Thursday, March 28, 2013

Defining "Quality" for Content Marketing

Quality is not, by it's nature quantitative, so it will always be both subjective and a moving target. So what does "quality" mean in the context of content marketing?

As much as I would like to say "Quality is more important" it honestly doesn't matter how good your storytelling is if you're talking to yourself. Compelling, unique content brings in an engaged audience, and nothing draws a crowd like a crowd. To achieve your goals you'll need quantity in audience and quality in content.  

When you and I read a newspaper article, novel or blog post, we bring our own bias, opinions and experience to bear on what is ostensibly someone else's bias, opinions and experience. One should not presume there is a valid way to measure that - if one does, one had clearly lost site of their own bias, opinion and experience. 

For instance, I loved Lord of the Rings the book and thought to movies and incoherent mess. My relatives loved the movies and though the book boring. Which narrative has the best "quality"? The books which have sold millions of copies over decades, or the movies which made millions of dollars? Both are high quality when judged by certain criteria, and perhaps not so high when judged by others.

Quality is judged over time: I've been writing a blog for over a decade now and I'm still gaining new readers. But some people vociferously disagree with my opinion, so they say my blog is poor quality. In this case, "quality" is the word we use to describe things that agree with us. ^_^ 

When you're selling the story of your business, "quality" means "good enough to bring someone back." 

Quality content will sell consumers on your brand, your products, your commitment and on you. 

In content marketing, "quality" is the impression you leave on potential consumers that brings them back as customers.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Community Lifecycle: How to Prevent Evaporative Cooling from Eroding an Online Community

Evaporative Cooling, a termed coined by Eliezer Yudowskyis the natural loss of user base on a community, tare if you will. Time, crises and change will contribute to Evaporative Cooling. It can't be prevented, but it can be slowed and managed. In response to a question on Quora, I detailed a few steps to identifying, managing and modulating Evaporative Cooling on an online community.

How to Prevent Evaporative Cooling from Eroding an Online Community

1. Acknowledge Community Lifecycle

2. Passion At The Top to Ignite Passion at the Bottom

3. Reward Users With Rewards, Not Rank

4. Architectural Flexibility = Good, Managerial Flexibility  = Better 


1. Acknowledge Community Lifecycle

There is no way to "prevent" Evaporative Cooling (EC) in an online community completely. 

Your active user base will ebb and flow over time. Incremental growth may or may never lead to an explosion of popularity, but tare will exist with every new generation that joins the community, because people's priorities change and technology changes over time. What is a passionate interest now could become a vague interest later. Technology will change and no matter how innovative a community architecture is right now, at some point it will be old-school or obsolete. Not updating the technology means you'll lose people - updating the technology means you'll lose people. Keeping the group small and intimate means you'll lose people. Opening the community up means you'll lose people.

The key to keeping a community alive has a lot to do with keeping the currently engaged users engaged. In part, this can be achieved by...

2. Passion At The Top to Ignite Passion at the Bottom

I'm speaking here as owner and moderator of 4 concurrent communities, all based around an interest - not a hobby even, merely an interest. Of course people come and go in this interest space and in the more than ten years I've been running these communities, the thing that sustains me - and the communities - is that we all still enjoy the topic. My passion for it communicates to some degree in everything I do on these communities. My communities give warm welcomes to other fans, who find their enthusiasm rewarded.

In communities I haven't run, but have had the pleasure of moderating for, when the passion at the top cools, the community congeals almost instantly. Community builders that choose moderators so they can play with the architecture, cede control to people who don't have their vision or their passion. Moderation becomes a "thing to be done" not a "thing that keeps our community thriving." (1) (See point 3 for more on this.)

To slow one's own EC, one must acknowledge the limits of one's own passion - and energy. Like any community leader, I go through phases of burnout, or if there is simply less to talk about, I let the conversation ebb. Ebb tide is not an irreversible trend on a community, a blog or even in a conversation. When I've been blogging with frequency and intensity, I often take a few days off to let the audience - and myself - have a break. When I come back to it, my readership jumps. The same is true with a community. Short breaks in news/updates allow for a more relaxed approach when one returns - time for chat, personal opinion and other less quantifiable discussions that make up a community. Or a pattern of small news/chit-chat can be excited by big news or broader topics. 

