Category: social networks

The Customer Community

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Image © Leigh Prather

The last few years have seen big brands make extraordinary investments in developing massive “digital transformation” and social media programs. On one hand, these programs have yielded moments of customer connection, advocacy and insight. Unfortunately, for the majority of programs reliant on mass social platforms like facebook and twitter, organic reach has dropped effectively to 0 and companies are now forced to pay to engage sporadically with the “audiences” they worked so hard to build. Companies now realize they have been renting their customer communities on social platforms.
 
The alternative to social media campaigns and digital transformation theatrics? Developing Customer communities. Specifically, online Customer communities that companies build, host and manage. Customer communities hold the key to Customer acquisition, retention and growth. Further, communities can be a catalyst for development and innovation, and will be critical to future business models. Below I explore the opportunity for Customer community in three key Corporate areas: Brand, Product and Strategy.

Community is the Fabric of Brand

What is the nature and value of brand in a hyper-connected world? A recent HBR article asserts that the collective value of  Customer relationships is outstripping the value of “brand. markables_relatoinship The authors of the article nail the point that Customer relationships are incredibly valuable, but may have missed an opportunity to explore the effect of the customer community as a brand asset & catalyst — the line between brand and relationship isn’t as crisp as the authors imply. Further, I would assert that the “network” of relationships represented by the collective customer base of a company is a manifestation of brand, every bit as important and as valuable as the components of brand identity. My primary research and experience has shown connected customers (via community and social) are more valuable than those that aren’t. Third party research by Deloitte has shown that Networked companies (“Network Operators”) perform better, live longer, and are more valuable. All of these points are are vectoring towards a new opportunity and a new frontier in business: Community-Centric Customer Experience — an approach to customer experience design and business strategy that not only strengthens the Company to Customer relationship (1:1), but also strengthens and develops the Customer to Customers & Company relationship (1:Many, a.k.a. the “Community”). and considers development of the Community the primary .

Communities Will Infuse Product

Customer communities are an essential part of most technology products now. At the very least, online support forums are expected as part of the offering (more on that in a bit). Many companies are experimenting with customer communities as a means to raise product awareness, convert trial customers and retain existing customers. A radical new business opportunity is emerging where the community (both the people and the platform) are the actual product. Purchases are artifacts or a gateway into the community experience, and the real “product” is the collective experience, knowledge, content and means of collaboration with the community. There are many early examples in the gaming world, from MMOG’s like World of Warcraft to the new “build and explore” virtual worlds like Roblox. Software companies are attempting to build communities that address the “whole customer”, and focus on experiences well outside of product support. Adobe (Behance), Autodesk (Instructables, Fusion360, AREA), Intuit (OWN It) and Sephora (Beauty Talk) are actively investing in the community space.

Opening the Aperture on Strategy

There is an unfortunate tendency to view Customer communities as “cost saving” vs “value producing”. This thinking leads to strategies and outcomes that fail to realize the full value of customer communities, and is rooted in a long standing dependence by some companies on customer support communities. In extreme examples, this sort of strategy breeds resentment with valuable customers and leads to a dangerous dependence on an unsustainable resource. When the Corporate mindset shifts to “value producing”, the aperture of community strategy widens to a rich set of possibilities: community advocacy programs, open innovation, peer to peer mentoring, complex content sharing, customer co-design and much more.

Moving forward, Customer communities will be the medium by which value is co-created and exchanged between Companies and customers. To have any chance of long term success with Customer communities, mindsets have to evolve beyond a fixation on cost savings to a more enlightened view of communities as a valuable catalyst for innovation and growth.

The Bottom Line:

Customer communities are the “fabric of brand”, the medium in which the network of customer & company relationships develops and thrives. Companies that create modern communities with their customers will be more innovative, realize more value and have more resilient businesses than their competitors who don’t.

Want to Know What Community Members (a.k.a. Customers) Need? Just Ask.

Are you “Member Shy”?

