How DO we start a community, anyway? And why does a v1.0 product need one?

After my last post, John Hann asked what it means to be "…on the hook to start the community." Good question - and one that I'm about to discover the answer to 🙂

The fundamental problem is that every product needs a community. You can't just throw software out the door, hope that your customers like it, and start work on the next version. Even if you've done all your use cases and your customer studies and your beta feedbacks beforehand, that's not enough. To get the most from your product, your customers must be able to talk about it with each other, and with you.

Communities can take many forms - user groups, newsgroups, web forums, IRC channels, blogs, and wikis are all communities. In fact, pretty much any form of communication that lets anyone participate can serve as the basis of a community. And a vibrant community is a powerful thing: it can come up with best practices, find bugs, document workarounds, create MVPs, and act as both your greatest booster and your most ardent critic. If you want to get a v1.0 product to v2.0, an active community is your best friend.

So we love communities. And if there isn't already a community for a successful product, then one (or several) will always appear, as if by magic. The problem is that waiting for the magic to happen takes time, and if several different communities pop up they can contain disjoint sets of customers (the IRC-ites vs. the bloggers, for example). So there's a lot to be said for seeding the process - start a blog, create a newgroup, maybe talk to some user groups, and then make sure that there's ONE central site that points to ALL of them. Welcome in any other related communities, especially the folks who wouldn't be seen dead hanging out on "official" newsgroups, and include links to them as well.

Now as a v1.0 product that's not going to ship till next year, we don't yet have a community. And we're a small team, so there's certainly no room for a full-time community position. Which means that when I started blogging and tending the Channel 9 wiki, I became the de factor "community guy". We're reviewing my draft Community Plan on Friday. Watch this space…

Comments (9)

  1. Manip says:

    Don’t under-estimate the chooses of communication methods. For instance web-page based chat (even if with an IRC back-end) will attract different sorts of people than one that requires people to install a full client. The same is true with newsgroups .. because SO few people know how to setup a newsgroup client except ‘old timers’ you get lots of the older engineers in newsgroups where forums are non-exclusionary and the younger posters that naturally are able to post in them cause the old timers to keep away.

  2. Good point, we should always consider the access method, and not just the communication backend. Don’t worry, our plan is to (eventually) hit all the places where our target users hang out 🙂

  3. Manip says:

    You know when I read that last statement it sounds like you are bombing them or something.. O_o

  4. Starting a community can be good thing if one doesn’t already exist and your customers are looking for a resource to go to and find more information and training but don’t force one on them. What is a bad idea is to try and take already existing ones and redirect them back to a Microsoft webpage. Don’t try to take control over those that are already out there and very successful, rather nurture them by soliciting feedback from those community leaders and participants on what you are doing right and wrong in your products and how you can improve them. If you try to control things to much then you are destroying the very community essence itself – an entity run by users and not the manufacturer of a product. Communities aren’t a new product that you can just create overnight. People go to them to find answers from knowledgeable people with experience and foster new relationships so that they have a place to go for answers.

    On the other hand I’m not sure that I really agree with trying to create a community for a new product before its in use. If you want to make a portal to communities from Microsoft’s website that’s cool but I think creating a forum, etc, and trying to pawn it off as a community isn’t the best idea IMHO. One problem is that people outside Microsoft that start communities are naturally passionate about that product and have more real world experience because they use the tool and interact with a lot more people that use it as well. Additionally if something in the product doesn’t work they can develop home-grown solutions or add-ons to the product whereas Microsoft can’t do that for legal reasons. In that respect the functionality and effectiveness of a Microsoft created community will be low.

    This is all of course just some feedback you can take with a grain of salt if you wish as well. I think its great for Microsoft to be investing in communities but I’m not sold on the idea of creating them as if they were a product. I think a better idea would be for the Product Groups to ask themselves "How can we participate more in the community" and maybe have designated people inside MS working to do that.

  5. Richard – I hear your points, but I’m going to disagree with some of them.

    In our case there literally is *no* existing community that we can start sending people to (myITforum is probably the closest). So I claim that we’d be doing our customers a disservice if we didn’t give them somewhere to talk about our stuff as soon as we release it. If they then want to go off and create new communities on their own, that’s great! We’ll link to them, we’ll solicit feedback, we’ll ask them for MVPs, we’ll celebrate their successes and commiserate with their failures. But if we sit back and wait for communities to "just happen", it screws all our early adopters.

    I also disagree with your contention that a Microsoft-created community cannot result in home-grown solutions or add-ons for legal reasons. Just go look at some of the tips being swapped in the microsoft.* news hierarchy!

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