The more passion a leader brings to the community, the more passion the community will generate.

3. Reward Users With Reward, not Rank (2)

I cannot stress enough how critical this point is.

It's time for a story. Two, in fact. In both cases, I was a Admin-level member after rising through the ranks by just being a good contributor and relatively unflappable.

The story is very similar in both cases. In the first case, there was a member of the group who offered to take charge of one of the committees. She was a horrible leader; selfish, mean and lazy. Everything she touched withered and died. She was so bad, that even the people above her left because she was loud and intractable and it just wasn't worth the energy. When the person above her left, invariably she would be given that position. No one at the executive level would be the bad guy and tell her to get lost (in part because this was a volunteer community, in part because of who was chosen to lead.) She rose through the ranks, more quickly as time went on, because the higher she got, the more people had to work with her and more would leave.

Ultimately, in the first case, the person took over the community and - no surprise at all - within a year the community was dead.

In the second case, a top user was rewarded with rank, because she was online so often. The community owners relied on this person for feedback but there were no checks and balances to her intel or actions. Her misinformation was the only information the owners received and like idiots, they relied on that. The problem was that the reason she was online so often was that she was conducting a cyber-affair with another user (who was a major contributor of money, which translated to rank on the community.) The two of them formed a block that abused, harassed and destroyed other users they felt were a threat.

In the first case, rather than dealing with the problem, that person was given power. In the second, the community owners used hours logged as a metric for valuable contributor. In both cases, the community owners set the community up for massive EC as the community members were disengaged and occasionally, active persecuted, by people who unsuited to hold any power at all.

In both cases, I pointed out the fallacies behind the appointment, but The Powers That Be chose to pretend nothing was wrong. I did not stick around long.

How can this problem be rectified? Understand that the #1 value good contributors are making is not their presence, not the hours they log, not their experience. Good contributors contribute good content. Rewarding them by giving them management tasks which will suck away their energy and desire to contribute is the perfect recipe for EC. It's the Peter Principle, online community style.

When I created a reward program for one of my communities, I focused on rewards that reinforced the "team" aspect of user support. Rather than adding on burdensome responsibility, they are rewarded for what they already do, the way they already do it. Time is not an issue. Amount of money spent is not really a major factor. Power is taken out of the equation entirely. The point of a reward is to make someone feel rewarded. (3)

By using Rank as a Reward, you disincentivize your top users to use. Their time on the site becomes unpaid work, their voice becomes the Voice of Authority, so it's harder for them to kick back and have fun. Many sites give rank without power or tools to maintaiin order- a veritable death spiral for online community moderation. Additionally, training for Moderators is poor or non-existent on many communities. The end result is that your best users are too frustrated and tired to contribute. 

There is no faster was to kill a community than by using Rank as a Reward for contribution. It is the major EC generator.

4. Architectural Flexibility = Good, Managerial Flexibility  = Better

In the article quoted, the focus is more on the technology than the people. It is absolutely a benefit to be able to adapt to the times. Adding social sharing and alternate means of communication, providing spaces for digression and dissension (warrens) and open fora for conversation are a fantastic way to slow down EC.

Even better is management that acknowledges mission/scope drift and is as transparent as possible (4) when changes are made or have to happen. "We're adding a new feature because we want to try it out" is something that community builders can (and should) say. Users may or may not try the new feature out - this, and what they have to say about it when they do use it, is valuable feedback. When a new control has to be rolled out, the best way to explain that is to say just that. "We had to do this because...." Engaged users will understand. Don't be coy, "Hey we made new changes that will take away something you liked because we did." Are there so many cases of something that a new rule was warranted? Say that and say it plainly.