In its most basic form, a community strategy is a balance of an organization’s goals and its member’s (a.k.a customer’s) needs. Organizations have methodologies for developing goals and objectives, yet I continue to be surprised at how many organizations are missing research as a core part ofthoughtballoon their online community development process. Even for organizations that are highlighted as examples of “getting it”, there are still cases where the community wasn’t engaged in research about a major platform change, feature enhancement or policy shift (the historical / hysterical facebook privacy anyone?). In many cases there seems to be a real fear (or at least discomfort) in connecting 1 to 1 with customers. That fear could be rooted in the inability to have meaningful interaction at scale, the overhead associated with regular contact, or the lack of an evolved organizational culture that encourages this type of interaction. Any community development (or refinement) initiative *requires* the input and direction of the members.

Note: I will be using the terms “member” and “customer” interchangeably in this post. I will also use the term “member” as a placeholder for current and potential members of a community.

Why Conduct Member Research?

Conducting member needs research as part of the strategy development process brings the voice of customer to the center of the strategy, and helps create a lens through which to focus your community building activities. As I mentioned in my kickoff post to “Network Thinking“, there are really five core questions to frame your community strategy:

  1. WHO are your customers?
  2. WHY are they motivated to build relationships with each other? 
  3. WHERE do they want to build relationships with each other? 
  4. HOW do they want to build relationships with each other? 
  5. WHAT value can you provide as a HOST to strengthen and deepen these relationships over time? 

Member research can also help answer more tactical questions like:

  • What role should you play as host, and what community activities should you facilitate?
  • What types of content and features should be present in the community?
  • Should the community be an “on domain” destination, or should the community presence extend on to other sites, like Facebook?
  • What types of members does the community want to include?
  • What type of culture does the community need to thrive?
  • What activities are members prepared to participate in that will directly or indirectly benefit the host?
  • What types of marketing and advertising would members find acceptable?

Techniques for Conducting Member Research

The process for conducting member research is straightforward: decide on the appropriate techniques given your budget, recruit subjects, conduct the research and analyze the results. Great places to recruit research subjects:

  • Your existing community
  • Your blog
  • Your corporate web site
  • Partners
  • Newsletter mailing lists
  • Customer Conferences
  • Independent communities about your product or in your market or topic area
  • Facebook or Linkedin groups about your product or in your market or topic area
  • Using social network analysis tools like LittleBird or NodeXL to analyze open networks like Twitter.

One on One Interviews
One on one interviews can be conducted either in-person or over the phone. The key ingredients are a customer, an interviewer, a notetaker and a simple interview script (a sample can be found below). Interviews can be as short as 30 minutes, and generally should last no more than an hour. In my experience, a minimum of 5-6 interviews will yield useful themes and give good data for strategy direction. If your community will serve many different products, market segments, or customer types a good rule of thumb is to try and do interviews with at least 3 people from each segment. One on One interviews can also be augmented nicely by a follow up online survey to a larger group, in order to drill down further on issues uncovered in the initial round of interviews. Interviews can be conducted in person, via a hangout (or other video chat service), or over the phone.

Group Sessions
Another great way to get feedback, and to get a lot of feedback at once is to conduct a group feedback session. This is similar to the one on one interviews, except you are guiding a group of members through the script, as opposed to just one. Involving multiple subjects at once increases the complexity of the process, so be sure to have someone skilled at facilitation leading the session to keep the conversation on track (per the script), as well as to ensure that all participants have equal air time to give their opinions and feedback.

Online Surveys
The fastest, and often lowest overhead way to get member feedback is to create a short online survey to send to research participants. Online surveys are really great at getting quick quantitative feedback, and the results (depending on the tool) are fairly easily to analyze and study. A few issues with online surveys are that the quality of the results depends on the quality of the questions, and in particular, thinking through appropriate choices for multiple choice questions, and also creating effect write in questions that will yield helpful qualitative feedback.

In most cases for the community and social media strategy work I do at Structure3C, I will generally start with an online survey to at least 100 community members,and follow up by conducting a set of 7-10 one on one interviews with community members.

