a private user group or forum leader cocktail reception). Tips for that are in this recent post on face-to-face). Create a document on How To Start A User Group, and make sure users know how to get it. There is a great series of posts on how to start a user group written by the guys behind the Edmonton .NET User Group. (Thanks guys)

* Encourage forum moderators or other community leaders to have their own private discussion space.

* Don't tolerate abuse of the beginners, but don't force the experts to have to put up with newbie issues. As any community matures, you must provide separate areas for newbies and experts... if the community culture is one of generosity and motivation, there will still be enough experts who want to spend time helping newbies.

* Why not help your top community leaders get a book deal? You never know... if it's a tech topic, direct them (or yourself) over to Wiley publisher Joe Wikert for some excellent and candid advice (search his archives, and you'll find everything from how to write a proposal, whether you need an agent, etc.)

* Consider starting a monthly "official" user group membership subscription, with something that comes in the real mail each month. Think about it. Think about how you feel when Fedex or UPS pulls up with that little Amazon box with the smile on the side. Each month, send them a newsletter or DVD. Where's the budget for that content? Get your users involved! Have them submit things, and use the small monthly membership fee to cover the cost of materials and mailing, etc. Maybe you can partner with a sponsor on this, to include other things in the monthly "kit."

* Create limited-edition, not-for-sale t-shirts, stickers, and other gear JUST for the founding community members (if you're just getting started in building a community). For ongoing communities, do the same thing and distribute them randomly, for free. Use the principle of "intermittent variable reward" that works so well to make slot machines and twitter so addicting ; )

* Make your community leaders or even just active participants HEROES. Create "superhero" Moo cards for them. Plaster their photos everywhere. (Cute story I heard from a reader here -- she met her husband online while they were both moderators for an Autodesk CAD forum.)

* Host an offline retreat just for the key community leaders. Can't afford to do what Microsoft does with its Search Champs? Can't afford to put people up at the "W"? Have a campout. Supply the marshmallows.

* Above all, keep teaching members to teach other members. Give everyone a crash course in learning theory. The better they become at helping others--the more skills they develop in mentoring/tutoring others--the more meaningful and motivating it is for them to keep on doing it..

These are just a few tips for now. Stay tuned for more. And of course, please add your own... while I have quite a lot of user group/community experience having launched several groups from scratch, they were all technology-related, and many of you are from very different domains.

Posted by Kathy on March 21, 2007 | Permalink | Comments (39) | TrackBack

Is your app an ass-kisser?

If your app was an employee, what kind of employee would it be? When it's employee performance review time, how would you rate it? These are just a few of the apps I've worked with recently...









What other app/product employee-types are there? Know any apps that need an employee appraisal?

Posted by Kathy on March 20, 2007 | Permalink | Comments (56) | TrackBack

Random Tuesday Links

Some Tuesday links:

Josh Clark (globalmoxie) has written a wonderful post about the power of mystery. I highly, highly recommend it.

We love Jeff Atwood at Coding Horror, and thanks to Ryan Fox for pointing out this post on friendlier 404 pages. Ryan was kind enough to refer to our 404 page here as "not great" as opposed to what he was actually thinking. [We've added that to the list of things to fix.]

Jacqueline Nagel translated one of our posts into German. You'll have to guess which post this was from. Thanks Jacky!

There's a very short video clip the SXSW folks put together, edited from my opening remarks there. It's not exactly the way it happened in the talk -- they cut things and rearranged things -- but it does show a couple of the slides about The Suck Threshold.

My good friends at Stikkit wrote to say they have integrated a version of the WTF button into an upcoming beta. (You'll see a WTF button in the video clip from SXSW). I'm sure Asha Dornfest will let us know when we can actually see it in action.

Pamela Slim, our favorite motivator for (as her tagline says) "how to go from corporate prisoner to thriving entrepreneur" has a new podcast show about the themes from Escape from Cubicle Nation.

Marty Baker has some good stuff on creativity at Creativity Central

Richard Sauerman started a new blog, Wake Up Tiger with a tagline and premise that sounds disturbingly a bit too self-helpish for me, but it isn't. It's funny, it's creative and sassy (manages to stay above the "cheesy/sappy" threshold), and it's really making me smile!
(Warning: it is only 98% safe for work).

