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A frank discussion on the power and pitfalls of enterprise communities - with Tim Rodman of AUG, an Acumatica user group

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed July 17, 2020
Enterprise communities are a potent competitive advantage - and one of the trickiest investments to unravel. I had the chance to dig into the subject when Tim Rodman, Manager of the independent Acumatica User Group (AUG), put me in the podcast hot seat. Highlights follow.


It's been a while since I examined the state of enterprise communities, via The art of enterprise community, and a videocast with enterprise community advocate Mark Finnern.

I find enterprise communities to be a perpetually baffling topic:

Community ROI is real - getting enterprise community right has a clear ROI benefit - especially in the context of "customer success," and what that means in a subscription economy. Finnern made that case in Best in Class Enterprise Community: Salesforce Trailblazers.

In his terrific book The Context Marketing Revolution: How to Motivate Buyers in the Age of Infinite Media, Salesforce's Matthew Sweezey drops some eye-watering stats about Salesforce's Trailhead community:

Customers who complete the onboarding program and join the Trailblazer community (including Trailhead), buy, on average, twice as many Salesforce products and remain customers four times as long, producing significant overall increases in for Salesforce in user adoption and LCV.

The last on-the-ground user event I attended this year, the Acumatica Summit, provided another vivid example. Prospects mingled freely with customers and partners, getting a firsthand view of what this community is really like. I heard prospects asking tough questions at breakouts, and getting the real deal from customers. If your customers are a happy lot, that's a vastly superior sales vibe than anything your salesperson could ever pitch on the phone.

But the hesitation to invest in community is also real - an age-old topic that never seems to really change. Den Howlett has been on top of this via his frequent conversations with Rachel Happe of The Community Roundtable (see Den's latest, Rachel Happe in conversation about The State of Community Management 2020, for more stats and analysis on why community investments remain surprisingly guarded).

It's a riddle and a conundrum. But it makes for a potent conversation. I recently had one with Tim Rodman, ERP implementation consultant, Acumatica MVP, and Manager of the Acumatica User Group (AUG) forums. AUG is an independent Acumatica user group, citing 6,000+ posts in their forums, and 961 members.

Acumatica's community lessons - via hackathons and user groups

Acumatica's community has fascinated me for a while. It's rare to see a cloud ERP vendor push their developer community as aggressively as Acumatica does. Acumatica Platform Evangelist Mark Franks shared lessons in his post for diginomica, The power of a developer community – you can't succeed in cloud ERP without one. I keep telling Acumatica I want to see them push this even further, and "mashup" their business users and developers even more.

How do you do that? How do you get business users and domain experts to engage in a hackathon?  That's one topic Rodman and I get into via his podcast interview with me, Enterprise Software Communities with Jon Reed (you can freely listen or download via the link). It's hard to resist an old-school podcast invitation, which Rodman describes as "Our two rules: 1. No Editing. 2. Publish Immediately." Old school podcasts tend to run long; this one lasted fifty minutes. Here's a few moments that stuck with me. 

Highlights from an unscripted podcast on enterprise communities

After some banter on diginomica's evil plans, we talked about how enterprise communities have evolved: from developer-focused, to the challenge of engaging business users. Then there is the bigger problem: "if you build it, they will come" is no longer adequate. Build a sticky community web site - great. You still have to go where the conversations are. Of course, that causes data/analytics issues. It makes community engagement much harder to measure - but that's reality. Yes, raise the bar and build a "destination" caliber web site. But the dominance of social networks have made it clear: your site could be the hub, but it will never be the wheel.

Go where the convos are -  communities are about relationships, not web sites

Community managers get into trouble when they KPI their community by postings on their site. I know of communities that actively discourage their users from publishing on external platforms - what a fail. As I said on the podcast:

There was a very geeky time in the history of online communities... The social network sites weren't dominant yet; we didn't spend all our time on Facebook and LinkedIn and such. People would have a destination site or two that they would bookmark, and that could include the web communities that you are a part of.

Some vendor communities that were once dominant have done a slow fade.

When you talk about building community now, you can't just build it on your website and say, "Oh, everyone's gonna come here all the time"... You know those conversations are going to spread on different platforms, some of which you don't own and control.

It used to be, "If you build it, they will come." Now you have to build it, and then you have to drive recruitment (and subscriptions). Just because you built it doesn't mean anyone's going to show up anymore...  Then you have to go where the conversations are, which is a different way of thinking about it.

Rodman added: "Yeah, it almost seems to me like your community is less about the destination, and more about the relationship."

Facilitating small group conversations with industry peers is everything right now

Big on-the-ground events are nowhere on the calendar. We talked about online alternatives. As per my critiques (see: my art of virtual events series), most vendors are going too broad with their virtual events - missing great opportunities to facilitate small group interactions. And, right now, talking peers in your industry is everything. From my podcast comments:

In the midst of COVID, just how different are the experiences by industry? If you're in the hotel and hospitality industry, you're having a challenge right now. And even within retail, there's a whole different experience between fashion, which might be struggling, versus something more like food service or distribution, which is doing pretty well. So want to talk with other people in your industry.

Vendor-sponsored communities can forget: sometimes the most valuable thing you can do for your customers is simply to put like-minded people together, and let them take it from there:

That starts to subdivide things; you want to talk to people in the same role. So when you're building community, you're thinking about facilitating those smaller group conversations as well. I think the biggest accomplishment is getting those smaller groups of like-minded people interacting and talking. There's such huge value in that. Once you do that, they tend to be pretty good at connecting one on one on LinkedIn, and continuing those connections from there.

Good communities require good facilitation skills

 As I said to Rodman:

Get six customers around a table for dinner, get the conversation going, and just hear them sharing tips and war stories. And I'll look around to whoever I'm sitting next to, and I'll say, "This is gold; you couldn't put a price on it." Just getting those tips is thousands of dollars in consulting, but it's it's deeper than that. 

With some imagination and effort, this can still happen - but you need some skills also: 

It's not that hard to get people together. You could do it in a Zoom Room, and it doesn't require some elaborate agenda. It does require some facilitation skills. When people don't go down the path that I advocate around more interactive events, I think that's one of the blockers... Facilitating interactions can be difficult in certain groups - specially getting people started. But once they're off and running, you can step out of the way.

The wrap - fun is a community KPI

We hit on a bunch of topics I won't get into here:

  • Vendor-sponsored communities versus independent communities like AUG - both are valuable, but with different pros and cons.
  • My speculations on when on-the-ground events will come back, and how to make virtual events count in the meantime.
  • The tradeoffs between large annual events and frequent monthly gatherings (I suggest frequent gatherings, online or in-person, for regional communities).
  • The delicate issue of dealing with community trolls and critics, and the balance between censorship and stopping one jerk from ruining a discussion. Communities that don't get this right can fall down quickly.

Rodman raised one more point that is integral to Finnern's take on community, which he dubs "The Playful Enterprise." That's the disarming power of humor, and plain old having fun. As I said to Rodman:

Fun and humor are very disarming. It's just a missed opportunity. On a lot of Mark's webinars, he'll start with like a musical intro. Sometimes he'll even have his guests do one too.

In that piece, I wrote about how fun and strategic value aren't aren't in conflict, the way we sometimes think. And community without fun - it starts to feel like just another job. We get so obsessed with measuring the results of community, or how many people attended this webinar or whatever. I think a lot of those metrics are so deeply flawed. That notion of fun and playfulness, people really don't think about it, but it can be very powerful.

Fun during COVID-times? Granted, not an easy thing to pull off. But in a way, we need it more now than ever.

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