The art of enterprise community - five pitfalls to avoid

Profile picture for user jreed By Jon Reed February 8, 2017
Mark Finnern's career is steeped in community. The danger is to build an enterprise community that is sterile and flat. That doesn't impress buyers or improve customer experience. During a recent video shoot, Finnern and I discussed the art of enterprise community. Here are five pitfalls to avoid if you want your community to shine.

Finnern talking community tactics

The ROI of enterprise communities is an unfinished conversation. But there is progress. We're getting better at tracing the impact of community on today's informed buyer, who does the bulk of their initial research without contacting the vendor.

The "informed buyer" can be swayed by community interactions and/or peer reviews. We're also getting better at tying community activity to lead gen attribution.

That means community evangelists like Mark Finnern are able to make a better case for enterprise tribes. During a recent video hangout (full audio version here), Finnern and I discussed his role building SAP's community and SAP Mentor Program. Now an independent consultant, Finnern remains just as passionate about what "enterprise tribes" can do.

But as we're learned the hard way, enterprise communities bring their pitfalls. Measuring ROI is important, but obsession with KPIs can crush enthusiasm. Sparking vocal feedback is invaluable, but what happens when public feedback turns critical?

Building a successful tribe - the short version

In his podcast notes, How to Create an Enterprise Community!, Finnern presents a bullet list of "Successful Enterprise Tribe aka Advocacy Program development."

  • Secure executive support ideally from several as people move on.
  • Create steering committee of all major players in the enterprise: Development, Marketing, Support, …It will ground and connect the tribe into the organization.
  • Get community nominations for your tribe members.
  • Create an identity around your advocacy group so that they can be recognized at events as well as online.
  • Develop a program to maximize engagement with executives and the community throughout the year, especially during events.
  • Give them an aspiration instead of KPIs.

Each of these could be a post unto itself, but let's move on to the hard/interesting part: the pitfalls.

1. Don't muzzle your community leaders in supervision and branded talking points - give them room to be bold and outspoken.

As Finnern recounted the early days of building an SAP community, he reminded me of several individuals who were given plenty of room to speak out and do their thing. Their unfettered energy attracted other community members who threw themselves into projects. As I said to Finnern:

The thing that I always get when I hear this type of history from you and others is that it doesn't feel very corporate. It feels somewhat seat of the pants but not totally in a bad way. You were inventing a lot of stuff as you went. One interesting lesson from all that is how much freedom you guys were given at that time. You were given a lot of rope to do something with.

What's powerful about that is that it really allowed people to think very creatively and boldly and imaginatively - without really fear of repercussions. They weren't sitting there saying, "Oh, what will my manager think at my KPI meeting next week about this or that?" It was much more about boldly striving forward.

Vibrant communities are messy places. That doesn't diminish their strategic importance. That frothy activity is what inspires community members to create their own events, or add public software reviews (see my piece, Peer reviews matter - how QuickBase built its advocacy and reviews initiative, for more).

2. Community leaders should be more than just experts accumulating points. In 2007, Finnern founded the SAP Mentors program, which has grown to 150 SAP Mentors worldwide. The SAP Mentors program has a twist from other programs like Microsoft MVPs and Oracle ACEs. SAP expertise is required, but leadership is expected. These are folks who go beyond accumulating forum points (SAP has a separate "Topic Leaders" program to recognize those). I said on the podcast:

What was really interesting about the SAP Mentors was this effort to try to identify people who were genuine leaders. Before the SAP Mentors, the highest level you could achieve was a topic leader on the SAP Community Network. I talked to Craig Cmehil about this quite a bit. He called it "the path to recognition." It raised the bar for the entire community in terms of what type of person you should look up to and aspire to being. Instead of just being an expert and the person with the most points, it had to do with who is making a unique contribution that really makes a difference in the lives of customers, partners - everyone in the community.

3. Avoid become insular - pull in strong voices from the edges of the community. Edgy voices keep communities honest. Those who don't embrace all community norms stir the pot and keep ideas fresh. Finnern accomplished this in a big way when he managed to get my diginomica colleague Den Howlett, one of SAP's outspoken critics, to join the program for several years. Some of the more creative SAP Mentor appointments, such as industry analysts, didn't work out, but it kept things from getting too predictable: "I think it really shook up the notion of what the program could be."

