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How to Enable Subject Matter Experts to Contribute in Your Online Community

Written by Trevor Noland on August 31, 2017 at 8:30 AM

Make it easy for subject matter experts to contribute in your online community.

Subject matter experts (SMEs) have the potential to be the most versatile and impactful members of your community. But are you enabling them to make an impact and, more importantly, do you know what obstacles they are facing within the community and your organization?

We often find that online communities are unintentionally set up with roadblocks that make it harder for subject matter experts to participate. Removing those obstacles increases their contributions, making your community a more vibrant and valuable place for your members. Let’s do an overview of you can identify and remove obstacles in your community.

4 Steps to Increase Participation from Subject Matter Experts

1. Identify Your Subject Matter Experts

It might sound silly, but do you know who your subject matter experts are? A professional association may be able to make some solid guesses, but what if you’re a software user group? It could be that the majority of your community members are subject matter experts, or only a select few.

Establishing criteria for your subject matter experts will make it easier to identify them and remove obstacles to participation. Sometimes we merely think of the authorities within a given field as subject matter experts, but expanding the scope to knowledgeable individuals can valuable, if not necessary. I once worked with an online community that chose to recognize non-certified members who were interested in the industry as subject matter experts on the contingency that they cite their answers.

Decide what defines your own subject matter experts, then build a list of those who are currently active in your organization.

2. Evaluate SME Participation – And Don’t Make Assumptions!

Once you have a list of current SMEs, look at the activities they’re doing. Maybe your SME’s are already lifting mountains, or maybe they’re still working with pebbles. Regardless, it is paramount to know what your SMEs currently do within your online community, your organization and the industry as a whole. This is your starting point.

On the same note, it is important to gauge the interests of your SMEs and to discover what they want their role to look like. While surveys can be useful, consider reaching out to your SMEs on an individualized basis using email or phone. This will help you realistically shape your goals. You wouldn’t expect mountain climbers to dive into oceans and you wouldn’t ask an individual to fight an army, so blend what you want your SMEs to do in your community with what they want to do.

3. Build Bridges to Solutions

Obstacles can come in various forms. However, there are some common obstacles that SMEs face.

  • Missing tools
  • Inadequate access to the right people
  • Insufficient access to software licenses or other proprietary content
  • Lack of a compelling reason to participate and appropriate recognition
  • Insecure or unwelcoming community environment
  • Perceived burden of work

The most reliable method for isolating obstacles is combining feedback from SMEs with the performance indicators that are used to track SME and community goals. Feedback can best be gathered through surveys and direct interactions. Use surveys and insights from KPIs when trying to uncover unknown obstacles and go directly to the source for suspected obstacles. Here are a few examples of obstacles and their solutions that we’ve come across:

Problems with SME and Product Team Collaboration

I managed a software user group community where the SMEs provided quite a few product suggestions and defect reports, but still had a complicated relationship with our product quality team. Clear expectations for this relationship were never set, so the product quality team felt burdened by the SME requests while SMEs felt ignored. Intervening with a clear set of expectation and educating our SMEs on how we prioritized defects forged a healthier relationship.

Problems with Tool Availability for SMEs

Licenses and tools are another obstacle that could be in place. In one situation, I worked with SMEs who beta tested our desktop software, never our cloud solutions – which meant we weren’t testing a key component of our products. When we interviewed SMEs, we found that it was more difficult to test defects in the cloud version. To correct the issue, we repurposed an internal tool for SME use. We saw a dramatic increase in both cloud beta testing and active defect testing in the live product.

4. Set Goals and Recognize Achievements

Setting goals for SME participation in your online community will ensure that there is a constant focus on enabling SME activity internally. Make sure to use trackable KPIs, like discussion posts and answered questions, so that you can effectively communicate goals across departments within your organization. When you fall short of your goals, start looking for obstacles, both new and old, to remove.

Goal tracking has another advantage: it gives you an opportunity to recognize your most active SMEs. Whether it’s a ribbon coming from an automation rule, or an Amazon gift card coming in the mail, recognition is a proven motivator, so let your subject matter experts know when they make an impact. Keep it realistic, measured, and consistent to encourage continued participation over time.

The Key to Success is Never Stopping

New obstacles will arise over time and old obstacles can resurface if left unchecked. That’s why the relationship with your SMEs should be a continuous and ongoing experience, so use these steps remove the participation barriers that come up over time.

To make this even easier, considering looking for new obstacles following product releases, organizational changes, or new industry regulations. Changes in your SMEs participation levels and feedback from your SMEs will always be indicators of new obstacles as well.

One way or another though, change always brings new obstacles. You and your team should be prepared to deal with them.

Community Roundtable's 2017 State of Community Management Report

Topics: Online Community Management, Engagement

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