Questions to Ask During Research

There are essentially 5 overarching questions for your community strategy, 4 of which you want to answer as an output of member research:

  1. Why do community members want to build relationships with each other? What do community members need from each other? Explore what community members might desire from interactions with other community members, and try to understand why they are motivated to sustain this activity over time. Answers could range from knowledge sharing, to providing mentoring, to ongoing professional or personal support.
  2. Where do you customers want to build relationships with each other? This question is particularly important to avoid duplicating community features and value that exist elsewhere. The key insight to uncover in this line of questioning is what unique value you can provide in your hosted community AND which external communities and social media sites you need to participate in in order to create a holistic community presence. Increasingly, mobile presents a unique opportunity to host your customer network in fundamentally new ways.
  3. How do members want to build relationships with each other? What value can community members contribute / exchange? It is important to understand what ways community members are capable of, prepared to and willing to participate. Participation could include sharing domain expertise, offering content samples, answering support questions, or even just participating in casual online conversation.
  4. What do community members need from you as the host? Ask questions that explore member expectations of your organization in the role of host. What are the member expectations around your level of participation, your effort in developing content, in fostering participation and your commitment to hosting the community long-term?
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Example of a Social Presence Map to illustrate a dynamic community ecosystem, from my portfolio of work at Dell.

In order to answer the key questions, you will need to ask a series of baseline demographics questions (for context), as well as exploring each of the four key questions in a more granular way. A sampling of questions that can be used to create a script or facilitation guide are included below.

A simple list of survey or interview questions might include:

  • Name, organization, title, a brief role description
  • Browser and mobile preferences: Chrome vs Safari, iOS vs Andriod, etc.
  • What information sources do you rely on (relating to the topic of the community)?
  • What groups (on/offline) are you a member of (relating to the topic of the community)?
  • What products / services do you use (relating to the topic of the community)?
  • What is the biggest challenge you face in your day to day work (assuming this relates to the topic of the community)?
  • How satisfied are you with the level and type of communication you have with organization x?
  • Do you currently participate in any of the following social media activities: blogging, discussion forums, facebook, twitter, youtube etc (shape the list based on your market)
  • What information, insight or content do you want to share with other customers?
  • What kinds of information would be helpful for other customers to share with you?
  • If organization x were to offer the following content or features, please rate how useful each would be to you: discussion forums, expert Q&A, tutorials & tips, video previews, customer blogs, etc.
  • Would you be interested in connecting with other members at local, in-person events?
  • Exploring usability issues around current experiences and apps

In Summary:

I’ve seen investment in member research pay off consistently, just as I’ve seen the severe cost of not conducting member research hamper or sink many community initiatives. In short: Want to know what your members want from their online community? Just ask.

Customer & member research is a core part of my community development practice at Structure3C. If you are starting a new community or crowd initiative, my team can plan and deliver community research to build a strong foundation for your program. You can book time with my through my assistant Karelyn.

The Secret Ingredient for Customer Lifecycle Marketing? Community Management.

A recent benchmarking report from Demand Metric on Customer Lifecycle Marketing illustrates the impact of aligning marketing efforts around a customer journey model. The report also illustrates a number of blindspots that are derailing Customer Lifecycle Marketing efforts.

The missing ingredient? Community Management.

First, highlights from the report (direct quote):

The analysis of this study’s data provides these key findings:

  • The study found that less than 20% of organizations are currently marketing across the entire customer lifecycle.
  • Participants spend twice as much of their marketing budgets on acquiring new customers as on retaining existing ones. (Yet most of their revenue comes from existing customers!)
  • Almost 90% of the study participants indicate that marketing currently owns the understanding and management of the customer lifecycle.
  • Of the lifecycle stages – Awareness, Consideration, Purchase, Retention and Advocacy – Awareness enjoys the greatest clarity of ownership, with marketing owning the stage 88% of the time. Retention is most fragmented, with few organizations defining clear ownership of this stage.
  • The Awareness and Consideration stages enjoy “adequate” or “ample” levels of investment for over 70% of study participants. Retention and Advocacy both fall at the “minimal” to “none” level of funding for 55% of study participants.
  • The greatest benefit to executing a customer lifecycle marketing strategy is greater customer engagement.
  • The greatest challenge to marketing across the customer lifecycle is understanding customer content needs.
  • 72% of strategy adherents are experiencing a revenue lift from customer lifecycle marketing.
  • Over three-fourths of participants plan to increase their commitment to and investment in customer lifecycle marketing.
PardotDemandMetric-Marketing-Effectiveness-by-Journey-Stage-Dec2015

Excellent summary graph from MarketingCharts.com

Clearly Customer Lifecycle Marketing is incredibly valuable when all stages of the lifecycle are addressed. So what is the problem? Based on my direct experience and years of studying the intersection of marketing and online community, I would assert that building meaningful relationships at scale is still an undeveloped function in the majority of most organizations. Further, as the data from the report shows, the “ownership” for customer retention is scattered among many departments. Add to the mix the eternal debate about “who owns social / community” and things get even more messy.

