Seth Godin coined the phrase Purple Cow to make the point that companies and products have to be different in order to gain attention and attract customers in today’s marketplace. His point is well taken, if you want to stand out and attract people to your product you need to appear AND BE different.
The same holds true for communities, especially now with so many companies trying to engage with their customers. Just a couple of years ago communities were never discussed… ever (unless you were talking about open source). Now I’ll wager a bet that nearly ever marketing meeting has some component of community discussed, dissected, and regurgitated (is that what a Purple Cow would do?) on a daily basis. Community has gone from the unknown servant to the Belle of the Ball, a true Cinderella story , in only a few short years. But are companies really distinguishing themselves with their community efforts? Are they creating Purple Communities or just another Facebook Fan page?
Purple Communities are communities that embrace their customers and make them part of the decision making process for their company and brand. Imagine how much more valuable your company’s offerings would be if product management, sales, marketing, engineering, and support where all interacting with your company’s users on a daily basis in an ongoing dialog. Customers would be more passionate, products would be better designed, and user’s needs would be more adequately addressed.
The benefits of embracing community and pushing it into all parts of your organization are many, but to do it effectively requires a good deal of work. There is no Silver Community Bullet. I recently posted some community building tips that describe at a high level what you should be focused on when designing your community strategy, but in this post I hope to give some actionable advice for creating a truly Purple Community.
What’s Your Community’s Niceness Factor?
I wish there was a way to measure and publish a Niceness Factor for communities. You wouldn’t have to wonder if your community was helpful and friendly. Unfortunately there is no such thing so you need to constantly look for ways to be more welcoming and friendly. Some communities (you know who you are) can be downright inhospitable places for newcomers. Usually these communities are filled with members who have vast amounts of knowledge… and know it. They want newcomers to learn the ropes and come up through the ranks “the old fashioned” way. There is little time for newcomers because the work at hand is just too important. They can’t possibility take time out of their busy day to help get people off to a running start. If you want your community to grow you’ll need to lighten up on the harshness and sprinkle some friendliness in your interactions. You know the old saying “you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar”.
Sure I’ll Check it Out
Another thing that many well intentioned communities do is establish a TODO list for easy to perform tasks that community newcomers can perform. Some even have veterans that sign up as mentors for certain tasks in order to help newcomers come up to speed. I applaud communities who go to the trouble of establishing a process that identifies tasks like this, but unfortunately TODO lists are just too daunting in most cases. The typical exchange goes something like this….
newcomer: “Hey, I love your community (product, project, etc) and would like to help out in some way. What kinds of things do you need work done on?”. community veteran: “Welcome, glad you like our community (product, project, etc.). We’ve created a TODO list that has lots of easy tasks for beginners. Go check it out.” newcomer: “Okay, thanks. I will”
The newcomer then browses the list but because they’re not familiar with the project or community they’ll often become confused and lose interest. This is the worst kind of loss, the one that got away, however unlike fishing stories you don’t want to tell many of these.
The fix for these kinds of misses is simple. Instead of pointing a user to a long list of tasks, you engage with the user and discover what it is they like and dislike. What are they good at? And above all, what do they want to do? Armed with this info you can help get the user started on the RIGHT task that gets them involved.
The simple act of opening a dialog with someone helps tremendously with whether or not you actually get them involved. When you’ve taken the time to really discuss with someone how they can help and give them personal attention you’re helping create a sense of responsibility for accomplishing a task.
Never a Dull Thread (aka. how to get rid of the toe dippers?)
One of the easiest ways to NOT be “Purple” and to rid yourself of all those pesky Community Lurkers, is to let their questions go unanswered (BTW, I hope that came across as a joke:). Most community members are lurkers. They watch and listen without participating in any of your community conversations. This is usually because of fear of criticism (see the Inhospitable Place above). Fear of criticism drives much of your community’s behavior, especially for newcomers.
People tend to lurk and not get involved because they’re afraid of criticism. Criticism that they’ve asked the wrong question. Criticism that their question sounds stupid. There are probably dozens of reasons people are afraid to participate and they almost all relate to being afraid of something.
When they finally do get up the nerve to ask a question in your forum and they are either A) abused in some way for not “getting it” or B) the question goes unanswered, you have just made sure that your lurker will always be just that, a lurker. If its your job to support a community, make sure that there is never a thread that goes unanswered. Get in there and open a dialog. If you don’t know the answer, find someone who does and pull them into the discussion. Whatever you do make sure someone is answering your lurker’s questions in a friendly manner.
Recognize and promote
I’ve talked about the need to recognize and promote users before but this one can really make a difference in creating a Purple Community. This is the opposite to the fear of criticism your newcomers have. If you are constantly praising your community users and helping them feel good about the work they are doing you’ll find your members will have a greater sense of responsibility towards your community efforts. Great responsibility = Greater action = More productive community. If gas is the stuff cars run on, recognition is the stuff that communities run on.
This doesn’t mean you need a user rating system or a User of the Month classification. Don’t get me wrong, these are great and valuable systems, you just don’t NEED them in order to give recognition. You simply need to express your honest gratitude publicly for what your community members are doing. Try it and see. You’ll notice a remarkable difference in how your community starts behaving.
The Purple Community
I don’t know if you noticed the trend while reading this article but it’s pretty simple… ENGAGE. If you want to build a community that stands out and gets users excited, it all starts with conversation. Having a conversation (aka. LISTEN FIRST then talk) with your users is the single most effective way to build a Purple Community.by