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I recently attended a webinar put on by Vanilla forums that featured Alicia Taggio, Advocate Marketing Manager at Hootsuite, and CMX’s David Spinks. You can watch the full webinar or view the slides here, but I’ve also assembled a few takeaways below alongside some valuable insight from Contentful’s Director of Developer Relations, Ricardo Alcocer.
In her presentation, Alicia outlines five steps to building an advocacy program, which I found to be a really helpful framework for thinking about this unique challenge. The five steps she outlines are: set program objectives, set criteria/characteristics for a good advocate, define the benefits for your company, establish program tooling, and finally, grow the program incrementally.
That doesn’t sound so bad really. It’s a solid framework to get started with, but of course the exact composition of each of these steps will depend on your business. The biggest takeaway for me was that until you’re getting organic inbound from your community, meaning folks reaching out to you with original content or event pitches etc., setting up a structured program can wait.
I asked Ricardo to share his approach to building an advocate community at Contentful, here’s what he had to say.
Ricardo’s program objectives are clear and straightforward. He told me he wants to create “a two-way relationship with users who are highly engaged with our product.” One easy way to start this two-way relationship is to simply publicly thank or otherwise acknowledge members of your community who are spreading the word about your product. Consider adding a community callout section to your monthly newsletter specifically for this purpose. It’s a small gesture, but it can have outsized impacts on the future of these relationships.
Ricardo looks for users “that are passionate about blogging, speaking, sharing, coding or building community around Contentful.” When he finds a community member who’s using Contentful in an interesting way, he’ll reach out to them to discuss sharing what they’re building with the larger community through a blog post or code samples on Github. One of the coolest examples Ricardo shared was contentful-graph, an open source npm package built by Yaraslau Kurmyza that allows Contentful users to easily visualize their content models.
An advocate program is similar to the work of your internal advocates and evangelists in that the time to ROI can range from just a few days, to years. Keep this in mind if you set out to build your own advocate program, and make sure that everyone involved understands that this is a long-term strategy.
As Ricardo puts it, “an MVP program should create a relationship of mutual benefit. It’s not so much about how much benefit we’ll get, but rather, how can I help my users achieve their goals, because what they do is important to me.” It’s always important to note that a user’s goals may be best solved by a competing product or service, so while pointing them away from your product may sting today, in the long run it engenders a much stronger community.
Ricardo offered this example of advocate community building at Contentful. “If I identify someone who is a highly-engaged user in my community, and she hosts a regular meetup, I might reach out to this person to see how I can help. Help could be finding a venue, promoting the event from the official Contentful channels, finding speakers or sponsoring snacks and drinks. By bringing this person into the MVP program, they also get some additional perks in return, like closer access to engineering, product and support, as well as some other cool stuff.”
Ricardo understands the long-tail impact of an advocate program, and works closely with his community to empower them to be successful in whatever they’re doing, regardless of the immediate impact on Contentful’s business.
I asked Ricardo what tools he’s using to manage his advocate program, and outside of a community Slack team, and a newly launched Discourse-based Contentful Community site, they don’t have a lot of heavy community management tools in place yet. My advice would be to keep it simple, and start with the tools you’re already using. Until you’ve learned enough about how your specific program is going to work, building stronger processes around heavy tools is a misuse of your time.
At Heavybit we use Slack to communicate with our members and their teams, Trello for task management across internal and external contributors, CoSchedule to manage our social media, blog and podcast network, and G Suite to collaborate on content before publishing.
In her webinar, Alicia suggests incorporating a forum into your toolbelt. Whether it’s Vanilla, Discourse, or a self-hosted Wiki, these can prove to be incredibly valuable compounding repositories of information if you have the time and resources to make them work. If however, you’re a one-person team running this program off the side of your desk as an experiment, you probably aren’t equipped to properly manage a forum. That said, if you’d like to learn a bit more about building a civil and respectful forum community, check out this great talk from Discourse’s Jeff Atwood on encouraging civil discourse in online conversations.
In the developer tools world, building a strong community around your product, service, or open-source project is one of the most effective foundations on which to scale your business. If you’re considering investing heavily in your own community, don’t forget the five steps to success: set program objectives, set criteria/characteristics for a good advocate, define the benefits for your company, establish program tooling, and finally, grow the program incrementally.
Thanks for reading, let me know if you have anything to add on Twitter.