Users believe they ought to have some say in a community by virtue of their time and engagement. Management has to make decisions based on the greater good and the bottom line. But surely there's a way to bring these two things together? Harness the insight of new users, casual users and heavy users in regards to community change  - and publish these findings so people can feel as if they were represented, heard and understood. In the volatile start-up world more=better, so it's understandable that changes will be rapid and constant. Can you think of any community anywhere, online or off, that likes change? People get used to what they get used to and they adapt very quickly, but they do not realize this. Every change, no matter how ultimately important, will increase EC...unless you include the community in that change.

It's easy for engineers to tinker with architecture, it's far more important for community managers to tinker with community engagement.

5. Conclusion.

While Evaporative Cooling is a fact of online community life and cannot be prevented or avoided, it can be slowed and managed. Understanding which aspects of community life are the most vulnerable to EC, establishing a rhythm to harness the ebb and flow of community life, maintaining engagement, rewarding contribution, providing tools for moderation and flexibility in management can decrease EC over the long-term. 

More reading:

1. Perils and Pitfalls of Online Community Management by Erica Friedman on 'Splaining: The Bloarg

2.Moderation: Policing, Curation and Shoveling Behind Elephants by Erica Friedman on 'Splaining: The Bloarg

3. When a Reward Program Feels Like a Slap

4The Myth of Transparency in a Community by Erica Friedman on 'Splaining: The Bloarg

Erica Friedman has been managing online communities since the olden days of BBS. She was a moderator on Usenet, and has owned, adminned or moderated about 2 dozen communities online. She currently own and runs 4 communities.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Heart of Social Media - and the Key to Unlocking It

Hey you. Yes, you. Your Social Media strategy isn't working is it? Takes too much time, you end up dealing with customer complaints mostly, you don't really see the point, right? Forget ROI, you're not seeing ROAnything.

Well, I have something important to tell you.This isn't just another "why companies suck at Social Media post", although yes, we'll be starting there.

The heart of Social Media is the ability to express mutual admiration.

Okay, so what? There's plenty of things that express appreciation. Greeting cards, 15% off discount coupons, televised award shows...

Only those aren't really mutual at all. Think of Sally Field's iconic Academy Award speech, "You like me, you really like me!" The Academy did indeed like her that year and she liked that they liked her (after years of pretty much ignoring her existence.) A discount coupon is a carrot to get the horse into your barn. These may have mutual benefit, but they are not expressions of mutual admiration.

Customer A: "I love this store. You guys are always friendly and you always have just what I need."

Store Owner: "Thanks! We try our best."

There's nothing wrong with this answer, but it could be better.

Store Owner: "Thanks! We try our best, and we couldn't do it without great customers like you."

By expressing *mutual* admiration, the store owner acknowledges the important place the customer has in the process.

Online, way too many companies forget the mutual aspect of Social Media. A company might thank customers for complimenting them. They may offer to help customers with problems...but how many companies on Social Media think to thank their customers?

Take your Social Media up a notch and make it mutual. That's the key to unlocking the "social" part of Social Media.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Yes, Less Can Be More in Customer Service

There have been many studies about how small rewards create less pressure and instill more creativity and receptiveness. The Candle Problem is the one I refer to the most: 

As I so often do, I'll resort to parable.

Parable 1: On my older blog, which deals with an extremely narrow niche of a niche, I created the "Hero program," in which people who buy an item off my Wish List for me to review get the least of all possible rewards - a jpeg image of a badge. This program took off so quickly that there are times I'm pressed to keep items on my list...and I had to create a premium tier for people who wouldn't stop giving me things!

The point here wasn't that I was giving them meaningful physical rewards, but that I was giving them recognition. I'll come back to that in a moment.

Parable 2: I recently called up an airline to request an upgrade for my upcoming trip. I am flying with my wife and while I have barely-elite status, she has none. The CSR said, "You'll be upgraded first, then she will, if there's room." I replied, very slowly and calmly, "But you're going to do *everything* in your power to make sure we both get upgraded, right?" And I kept on her until she actually said those words back to me.

Which brings me to my actual point. Customer Service has two key components:

  • What you do for people


  • How you do it

What you give people is the actual reward. Whether it is a little gesture of thanks, or a new car, the reward itself is only as important as the feeling of "seriously, we appreciate you" that the customer gets from it.