So what is a modern marketing organization to do? Consider three things:

  1. Community Drives Customer Lifecycle
    A modern definition of online communities expands the location of “community” to be any on or offline touchpoint where customers can meet and form relationships. A modern definition also expands the concept of community management to include any form of relationship building and nurturing. Modern online communities produce a range of value for customers and businesses. Peer to peer support is the classic example, yet modern approaches include a range of deep collaboration on new product development to expansive crowdfunding campaigns – and everything in between. Community can play a valuable role in every stage of the customer lifecycle, and can often be the connective tissue to hold the entire experience together.
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  2. Treat Engagement & Retention as a Community Management Opportunity
    The practice of building and nurturing customer relationships is a job modern community managers understand very well. In particular, Community Managers can be very effective as resources in Customer Nurture campaigns during the consideration phase. I had my community management team at Autodesk reboot a nurture campaign that supported a 30 day product trial, and the results were amazing.

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    Example Customer Nurture email from a Community Manager

    Further, Customer Advocacy programs grew (at least partially) out of Community Advocate / MVP programs. It is a relatively straightforward process to scale current Advocacy programs to include different customer types. There is also a massive opportunity to harmonize Influencer programs (which typically look outside of existing communities) with Advocacy programs. These are essentially two sides of the same coin – Advocates have typically been nurtured through a hosted community and Influencers have established their own communities and networks. A modern Community Manager treats these contexts as part of the larger community ecosystem.

    Treating engagement and retention as a community management opportunity allows the staff with the skills to manage relationships at scale do what they do best. This is a huge missed opportunity in marketing.

  3. Get Real About Digital Transformation & Social Business
    A modern approach to online community takes into account the entire digital ecosystem, not just single online touchpoints. A modern approach to community management nurtures engagement across the digital ecosystem. So if Community Managers know how to address the key gaps illustrated in the Demand Metric report, what’s the problem? Why isn’t it happening? There are many answers, but one factor that has had a huge negative impact is the trend of Digital Transformation initiatives absorbing (or in some cases, abandoning) Social Business efforts. I expand on (and in some ways, rant about) this in my 2015 recap post. Most Digital Transformation initiatives have focused on technology at the cost of customer engagement. Many Social Leadership teams and organizations have been disbanded or fractured and embedded to the point of being ineffective. Customer Experience initiatives often focus on superficial and in the moment customer engagements at the cost of growing the life long relationship.Bottom Line: We need a new Leadership model that addresses not only the Company : Customer relationship but also the complex network of Customer : Customers :  Company  relationships.

Netting it out:

  • To create successful Customer Lifecycle Marketing initiatives, modern marketers must include online community and community managers.
  • Community Managers can help address the current engagement and retention gaps in Customer Lifecycle Marketing programs.
  •   Organizations need to renew focus and investment in Online Community Leadership to drive growth via Customer Lifecycle Marketing

I am working with a portfolio of clients on evolving their community and marketing programs (lifecycle, influencer & advocacy, community management). I am also kicking off the year by offering a complimentary consultation session (for a limited time & very limited slots). If you would like to get feedback and guidance on your 2016 plans, feel free to register for a consultation here. 

Preview of the Brands & Collaborative Economy Research Project

In March I embarked on a series of qualitative research projects to help organizations prepare for the disruption and opportunity emerging from the Collaborative Economy, and understand what resources they need to be successful. Crowds, Community & CollaborationWave 1 responses are in and the analysis is almost finished. I wanted to share a preview of the results to date. The full set of results will be published in June.

The pool of organizations that completed the survey ranged from Fortune 500 software, media and retail companies to small startups in the sharing economy space. A handful of non-profits also participated.

