Sep 22, 2023

Read Time 11 min

Empowering your customer success team through community


Has your customer community lost its spark? Teams are often eager to launch this new initiative, however, sustaining that same enthusiasm in the months ahead can be a challenge.

“It’s one thing to create excitement and another to keep people’s attention,” says Shauna McClemens, community strategist at Higher Logic Vanilla.

Building a lively community takes steady dedication and an ongoing commitment to foster engagement, value, and a shared sense of purpose and belonging.

In our webinar, “Reviving a community to support your customer success team,” Shauna shares how to get your team engaged in your community and strategies to revive a community that’s running out of steam.

The webinar’s Q&A session covered topics including how to encourage community participation across departments, tips for announcing a community’s launch, ways to jumpstart content creation and engagement when starting from scratch, and more.

How can you incentivize team members to be active in the online community when it’s not part of their role?

Shauna: It can be a challenge. I like to think about what’s in it for them. If I’m talking to, for example, someone who’s in support, I might ask them what their current ticket drivers are. Sometimes, that’s something I can leverage into getting them to post something proactive in the community.

Other times, if they’re not going to get the buy-in to actually post, I’ve at least got some good subject material and ideas for future “Tip Tuesdays” or something that I can get myself or CSMs to post.

Similarly, with someone like CSMs, once again, I might try to figure out what they’re challenged with. Maybe that’s something like demonstrating ROI. We can just talk through some of the common tactics that they use to help customers demonstrate ROI on those one-on-one calls. Then depending on how that conversation goes, I might try to encourage them to post whatever their response is or I might run with it if that makes more sense in the use case. But really thinking about the challenges they’re facing and how community can help solve those challenges and how driving content in the community can help solve those challenges.

We have team members from support, product, etc. contributing to the community, but posts can span from dull and technical to vibrant and exciting. How can you implement a quality control process for content?

I’ve heard a lot of different things about this. While I do think that quality is important, the quality pieces are going to come up, and you might provide people with tips or you might offer copywriting. But just be cautious because if you make folks jump through a lot of hoops, they’re just not going to do it.

If I’ve got folks who are posting things that might not be the best but have some opportunity for growth, I might try to do a compliment sandwich. Like this part was good, you can improve this, and this part was good. Help them and offer to copywrite or do a bit of coaching.

I would be cautious about saying, “Make sure it’s X, Y, and Z, and I’ve got to approve it, and you’ve got to do this, and you’ve got to do that.” If you make it too hard and too inaccessible, you’re going to make people feel bad. And if they feel bad, they’re not going to continue to participate.

You need to do it with a great deal of diplomacy. I would rather have a couple of posts that aren’t super polished because it makes the community more authentic and real. We’re not talking about blogs. We’re talking about real humans and real communications. Help them polish it, but don’t try to make it seem like they’ve got to be Shakespeare every time.

When announcing the launch of your community, what channels and formats do you recommend (email, video, live webinars, etc.)?

It’ll really depend, and I like to do a variety of stuff. I’ve talked to so many different people and some people love videos. Some people hate videos. Some people prefer written content. Have a mix of those things. Maybe you’ve got an email that has an elevator pitch about the value of community with an embedded video in there. So, they’ve got that elevator pitch that’s going to tempt them to click on the video, but you’ve also got the text version of that.

I don’t think I’ve seen anyone do a webinar. That could work if you have a really big user base that you want to activate. But what I’ve seen folks do is get customers who they might engage as those beta users or as their early adopters on a conversational Zoom call. Ask people what they want to get out of the community. Ask them what gaps they see in your CS today and how they want to engage with other users. Doing that as a beta program and then moving those same people into a launch party type of vibe could be fun.

How can you ramp up content to fill an empty community when you’re starting from scratch?

This would be a great opportunity to engage beta users. This can be a good way to get staff involved. When I was trying to revamp the community, our recent discussion list would be just me, and that’s not a good look, right?

I would even say, listen, I wrote it, just post it under your name. Get a variety of content from staff. Then maybe talk to some super users you already have or leverage personal relationships that you or others on your CS team have with customers. That can help foster a sense of community where you can say “Hey, you have a really great use case. We’re going to be starting this community. What do you want out of the community?” Make it about that. Ask if they’d be willing to post about their use case during this sneak preview. At the same time, they get the sneak preview. They can provide you with feedback on the community and you can give them an early adopter badge or a founder badge. Angle it in the sense of “I want your opinion. This community is for you, but also can you write X content?” Include a precise and specific ask.

