“If you build it, he will come.” – ‘Shoeless’ Joe Jackson (Ray Liotta) to Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) in Field of Dreams

I’m sure many of you are familiar with this line – one of the most quoted lines from one my favorite movies of all time.  It’s also, unfortunately, an approach that many of us take when building our user communities…and it’s an approach that usually leads to failure.  Without a clear plan to raise awareness and build interest in your community, it’s likely that users won’t come – or if they do, they won’t stay for long.  This builds on blogs you may have read from other community members including one from Meghan Mehrens at YUM and another from Bart Schutte at St. Gobain.

When we launched our first external user community, we knew it would take more than just a good looking site and a few subject matter experts.  We knew our site would require a full marketing plan to promote it both internally and externally.  We broke the plan into three phases: pre-launch and early adopters, formal launch, and post-launch.  I’ll describe some of the key activities from each phase below.

Pre-launch and early adopters: The main goal of this phase was to build awareness and excitement about the community both internally and externally.  Here are just a few of our key pre-launch activities:

  • Created an internal messaging primer: This presentation gave everyone a “20 words or less” explanation of what the community was about so that we could build interest.  It also created a common vision that everyone could share.
  • Conducted internal and external beta tests: Our internal and external testing phase ran concurrently over a six-week period.  It allowed us to find any problems or issues, it got people excited about seeing the community in action, and it built relevant content in preparation for our full public launch.
  • Created “how-to” videos and tutorials: We created guides for both internal and external users showing how to post and tag content, how email alerts worked, and how to upload documents and source files.  This made it easy for early adopters to understand how to use the community.

Formal launch: The goal of this phase was to let the world know that our community was officially open for business.  As with the pre-launch, we had a few key activities that really raised awareness:

  • Tied the community to new product launch: We timed the launch of our community so that it would coincide with a new version of one of our products.  Press releases, announcements, and presentations about the new product version also included the “20 words or less” overview of the community and a link to our community homepage.
  • Leveraged technical staff to promote the community: Our field sales and technical support teams shared information about our community with customers – sometimes with just a simple suggestion or mention, sometimes with a more formalized presentation.  Leveraging our technical teams to deliver this message built more credibility.
  • Links back to the community: We used our corporate web site to help drive traffic to the community.  Our home page, products pages, and support site all have links back to the community, so it’s easy for users to find it and navigate to it.

Post launch: Since the community went live we’ve worked hard to ensure our customers and internal staff stay up to date on the community and that they know about new and relevant content.  Some of our post-launch activities are:

  • Monitoring for idle threads: Our community manager receives notification any time a post or question in the community sits idle more than a certain amount of time.  If our customers aren’t able to answer a question from their peers, our SMEs will step in and provide the answer.  This ensures that will receive answers to their questions – which will encourage them to come back.
  • Using blog posts for relevant technical information: We also tap our internal SMEs to create content our users will find relevant.  This usually includes usage tips and tricks, information on industry trends, or updates on product direction and roadmap.  We like to use well-known community experts as “guest bloggers” – their names lend credibility to the blog posts and draw more readers.
  • Continuing promotional activities: We use every opportunity possible to publicize community activity to external and internal audiences.  For external users, this includes strategies like using corporate and personal Twitter accounts to advertise links to new content.  We also are updating our product documentation and in-product help with links to the community.  Internally, we maintain awareness by publishing community adoption statistics – meaningful numbers for us include number of users and posts, most read topics, etc.

As the community grows, we continue to look for more ways to raise awareness and draw users back to the community.  As we launch additional user communities in the future, we’ll use the same launch plan and add to it based on experience of what did and didn’t work.