Key observations:

  1. A shared understanding of the Collaborative Economy is still forming.
  2. The Collaborative Economy is relevant to organizations, but the level of urgency isn’t high (yet).
  3. The most interesting sectors are Learning, Services and Corporate (“Sectors” as described by Crowd Companies Honeycomb model).
  4. Many organizations see online communities, social networks and collaboration platforms as “enablers” and areas to begin experimentation.
1. Shared Meaning & Definitions
Getting to a crisp definition and shared understanding of the Collaborative Economy is challenging because the concept describes the interplay of a number of other large trends and movements, including (but not limited to) the Sharing Economy, Sustainable Development, Digital Transformation, the Maker Movement, Internet of Things, Future of Making Things and more. In the context of this research project, when asked to describe their understanding of the Collaborative Economy, respondents mainly spoke to 3 key themes of the Collaborative Economy as:An economic model…

“A model in which the creation and exchange of value (of goods, services, knowledge, etc) occurs through human interactions versus (solely) financial transactions. Asset allocation is optimized such that resources are jointly consumed and assets rarely stand idle.”

A social movement…

“Where brands and people start thinking more cooperatively for the greater good…instead of competitively & businesses go back to being more sociable and people-focused.”

A technical platform…

“Coordination of mobile devices, cashless payment systems, reliable rating mechanisms to get value from each other as opposed to centralized corporation of assets.”

2. Relevance and Urgency
Most respondents said the Collaborative Economy was either “Somewhat Relevant” or “Very Relevant” both now and through the next 12-18 months. The fact that many respondents gave responses that indicated a relatively low level of urgency was very surprising. It is likely that most organizations:
  • Don’t understand how to formulate a strategy
  • Don’t have the necessary vision, leadership and resources to engage
  • Don’t see a burning platform of missed opportunity or competitive threat
  • Aren’t willing (yet) to make the investments in platforms, partnerships, open collaboration and the making corporate assets available.

The respondents who did indicate a high level of urgency, and had active pilots, were engaging in activities ranging from: investment in or partnership with complimentary startups, development of platforms and marketplaces, evolving existing social business programs, and re-developing the value exchanges of their online communities. These pilot programs will be covered in more detail in the final report.

Relevance and Urgency

 

3. Emerging Sectors
Research participants were asked to rank certain sectors of the Collaborative Economy by level of interest. The sector categories were sourced from the  Crowd Companies Honeycomb model.
emerging_BaCC

 

4. Enablers
Survey participants were asked to rank the following systems, technologies and engagements based upon their perceived value in enabling an organization to engage in the Collaborative Economy.
Enablers_BaCC

 

The full Brands and the Collaborative Economy report will be released in June, going in to further detail on the topics above, as well as:

  • An overview of current pilot programs being conducted by the respondents;
  • Key sources of information and data about the Collaborative Economy;
  • An overview of missing or underdeveloped resources and services needed by organizations for their Collaborative Economy initiatives.

Next Up:
Wave 2 Research begins June 1st.
Wave 2 research will begin the week of June 1st, and will cover:

  • Lessons learned from early successes and failures
  • Organizational resources needed to develop and sustain pilot programs
  • Development of a simple framework for Collaborative Economy pilot programs

If you are interested in participating in the research (via survey), being interviewed or profiled for the report, or sponsoring a future report, please send me an note.

Private Briefings & Advisory Sessions
I am also doing a limited number of private briefings on the Collaborative Economy research and how a modern approach to online communities can support innovation, customer acquisition and retention.
I’m available for online session booking via Popexpert, or feel free to drop me a note.

Dr. Strangeshare or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the “Collaborative Economy”

dr_strangeloveI have a confession to make: I can become really obsessed with labels.

Back in 2008, when I was producing events and conducting research focused on Online Communities for Forum One, the word “social media” hit broad adoption. I had countless debates with my colleagues about what we should title events and new research initiatives to stay true to the intention and tradition of online community building, while including the emergent activity happening on the mass social networks that were experiencing explosive growth globally. Two years later at Dell, our centralized “Social Business” team was called “SMaC” – Social Media and Community. Many labels in play trying to describe a spectrum of concepts and activities.

