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Listening skills crucial for online community managers

Listening to users and giving them the social platform software they want is crucial for online community managers.

When unpopular software cost Jason Williams his online community, he went on a search for social platform software that would win them back.

Williams is the online community manager for users of WhatsUp Gold, network management software from Lexington, Mass.-based Ipswitch Inc. The forum started as a place for users to discuss technical problems and best practices with little supervision from the company. But when Ipswitch tried to refocus the conversation with new software, users balked.

Advice for community managers

  • Listen to your audience
  • Don't force unwanted technology on community members
  • Make your platform inclusive, not exclusive

"We had a pretty thriving community of users that were highly active on the forums. We simply hosted the platform, there wasn't any formal moderation by Ipswitch," Williams explained. Four years ago, Ipswitch decided to launch a new community platform using software from HiveLive, a company that has was later acquired by RightNow Technologies Inc. and then Oracle Corp. Williams said the platform was launched and then ignored internally. The company assumed that forum participants would flock to the new bells and whistles, but that was not the case.

"Once it was rolled out and pushed live, that community of people basically went back to their other jobs and moved away from the community site," he said.

Two years later, the forums were essentially dead. What little activity was left on them came from dedicated and vocal members who made it clear that the HiveLive platform had to go. Williams said that's when Ipswitch decided it needed to make the forum a priority. The company established the position of community manager and Williams got the job.

"The first thing I did was start to work with the community members and talk to them," he said. "They were highly dissatisfied with the platform itself, and when I started poking around as an admin, I was too."

His first assignment was finding a platform that forum members would use. He started the search for a new platform in August 2010, with the goal of going live by March 2011.

Engaging the community: The problem and the answer

Williams started exploring the options on his own. The company did not want to return to simple forums, which is what the community had been using in its heyday. Ipswitch wanted a social platform so they could interact with forum members as well as gauge what they were discussing.

The feedback from forum members about the current platform was clear. The three biggest issues were that it simply didn't work a lot of the time, there was little ability to customize the look and feel of the site, and there was no way to reward members with badges or titles.

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The first companies Williams looked at as replacements were Jive Software Inc., Telligent Systems and Mzinga.

"They had all the features we were looking for, but they came with six-figure price tags. That was way out of the scope of our budget to do something here," Williams said. He investigated doing the project internally, building it off an open-source platform or even from scratch, but decided that it would not be feasible from a time or cost perspective.

Eventually the process was narrowed down to Kitchener, Ontario-based Igloo Software and Oklahoma City-based ONEsite. Williams said both had features they liked, but what distinguished Igloo from the rest were its document management capabilities and the company's willingness to help customize the platform.

Ipswitch wanted to be able to make its key documents -- whitepapers, technical specifications and instruction manuals -- easily searchable, and Igloo could make that happen. Williams added that Igloo's promise to build a reputation platform, a way for community managers to reward active users with badges, within a short timeframe was critical to his decision.

Implementation and platform building

Williams and the Igloo design team worked together to hit the March 2011 launch deadline, taking a little under four months to design and build the new platform. He added that Igloo delivered on its promise to create the reputation platform a month later.

The new platform managed to exceed the usage levels of Ipswitch's original forums within a few months. Membership was a little over 2,000 four years ago. About 7,000 members are active on the forum as of last September.

Williams is continuing to work with Igloo on adding analytics and reporting to the platform, a driving force in Ipswitch's decision to go with a social platform over simple forums. Igloo partnered with business intelligence company MicroStrategy Inc. for social analytics and reporting, with Williams participating in the beta test group.

Adam Riglian is a news writer with Follow him on Twitter @AdamRiglian.

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