4. "Experts and thought leaders don't need more KPIs." Measuring success matters, but it's easy to over-measure with today's analytics tools and suck the life out of a community. Finnern:

One of the things that I learned from bringing the top community influencers together in the mentor program: these experts and thought leaders don't need more KPIs. "You have to write five blog posts per year." No... You don't have a list to check off. You want to aspire to their own imagination, and inspire them to create an environment of excellence.

What I then did instead of KPIs, I said, "Hey, this is let's work on a document," which I called the SAP Mentor Magic Foundation Document, on what we aspire to." That was something that we all agreed. Then you could then say at the end of the year, "Hey, so if I look at that document, what did I do to fulfill that?" Which is: be a spokesperson for the community, be active in the community, however that falls out, and be humble.

5. Community leaders are media members and influencers. Don't isolate them from other media or apply a stifling set of rules on what they can say publicly. Modern media blurs the lines. A customer with a blog is a media member. As I said:

These folks are really influencers just like media members are influencers. They should all be treated with a similar approach when it comes to media.... You would never tell a member of the media, "You can't write that blog." You don't get to control the media. That's not how it works. Certainly you can have understandings like, for example, this is under embargo until this date, or there's an NDA on this piece of information, and you honor that.

But as far as, "Oh, I didn't like what you said in this blog post." Sorry. That's out of bounds to me. I've seen some of these programs get into trouble over that. It's very simple: community leaders should have free and open expression, unfettered access just like the media, but at the same time you can hold them accountable to make sure they get the facts right and everything else.

Finnern has seen firsthand the benefit of mixing SAP Mentors with analysts and bloggers:

You can only benefit that these top community influencers, these experts are mingling with press and analysts. Because they can answer the deeper question. It proves that you are not hiding anything more or less. The mentors always told at the end. they want SAP to be successful because then they are successful too. This is why they are the harshest critics, but on the other hand, they are then also the ones that hold up the flag.

The wrap - fun and strategic value aren't in conflict

Finnern's trademark is his advocacy of playfulness. Back in his SAP Mentor days, there was spirited debate over whether "playfulness" should be a core Mentor value along with humility and advocacy. The podcast gets why an element of "play" can be vital. In a yet-to-be-published document, Finnern sums it up: "People’s day to day work is stressful enough. Playfulness breaks down barriers and connects people."

We know the pitfalls; for more on how to do it right, check the full podcast. In a future installment, I'll get into the measurement of community, a topic we also hit on. On the strategic importance of community, Finnern said:

Nowadays it's common knowledge. 67% of the decision to buy software, more or less. is done before they even contact you, before they even go to your website. Who are the influencers then? It's your extended network, it's your community - and that is why it is so important to create this environment of excellence around your top community influencers, who are then spreading the gospel, and doing cool stuff.

That's a good note to end on. With so much software moving towards subscription licensing and cloud delivery, go-live feels more like the beginning of a relationship than the end. Community has a big impact on being able to retain those go-live customers. Community is how they feel confident that their concerns are getting addressed, and that someone is advocating for them. They might even speak up themselves.

A community of peers is a valuable thing. Sparking that passion - and protecting it from corporate programmatica - is the hard part. So is measuring the impact. Cover the pitfalls here, and that spark has a better chance to ignite.

Download the mp3, or catch the enterprise tribes podcast on my Busting the Omni-channel iTunes feed.

Podcast quotes edited lightly for readability.

Image credit - Screen capture of Mark Finnern from our video hangout on enterprise tribes.

Disclosure - I was an SAP Mentor (volunteer) from 2008 - 2015, during which time Finnern was the SAP Mentor lead. The insights on the program stem largely from that time. This piece is not a commentary on where the program has gone since Finnern left in 2015, though I believe the SAP Mentor program is now struggling with several of the pitfalls noted. These pitfalls are derived from our work with multiple enterprise communities and not tied to one vendor. SAP is a diginomica premier partner.