Ch-ch-ch Changes
On the one hand, each new term that has been introduced introduced to describe a major shift (virtual community, online community, social media, social business…) signaled a major evolution or change in culture, driven by the twin forces of technology and culture. On the other hand, each change contained so many attributes of the last wave that it was easy to be cynical that it was change in name only, driven by consultants, analysts and authors ready to make a label stick to own a market or concept. What really happened? Honestly, I think a bit of both – as market and cultural forces gained energy, a handful of folks were able to step forward and help make meaning of what was going on and describe what possible future scenarios might come in to play. I created a simple diagram to describe what I personally saw in my career to date:

A Snapshot of the Evolution of Online Communties
(
click for a larger version)

Something’s Happening Here
Which brings us more or less up to date. When I first heard the terms “Sharing Economy” and “Collaborative Economy” hitting mainstream last summer, my immediate reaction was a cynical “here we go again”. But then I started doing research, and listening to some of the smart voices in the field signaling the change. In particular, I found Rachel Botsman’s work very helpful and insightful. Her “The Sharing Economy Lacks a Shared Definition” is an especially good overview. Jeremiah Owyang has done a lot of research and writing in the field as well, and it was his energy and insight that helped me decide to make Autodesk a founding member of his Crowd Companies brand council.

I’m convinced we are entering a new era – one that draws on the collective learning, social technology and cultural evolution to set the stage for the next act in a very long play that the Cluetrain Manifesto described in 1999:

A powerful global conversation has begun. Through the Internet, people are discovering and inventing new ways to share relevant knowledge with blinding speed. As a direct result, markets are getting smarter—and getting smarter faster than most companies.

I keep coming back to a handful of questions to help frame how the Collaborative Economy will affect my day to day practice:

  • How might this next phase of “social” enable (or force) sustainable and thriving businesses?
  • How can Brand’s fully design and engage an extended community ecosystem – inclusive of all stakeholders (customer, partners & employees), built on shared value?
  • How will reputation play a role as the marketplace becomes a mesh? How can we make data, content and associated reputation all portable across meaningful contexts?
  • How will participation and contribution will be valued, exchanged and incentivized in the near future?
  • What does the future of crowdsroucing and co-innovation really look like?IMHO, early examples, like Dell’s IdeaStorm (I designed the current incarnation) and marketplace’s like Quirky and kickstarter are all part of an interesting but humble beginning.

The net-net: for me, the time for lable-gazing is done. It’s time to learn, experiment and evolve my practice.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Updated 3/3/14 @ 11:55am
This morning, Jeremiah Owyang released a new report: Sharing is the New Buying, Winning in the Collaborative Economy – this is the largest study of the Collaborative Economy to date, and an informative read.

Thoughts on Managing Your Social Vendor Relationships

Let’s face it – the vendors you rely on for social media & community platforms, services and advice have you outnumbered and surrounded. Between account reps, sales reps, relationship managers, executive success partners and the rest of the cast, most vendors have a veritable army of skilled professionals whose primary purpose is to maximize revenue derived from their relationship with you. I’m not saying that this is all bad (profitable vendors = sustainable vendors, after all) and that these relationships can’t be mutually beneficial. What I am saying is that the sides of the social vendor relationship game aren’t evenly matched. For social executives, it’s time to step up our game and more proactively manage these vendor relationships.

What’s at stake? Ultimately, the long term success of your social programs. Have you ever been through an Online Community platform migration? It sucks –  from a technical perspective, let alone a community management perspective. Ever had to buy an additional social listening package because your primary  did a bad job of  influencer identification? Ever had analysts completely contradict each other on best practices for rolling out a Reputation Management system in back to back briefings? Issues with vendors as isolated incidents are painful and expensive. Issues with some or all of your vendors simultaneously can  kill social programs.