Longtime reader here Thierry Koehrien has a new publishing project, and the English version is here.

Alright, Nathan and Max have a passion for... ink. Yes, ink. Like the kind you put in your printer and pay too much for. They even have a show, and against my will, I find myself enjoying this. If these guys can make a passion-site out of ink, you can do it with frickin' anything.

If you're interested in humanizing the user's experience (and I know you are), don't forget to check out Humanized.

Those of you at my SXSW opening know why The Daily Puppy is important. As for the mystery behind the not-always-subliminal gratuitous puppy photos in my talk, I'm leaving that for an exercise for the reader, although those of you who've been to my older "Creating Passionate Users" talk have a pretty good idea. The fun/silly thing was that throughout the week, a few other panelists threw random puppy photos into their slides, regardless of the topic. I loved it.

Posted by Kathy on March 20, 2007 | Permalink | Comments (17) | TrackBack

Helping users "feel the fear and do it anyway"


We've said before that reducing fear might be a killer app... making something users were previously afraid of feel less threatening. Wesabe does this for personal finances. Dr. Laurie Kemet does this for a trip to the dentist. And Electric Rain does this for 3D. Our books try to do this for programming. But what about a step beyond that... where you help them do something that just IS really, seriously, scary? Making only things which are friendly and easy is not the holy grail of design.

Reduce my fear or guilt, and I'll be grateful. Help me do something that really IS scary, and I'll be grateful and exhilarated. I'll be forever changed, and your company, product, or service will be linked to that change. To reduce fear means taking something perceived as scary and showing users that it's not. But not everything can be made to appear friendly and easy and safe. Like Apple's Logic. The learning curve is steep, it looks overwhelming and intimidating, but the payoff can be high. What if instead of removing advanced features that make a product inherently daunting, it's OK to say to users, "This IS hard. Really, frickin' hard. But we'll get you through it."

Sometimes, with some products, it's OK to say, "We can't make this any easier or less scary, but we can help you come out the other side."

A short time ago I went on the Sydney Bridge Climb. At night. It was the most frightening thing I've ever done. But when it was over, I felt braver, stronger, and different. I'll never forget the Bridge Climb, and I'll probably be recommending it for the rest of my life.

We can reduce guilt:

We can reduce fear:

But helping a user be afraid and do it anyway is a powerful force. We shouldn't be too quick to over-simplify a product or experience. Of course, it's up to us to get our users through the big, challenging, thing--there's a big responsibility for stellar documentation and support. And we're talking moral support, not just tech support, so building a user community is even more important with something really, really, scary.

I've talked before about the benefits to us when we do something scary, but maybe we can help give those benefits to our advanced (or trying to be) users.

So, what scary thing have YOU done lately?

Posted by Kathy on March 18, 2007 | Permalink | Comments (30) | TrackBack

How to host a product/feature design party


Want to design the next great web app? Upgrade your product, but can't decide what to add or change? Add a new feature to your product, but can't decide how to implement it? Forget focus groups. Forget endless meetings and brainstorming sessions. Throw an ultra-rapid-design party, and do it in a single day. This approach exploits the wisdom-of-crowds through a process of enforced idea diversity and voting, so no consensus, committe, or even agreement is needed. And it's way more fun.

The Product Design Dinner Party takes 9 people, a pile of diverse "inputs", and has each of the 9 people voting on--and pitching--one another's ideas to continuously reconfigured groups of 3 people, letting the best ideas rise to the top. The process is a little complicated, but it's derived/modified from an existing rapid-prototyping design I'll talk about later in the post.

The basic idea looks like this, although there are a million ways to modify it:

1) Pick 9 people, ideally from different parts of your company and including some customers. (If you don't have a company yet, pick 9 friends--preferably those who don't know each other well)

2) Buy/borrow/find at least 20 "input materials" including books, magazines, a short film, graphic novels, etc. (a list of possibilities is a little lower in this post)

3) Assign (randomly) at least 2 "inputs" to each person. Do NOT let them choose (it's important they not be allowed to gravitate toward things they're already comfortable with)

4) Give the group 30 minutes to generate 4 ideas (if it's a feature/upgrade party, then 4 different features or feature sets... if it's a feature implementation party, then 4 different ways to implement the already-decided feature, etc.) These 4 ideas don't have to come directly from their input materials, although participants should be highly encouraged to describe at least one new thing they learned that inspired their idea.