Should you have a team or individuals who are dedicated to fostering community?

If you can get a dedicated community manager, that’s ideal. But in 2023, we’ve all been asked to do more with less. I would say, for a lot of the communities that I work with, folks have another day job. I myself wore many hats. That’s partly just personality. I’ve always had about five jobs, but it’s pretty common to have someone sitting in CS or marketing own the community.

That can be a challenge when you’ve got a day job and you’ve got community. When you’re in that situation, it comes back to tying your day job to community. In my case, I was a principal consultant and in charge of scalable efforts as well as community.

When one of my customers would ask me a question that I thought the community could be helpful with, or if a more junior member of the team came to me with an advice question, sometimes it makes sense to answer one-on-one. But so often I would say, “That’s a great question. I have some thoughts on that, but I bet the community also has thoughts on that. Why don’t I write up my answer for you in the community and I’ll tag you or I’ll email it to you? That way, we can ask everybody else what they’re doing and get a more holistic answer.”

How can you make the business case to leadership to build an online community?

There are a couple of different ways that you can approach the community ROI depending on the use case. For something like ticket deflection, you can get numbers with respect to how much a ticket costs your organization. It’s usually—I’ve heard different things—between $20-$50 for a ticket that goes through Zendesk to a support agent. If someone gets that answer through the community rather than filing a support ticket, you can get a sense of how much a page view is worth for that ticket deflection.

There’s the other side of the coin too, where maybe it’s not ticket deflection. Maybe it’s something like retention. With a new community, it can be a little bit more difficult. There have been studies on this. I was able to find a good link for my community where we said, if we look at our CRM software and we look at the happiness of customers—whether they’re satisfied or not satisfied and a churn risk—how is that affected if they have someone in the community?” If you can show that having one person from an organization in the community makes them 20% happier or 20% less likely to churn, those numbers can really make sense.

It depends on the metrics that your execs care about today. Is that retention? Is that ticket deflection? Is it something like advocacy? For example, if someone’s in the community, they’re X-percent more likely to give a referral to the sales team, things like that.

But you’ve got to think about what the execs want to hear and think about how that ties into what your users need. From there, go backward, find the metrics, and do some research.

Do you recommend making communities accessible to the public? Our sales team would love to open our community to non-customers so they can see the engagement and ask questions.

I love having our sales team involved. I’ve got a couple of sales guys who post regularly in the community, which I absolutely love. And they actually came to me and said they want to let certain prospects into the community.

I recommend being really transparent. Talk to your salespeople. Have those conversations about any concerns that they might have and any pros or cons.

I personally think that prospects should be very clearly vetted. They should maybe have a specific role, so perhaps they don’t see everything that the rest of your customers can see. For example, maybe product ideation is more hidden or other aspects of the community. You might want to have specific calls to action on there for prospects, like “Have more questions?” or “Get a demo,” things like that.

Depending on your model and how you work today, I found in our community, it made sense to only let in prospects who are at a certain point in the sales cycle and who were vetted by the sales team and had a really good idea of where they were and how much they knew about the product already. They’d already been through that initial discovery, and they wanted to come in a little bit deeper.

Do it mindfully. Think about what they can access. Have those conversations with your sales team since they’re going to know the prospects and where they’re at in the cycle more than all. For us, we have a dedicated Slack channel to talk about it and keep those lines of communication open.

How can you celebrate community users without bribing them?

I don’t hate swag. It’s a good thing to send out once in a while. We did swag with handwritten notes for folks who were already performing well.

I like to do a community roundup post that says, “So-and-so just hit this rank. Awesome job. This person’s the next one who might hit it. Are they going to do it soon? So-and-so has got competition.” Make it fun. Again, call out those warm and fuzzy qualities. For example, “So-and-so was so kind to respond to all these questions,” or “So-and-so is so knowledgeable on this topic.” Adding that personal touch and speaking to those human qualities that underlie the gamification stuff.

How do you address negative comments related to the product or a customer’s experience in the community?

You’re going to get that negative customer feedback in the community. This is a true thing that you’re going to get. It’s the art of customer relationship management. Don’t delete the post unless they’re being abusive or hateful. Don’t delete the post. Hit it head-on. It might be a conversation to have with your CS leaders in the org.

If it’s something really bad, I might have conversations with our director of customer experience on how we want to approach it. Or if it’s a product issue, then with the product team. Have those internal conversations and then hit it head-on.