Truly frequent fliers probably don't notice anymore when they get upgraded...they expect it, demand it, feel that they've earned it. It's their due, not a gesture of appreciation for their business.

How you do a thing is 99% of the impact of excellent Customer Service. Is what you're giving a true expression of gratitude for the customer's business and support? Or is your loyalty program instead of a true expression of gratitude? 

My Heroes know that I appreciate them...from the bottom of my heart. The badge is worthless, my sincere and heartfelt appreciation is priceless. And they know that.

In Parable 2, had the CSR said those words - even if she was lying - to me the first time, I would have felt much more appreciated than when she responded with "well,I don't know...there's not much I can do." 

When I call a business that I've supported for years and say, hey, can I get a coupon or something, the wrong response is "well, we don't have anything like that." The right response is to offer something, anything. "Of course, ma'am! If you come in today, we'll give you...." It absolutely doesn't matter how small the thing is, it's not the the thing I care about. It's the way the thing is presented. What I'm actually asking for is that you recognize and appreciate me and my business.

So, if an airline says, "We see that you've flown with us three times this month and we just wanted to say 'thanks,'  so here's a free drink coupon for you." It's worth, what, $6? But it would make me feel good. Like someone noticed me. I feel that my contribution is recognized.

Providing customers with a pleasant feeling of recognition for their business is the very least thing and the most effective thing you can and should do for good customer service.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Moderation: Policing, Curation and Shoveling Behind Elephants

A new tenant moves into a community, notices that the grass has been trimmed, the kids are playing in the street without fear of being run over, and every Friday, there's a BBQ for the residents.

How does that happen? Well, resident fees are high enough to pay for regular maintenance, people obey the posted rules and they all chip in for the weekly affair with money, time, or supplies.

That sounds idyllic, but in reality it's just as likely for new residents to chafe at the rules, and work harder to find ways around paying the fees, and be annoyed by the constant clipping of the grass.

In online communities the secret ingredient to a peaceful life is almost always good moderation.

Good moderation looks awfully like the secret police to those members of communities who just can't manage to follow rules. Transparency in moderation always sounds good but involving the entire community in moderation only produces good policy when the community is small and there is a consensus of purpose. Once the community grows larger than the founders it's almost impossible to maintain that consensus.

Moderators, like the police, have an unpleasant job and no one likes them for doing it. They have to be parents, expressing disappointment at bad behavior, reprimanding when the behavior escalates and, ultimately punishing when it becomes untenable.


In a library, collection librarians are tasked with managing the size and content of the collection. They know the space limitations, budget constraints and what their community needs from them. This is not an abstract concept - a library filled with classic literature, when the community around it needs employment resources is a terrible mismatch. The gap would harm the library as much as the community.

Moderators, like librarians, have to have awareness of what the community wants from the community. If the majority of the community likce having a nice library, as unpopular a decision as it is, Moderators will have to remove Playboy magazine from the shelves. This may mean keeping tabs on "joke answers" or memes as answers because, while they entertain, they lessen the overall quality of the community. Not surprisingly, while the community wants a nice community, if they are the one posting the joke answer, it still hurts to get slapped.

And then there's times of crisis. On online communities, crisis looks like nothing at all to people who are not involved, the end times to people who are and the inevitable "this community sucks now" to people on the sidelines.

To Moderators, who have to escort anti-social, perpetually angry/dissatisfied or microaggressive members off the community and, to the best of their ability, clean up the mess afterwards - all while taking heat from people who don't really know the details - it looks exactly like the parade does from behind the elephants.


Moderators are unloved by nearly everyone, but essential to the functioning of a healthy community. Because Moderators are human, it's smart for a community Owner not to give them unlimited personal power, and require a certain amount of checks and balances from them before drastic measures are taken.

But if you've ever wondered how an online community can keep the lawns trimmed and hold a Friday BBQ, that's a good time to reach out and thank the Moderators.

Project Wonderful