The opportunities at hand are to gain the most value from your vendor relationships ideally by:

  • Gaining access to and influencing product roadmap
  • Guiding the vendor into partnership & integration discussions with other vendors that you use
  • Staying abreast of best practice and useful case studies from other customers of the vendor
  • Understanding if you and the vendor are on paralell or divergent paths long term

SWGD? (So Watcha Gonna Do?)
I offer the following tactics and suggestions in the spirit of SWGD :

1. Host an Annual Social Vendor Summit
Ask your vendors to come onsite for an annual Social Vendor Summit. I hosted one of these at Dell in January of this year, and had all of our community, social media, listening, social CRM, social marketing, analytics and touchpoint partners in for a day of shared briefings. The briefing format was dead-simple-  each vendor had 30 minuts to share 3 slides: 1) An overview of current state and feature usage, 2) Suggestions on how we could improve use and effectiveness of their offering and 3) Anything else they wanted to tell us. They sessions were a great way to get the internal team on the same page and also to spur brainstorming and collaboration amongst the vendor partners.

2. Conduct Quarterly Business Reviews
These reviews are likely common as an internal practice in your organization, so why not expect them of your vendors? Reviewing product roadmap updates, strategy updates, progress on key programs and any interesting new customer examples or case studies is a few hours well spent in the quarter. This is a much deeper and more exclusive dive than the Summit mentioned above, and is really intended to be a frank feedback sharing and strategy session. Are some of your vendors not willing to spend the time to do this? Great segway to my next suggestion…

3. Stay in Touch With Competitive Vendors
Competitive social vendors are likely calling you anyway – make the best of it! I was generally willing to take a call or briefing with a competitive vendor at Dell if I was sure about our internal position on the incumbent vendor (favorable or not) and I would always let the competitive vendor know if there was any chance of them winning the business prior to the briefing.

4. Understand & Influence Product Roadmap
Your social vendors with product roadmaps should be more than willing to share fairly long-term (at least 18 mos) roadmaps with you. They will be caveated to the Nth degree and be bookended by safe harbor statements… but they should be shareable. You should feel empowered to have a discussion about the planned features and you should generally feel like your priorities are taken into account. If not, this should be a huge red flag (and see previous point re: Competitors).

5. Build Your Peer Network
It is critical to have a network of peers in similar positions to compare notes with and to seek advice from. Analysts are great for general snapshots of the social landscape and directional advice, but being able to have a conversation with a peer sitting in *your* seat in another organization is invaluable. Your social vendors will likely have conferences and events that will offer great networking opportunities. Vendors can also make intros for you. There are also many great networking organizations like The Community Roundtable and SocialMedia.org. To put a fine point on it: build your network before you need it.

6. Get Personal
Along the lines of building a peer network, get to know the key players working for your vendors as well. Invest the time in building one to one relationships outside of the conference room. Personal relationships often make the difference  in getting a heads up on a feature change, getting a feature request into a release or getting a little extra help with a configuration.

The Net-net: a little extra effort put into elevating your relationships with your key social vendors to a *true* partnership will likely pay back valuable dividends in the form of better platforms, more effective social programs and higher return  on your social investments.

Do you agree that spending more time managing your social vendor relationships could create value? Do you have additional suggestions on why and how to manage these relationships? I’d love to hear your thoughts and any stories or suggestions you could share.

My 2010 “How Good Grows” Update

How Good GrowsI was fortunate enough to be selected again this year to participate in the Yahoo! “How Good Grows” program. The program is a combination of the concepts of “pay it forward”, microphilanthropy and social networking – Yahoo! selects a pool of people, gives them $100, and asks them to go do something nice. This could range from buying a group of strangers coffee to purchasing ARV drugs for folks in sub saharan Africa. The use of the funds is up to the donor and ideally the use is impactful and inspiring.

My choice this year (with the help of my wife and daughter) was to donate the money to my daughter’s classroom at her charter school in Sonoma. Her teacher Rachel was inspired by the program and decided to let the kids in on the action. The class decided to donate  a portion of the funds to another first grade class at the school, and also to send some of the money to a charter school in the developing world. The kids are choosing the charter school in the developing world when they return from Christmas break.

Given the state of funding for education in California, the old adage of every little bit helps truly applies. My daughter’s teacher was truly appreciative of the funds, and she and the class were really inspired by the opportunity to “pay it forward” for another class at the school, as well as a school in the developing world.

To check out the other acts of kindness inspired through the How Good Grows, check out the site here:
http://kindness.yahoo.com/

A big thanks again to the folks at Yahoo! for the opportunity to participate, and for continuing to support this program.