If you need help with your online community you have many options for hiring specialists.
Social business strategists can help you conceptualize your online customer or member community and make sure that it solves the right problems for your target audience and your organization. You'll find online community consultants that will draw up business requirements and configure the technical and design aspects of private online communities. You'll also find marketing consultants that focus on launching online communities.
Some private online community consultants will accept a retainer to coach your online community managers throughout the first year or two of your community's life. Social media management people even slide into the online community expert role when the opportunity presents itself.
As I said, your options are plentiful.
However, like most consulting arrangements, your organization must be diligent in ensuring that you are getting continuous value from your consultant. Due to the delicate nature of consultant/client relationships, where one hires the other specifically for an expertise that they don't have in-house, companies must balance taking advice with asserting themselves and standing up for their business goals.
When consulting relationships go bad, it is your organization and your customers that get hurt. Your online community project may miss its mark with your community members, get significantly delayed, or worse.
Higher Logic works with many talented online community consultants. We admire their commitment to understanding how online communities impact business objectives and we respect their methodologies for getting measurable results.
We have also seen consultants who are clearly playing off of the nativity of business executives, association professional, and user group leaders to line their own pockets.
We've taken the qualities of both successful online community consultants and those that leave a trail of blown budgets and empty communities to develop nine signs that you may want to wind down your relationship with your current online community consultant.
Great consultants know that they don't have all of the answers. But, they do know that the answers are out there "“ buried in the qualitative and quantitative data.
The fast pace of social technology and consumers' use of social tools has always frazzled business people. This works in favor of consultants that have built practices on being the one to cut through the confusion and forge a path forward.
However, an immature process such as this often loses sight of the data which points to the right path for your organization, customers, and community. Data-driven online community management should be a top priority for your internal social business team, as well as your consultants.
I have found that if your online community consult steers you away from data or suggests that it is not important, they either don't understand how data-drives strategic and tactical online community decisions or they are trying to hide lackluster results of their efforts. Regardless, this is a red flag since your online community data is the foundation of your community management and growth plan.
When helping businesses or associations select an online community consultant, I have my favorite questions. They tell me a lot about a consultant both by the content of their answer and by the way that they respond.
One of my favorite questions to ask potential new customer or member community consultants that our clients work with uncovers examples of what they have done to grow an online community.
Rather than getting their views on social business or asking about the promise that community holds for the organization, I like to know exactly what challenges they faced with communities that they have been responsible for and the steps they took to overcome those hurdles to create a thriving online community that benefited both the members and organization.
Online community consultants are not there to listen to your organization's take on communities and tell you about the results you can achieve. They must do much more than that.
When I bring in one of our top online community consultants to speak with a Higher Logic customer, I am always impressed with their ability to articulate their world view. Find out if your online community consultant does their own research projects each year (real research, not LinkedIn group polls). Can they recall vast amounts of social science research done by others in the area of community building, social crm, and member engagement?
You may be in trouble if your online community consultant comes to the table with their mind as their only asset. The most effective online community consultants use research and their own experience to develop and test a methodology for planning, growing, and managing private online communities, as well as generating business results from those communities over time.
Online communities are not like campaigns. While campaigns run for a set period of time, it is difficult to predict when an online community will reach critical mass.
Private online communities are multifaceted by nature. There are data-driven decisions and adjustments that need to be made throughout the community management process. Online communities also rely on creating enough value and engagement opportunities that your target audience spends their time participating in the community and connecting with other member.
These factors create too many variables to allow any online community consultant to promise a timeline for business-level results toward the beginning of the online community planning process.
Private social communities can increase your organization's ability to acquire and retain customers, as well as improve your product-market fit. However, none of that works if your target audiences don't visit and participate in your online community regularly.
Content is the number one driver of visits and value in your online customer or member community. While members will return more often once they develop a comfort with the community and their potential role in it, it is exclusive content in the form of blog posts, documents, videos, podcasts, and more that plays a key role in turning new member into established participants.
An online community consultant that doesn't understand the role of content in private online communities or how to create compelling online content (and repurpose existing content) lacks a fundamental skill for growing and managing your community.
Along with espousing the importance of building community, many less-experienced online community consultants spend their time proving their worth in the process. Unfortunately, at times this can mean interjecting themselves into part of the online community planning and implementation process where they are not helpful.
When the social business consultant throws monkey wrenches in your plans to position themselves better or for some other ulterior motive, they end up halting established implementation processes and questioning already agreed upon decisions.
When building a private online community, many of the tasks are not sexy and won't be recognized by top executives. Examples of these steps include converting legacy data into a format that can be loaded into your new online community software platform and migrating existing content pages to your community software's content management system.
When you have an online community consultant that will assume responsibility for high-level decisions, but won't roll up their sleeves to get the heavy lifting done, it slows the implementation process and creates a communication disconnect among the implementation team.
The best online community consultants get their hands dirty, sub-contract technical tasks, or work closely with the company's internal team to get the job done so that they understand the low-level processes and can oversee the project throughout all its phases.
Classically, many consultants like to be brought in to save the day. They enjoy being the sage in the corner who everyone looks to for answers. While online communities sound great as a strategy, they don't deliver results without a commitment to consistent community management tactics.
In fact, the in-the-trenches activity is just as important to your online community's success as your overarching strategy. Make sure that your online community consultant can handle coordinating content production, developing an onboarding process for new community members, and digging into the configuration questions needed to set up your online community software in a way that aligns with your organization and your key communities.
Common Red Flag Phase: "I just do the strategy and others put in the plan in motion."
Often times, organizations have consultants that they have worked with for years on a variety of technology initiatives. Sometimes, they are CRM experts or social media consultants. Other times, they have an expertise in industry-specific technology or are general business project management consultants. When a company or membership organization decides to implement an online community strategy, that existing consultant suddenly becomes an online community expert to expand their contract.
However, in these cases, the consultant is learning about social customer relationship management and community-based member engagement at the same time that they are advising the organization on how execute their strategy. Even worse, since the consultant doesn't have much experience creating successful online communities for customers, partners, or members, they do not believe in community as a central business tool for the organization going forward.
People gravitate toward the work that they enjoy and know. This situation puts your organization as risk of missing opportunities for your private online community to solve business problems because your consultant is not comfortable or well-versed in online communities.
Let me be clear. The right online community consultant can add tremendous value to the social business planning, management, and measurement process. However, the wrong consultants can equally detract from your results, budget, and timeline.
Be smart about the online community consultant you work with. If you are an online community consultant reading this, take a minute to look inward to ensure that you walk the walk to avoid displaying the signs listed above.
Though implementing an online customer or member community is a big project, don't hand over the reins because you are confused or overwhelmed. Here are three basic tips for forming a productive relationship with your online community consultant.
Don't be afraid to question and seek a greater understanding. Keep in mind that there will be a day when the consultant is not there and you are ultimate accountable for your plan and its results.