5) Round One begins: split into 3 groups of 3 people (see chart below). Each person gets no more than 10 minutes to "pitch" four ideas to the other two in their group. There are 12 total ideas for this group, so allow about 30 minutes. Record (anonymously) the selections of each person, which represent a "vote" for the ideas.

6) At the end of Round One, each person must select their two favorite ideas from each of the other two members of their group. So if Group One had Fred, Mary, and Sue... then Fred must select his two favorite ideas from the four that Mary pitched, and his two favorites that Sue pitched.

7) Round Two begins: reconfigure the groups so that each person is now with different people (see chart below). Instead of pitching their own four ideas, each person pitches the four ideas they chose from their previous group members. Again, they have about 10 minutes to pitch the four ideas. Remember, the point is that each person is no longer pitching their own ideas!

8) At the end of Round Two, each person must again select their two favorite ideas from each of the other two members of this new group. Record (anonymously) the selections of each person, which represent a "vote" for the ideas.

9) Round Three begins: reconfigure the groups again. Each person in the group now pitches the four ideas (two from each of the two members of their most recent group) they chose in the previous (Round Two) round.

10) At this point, each person has pitched a total of 12 ideas:
* Round One: pitch your own four ideas
* Round Two: pitch four ideas from your Round One group to your new Round Two group -- two ideas from each of your previous group's other members.
* Round Three: pitch four ideas from your Round Two group to your new Round Three group, as before.

11) At the end of Round Three, again each person selects their top two favorite ideas from the ones pitched by the other two members. Record these as a vote.

12) You should now have a total of 108 votes. Choose the top 9 vote-getters (you'll have to be creative about tie-breaking... you could choose more than 9, for example).

13) Give each person a copy of the 9 ideas, and send them back for another round of "inputs." Again, assign each person different materials from the ones they used at the beginning.

14) Give the participants 30 minutes to use their inputs and flesh out a single idea from the nine. Their one idea can be a modified version of one of the nine, based on their "research." Their one idea could be a mashup of two or more of the nine ideas. It cannot, however, be something completely new. Participants should be prepared to explain how something they got from their inputs helped in some way (not an absolute requirement).

15) Now it's up to you what to do with the ideas. You might choose just one, or take all 9 "winners" with their pitches back to another person or group, etc.

Group Configurations (just an idea to get you started):


While it might be hard to believe a process like this could lead to any useful ideas, it's actually derived from a well-desiged, heavily-field-tested rapid-prototyping/development process from one of the leading training consultants on the planet, Thiagi. Granted, that doesn't mean my modifications haven't completely messed it up, but the main goals and benefits of doing it this way are:

1) Time constraints

Constraint-fueled creativity is something we've talked about earlier, so I won't discuss it here.
Build something cool in 24 hours
Creativity on Speed
How to make something amazing right now
and a little in Don't wait for the muse

2) Forced lack of attachment
By having to pitch someone else's ideas instead of your own (after Round One), it keeps people from getting stuck/married/attached to their own idea.

3) Random, outside-your-domain inputs
By having to use pre-selected (and pre-assigned) materials from outside your domain, participants have a better chance for a diversity-driven inspiration.

The whole thing is based on the assumption that you have all the knowledge you need -- the wisdom within your own company and your customers... you just need a way to tap into it that doesn't dilute the idea (as design-by-consensus would do) or prevent innovation (as design-by-listening-to-customers would do).

Ideas for "input materials"
Books on a wide range of topics outside your domain including architecture, astronomy, pop culture, filmmaking, comic books, wedding planning, education, children's book, romance-novel-writing, crafts magazine, travel book, sports, history, environment, etc.

If it's a software product, you might assign people to look at a variety of pre-chosen sites or web apps that are way outside your domain.

I've used this in the training world -- as a tool for learners to help come up with what they ought to be learning, but I've never used it in the way I've described here. I'm looking forward to trying it...
(And yes, I took a little artistic license with the photo at the top--pizza and coke might be better than alcohol. Then again...)

I'd love to hear ideas for modifying this, or from anyone who's done anything like this!

Posted by Kathy on March 18, 2007 | Permalink | Comments (36) | TrackBack