Assume that when someone is being negative, it’s because they’re hurting in one way or another. They have a problem that they need to solve. They’re feeling crappy because they can’t attain a goal.

It’s super hard. But assume that they’re being hurtful or complaining because they’re hurt and because they have a problem. Focus on how you can help solve that problem for them.

In a worst-case scenario, sometimes you can’t do anything. Approach with empathy. Be genuine. Be a human. You might have to be diplomatic. Afterward, you might need to go for a walk in the forest and get it off your chest. But hit it head-on as best you can with as much empathy as you can muster.

Everyone in CS has dealt with unhappy customers and it’s the same thing in the community. It’s more public, so it feels scarier. But if someone posts something negative about a brand and the brand deletes it or responds with the same negative energy, you’re going to have a bad taste in your mouth. Whereas if someone says something negative and a brand replies with empathy, you’re going to feel better about that brand because everyone knows people complain. That’s no secret. You can own the response.

What are creative examples of user-generated content campaigns for the community?

The way that I’ve approached this has been very grassroots. I’ve been at Vanilla for six and a half years. I know a ton of our customers, and I get pulled in to consult on calls with different folks all the time.

A lot of the time, I’ll say, “That is so awesome. Do you think you would ever post in the community? I know people would love to see this.” Be honest. If it’s something interesting and you want to try to get them to share it, a lot of the time, folks will be completely down. A lot of people have that imposter syndrome where the only reason they’re not posting is because no one said that’s a great post. Once you’ve got them doing that, you might see them continuing to post.

The other thing is those events. When folks are in those events—we call ours Vanilla Connect—and say cool things, I’ll often post the call notes and be like, “Hey, @[name] said this really great point, and @[name] said this really great point.” Often, they’ll expand on that conversation in the community. They’ll comment on the Vanilla Connect thread, or they’ll make another post that expands on the point that they made in the event. Being genuine and interested and curious and encouraging them to post is one of the best things that you can do.

Should a company have multiple communities? For example, a dedicated community for enablement, ambassadors and advocates, and external groups. If so, what’s the best way to manage this approach?

Part of it’s probably going to depend on the vendor that you choose and the way that you are able to have multiple communities. At the end of the day, the big question is going to be: what is the cross-pollination? Are there going to be personas who may be interested in several of these communities or is each community going to target a specific persona?

If you have a sense of cross-pollination where a particular persona may be interested in multiple different types of communities, at that point, you might want to have them as categories or subtopics where a persona could access all topics in one place. It depends on your functionality once again.

If the interest is very siloed into those different areas—I’m thinking about a use case where developers just care about developer stuff or partners just care about partner stuff—then you may want to silo them more and have more targeted marketing. In a lot of contexts, there is that element of cross-pollination, and you might want to have them all in one place and then utilize functionality like showing different tiles to different personas.

If you’ve got that functionality, you can say “It looks like you’re a developer, so this area of the community might interest you,” or “It looks like you’re an onboarding user, so you might be more interested in our onboarding resources and our learning materials.” Send folks to the places you think that they’re most likely to be interested in.

How can you address community resistance due to customers’ need to protect company assets? For example, if you work with government clients or legal firms that may not want to openly brainstorm on a forum.

I’ve seen that with a couple of different communities that I’ve worked with in the legal and financial sectors. There are a couple of things that you can do there. You can try to focus on aspects that can be discussed in a more anonymized way. You can insist that folks use more anonymous usernames. So, instead of “Shauna McClemens,” I might be “German Shepherd lover” or something like that.

You may need to have a more aggressive moderation approach to make sure that when folks are discussing something, they’re not including screenshots that may have sensitive information. That may cost you a little bit more overhead in terms of moderation. However, if you can assure companies of those things, you’re going to be much more likely to get that buy-in for folks to allow their employees into the community. Be a little tighter on moderation and anonymization and focus on more general stuff.

Instead of talking about a particular financial or legal use case, it’s more about, “Hey, there are big regulatory changes coming. How are you all handling that?” Make the conversation more high-level because it’s those granular areas that tend to have more sensitive information within them.

Iteration is key to innovation

You rarely get everything right the first time. Creating a thriving community requires nurturing, cultivating, and responding to the changing needs of members.

At ChurnZero, we decided to overhaul our own online customer community. Learn the strategies we used to reimagine our community in our blog “Seven customer community building tips for CSMs.”


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