Making It Personal: How to Build Valuable Discussions in Your Community Program

Influitive

We’ve heard it before: In successful organizations, the customer drives everything. If the customer isn’t at the forefront of everything we do as a company, then we run the risk of falling prey to our competitors. As B2B marketers, we say we know this—but do we actually live by it? With our community programs at Viewpoint, we’ve made it central to our mission.


Viewpoint is a construction software industry leader offering integrated construction accounting and project management software and solutions. Our goal is to provide solutions to contractors and construction companies of all sizes, that allow them to connect their back-office operations with the field and extended project teams, enabling collaboration and a seamless flow of cross-project data in real time.


My story at Viewpoint is also the story of how we started using Influitive's AdvocateHub. I started with Dexter & Chaney, the creators of Spectrum one of Viewpoint’s ERP solutions, who brought me on in January 2017 to launch and bring to life an advocacy program and online customer community. I had to set it up, implement it, and push it to Spectrum customers. Fast-forward to July of 2017: Viewpoint acquired Dexter & Chaney, and Spectrum along with it. As a result, Viewpoint gained another main ERP system.


Between July of 2017 and May of last year, I concentrated on building our community (our “hub”) for Spectrum using AdvocateHub, following my original mandate. It turned out to be a great test case because I learned so much about our Specturm customers’ successes, struggles, and their expectations for this community.


Then, in mid-May of 2018, we did something interesting and maybe a bit unconventional: We opened our community up to Vista customers. But, instead of keeping Vista and Spectrum customers isolated, we found ways to bring them together to forge and strengthen relationships with industry peers. Even if they use different ERP systems, they might use the same ancillary products and they certainly experience similar pain points in the industry as a whole. Additionally, connecting these customer bases allows them to talk about the construction industry hot topics, such as: the labor shortage and best practices for addressing it, and how construction companies are preparing for a possible recession in 2020. 


There’s a knock-on effect here: Our customers learn from one another, Viewpoint learns about the challenges our customers face, and how we can fine-tune our products and solutions to their need. Finally, it sets Viewpoint up as an industry leader because this isn’t open to just anyone. You have to become a Viewpoint customer to get the benefits of our community and keep up to speed on the latest topics in our industry.


In this story, I’ll guide you through how I set up our advocacy program and dive into specifics of how I run one of our greatest tools for engagement: Discussions. 

Think Bigger and Set Higher Goals for Your Community Hub

Before we talk about strategies, we have to understand what we want to achieve. I thought it was important to build a community hub for Viewpoint for a few reasons: customer success, retention, and demand generation.


I see it happen again and again: customers who are very early in their journey with Viewpoint, maybe having just implemented the software, start getting active in the discussion forums. They don’t know a whole lot about everything Viewpoint does, but they want to learn. What can we as a company do to ensure their success?


Of course, we send them weekly pro-tips, industry articles, and best practices, but we also hold live discussion forums where they have the opportunity to access a lot of different teams at Viewpoint through the hub. It gives customers a community where they can connect with Viewpoint in a truly unique way, because they’re accessing all parts of the company, not just me.

When building a customer community, give your customers access to your entire company—not just CS.


When it comes to demand generation, the platform is very important for the sales organization. Our program provides them with the referrals, references, and reviews they need to close new business. I have salespeople coming to me all the time looking for specific kinds of product references, and we have this amazing community of customers who have already raised their hands to speak to potential customers. We see 50 reference hand raises—for both Spectrum and Vista—per quarter. And we get 20 quarterly referrals for each product as well. Through the hub, we’ve given them a place where they can come together and have opportunities to speak about their experience, share their expertise, and expand their professional networks.


I do have strict ground rules for when I invite other internal teams at Viewpoint into the hub. This is not a selling tool. It’s not to be used for business development. I say to my colleagues: “If you want to learn about how customers communicate with one another or what their pain points are, the hub is a really great way to be a fly on the wall and hear the customer voice firsthand.” 


Then, on the flip side, we get to thank and reward customers for their help. Without a program like AdvocateHub, thanking and rewarding is much harder because it’s done manually. We like to surprise our customers, so if they’re not expecting anything, getting that $25 gift card in their inbox is a real delight. It’s a warm, fuzzy feeling they get from this big company.


This brings me to one of the most valuable parts of our community from the customer’s perspective: our discussions. 


My goals for the discussions have morphed over time. Originally, I thought the discussions would connect customers with their peers and help one another with these real-world scenarios by sharing the ways they use Viewpoint software. This in turn would deflect support tickets. And the thing is, AdvocateHub does reduce the number of cases sent to our support team. A customer will throw out a specific question, and five other customers will chime in: “This is how we handled that” or “Have you tried this?”


But what I realized from those discussions is we should think bigger and set our goals higher. Customers value the community itself: the opportunity to connect with one another as well as Viewpoint, to have their voices heard, and even impact the development of our products. 


There’s a clear value-add for them, though that value can be difficult to express as something Viewpoint monetizes. If I say, “We had X number of reviews that generated Y amount of revenue,” that’s something people within Viewpoint can latch onto. But I don’t want us to lose sight of more intangible aspects of this community that are nonetheless super important, because it’s about what the customer values.


In the next section, I’ll discuss specific tools and strategies I’ve used to catalyze our community.

Going Beyond Basic Discussions

One of our greatest successes is our live discussion forums based on Reddit’s Ask Me Anything (AMA) format. I’ll invite someone from Viewpoint and say, for example, “Hey, community, you will have one hour with our Field Management product expert. Ask them anything.”


Customers took to this format quickly. The questions run the gamut from, “What’s coming down the pipe for HR Management?” to the granular: “I’m running into this problem with AP processing. What’s the best way to solve this?” 


It’s fun for us, too, because it gives our product experts an opportunity to connect with our customers. Often, our product experts get their information from other departments, but these AMA-style interviews give them the opportunity to hear from customers directly. 

Secondhand isn’t good enough. There’s no substitution for interacting directly with your customers.


For the first of these AMAs, which was for Spectrum, I had up to 60 people engaged during the hour, and an additional 100 people passively watching. In the hour after the interview ended, I noticed we were up to 400 views. I then used the hub to set up a recap challenge (a task they need to complete) so I could remind folks about the event: “We know many of you couldn’t participate, but pop over to take a look at the great conversation we had.” Views then jumped to 600. Even months after the live interview, we continue to get upticks in views. We had that success with the Spectrum pilot, but when I introduced it to Vista customers, the audience participation numbers just blew through the roof.


In addition to AMAs, we engage our customers in other ways that go beyond basic discussions. I set a monthly challenge that drives folks to a hot industry topic. Some folks are not quick to jump into the discussions, but when you set a challenge and give them something meaningful to talk about, they get to express their opinion, share their expertise, and earn points.


That’s when they realize how much they’ve missed out on by not participating: “Why don’t I come here more often? There’s all this great information!” For that kind of customer, challenges are a great way to get them involved. I also create a monthly discussion highlights challenge that calls out five to seven new discussion topics where customers want to hear from their peers. It’s a win-win because members get points for their participation and others get their questions answered.


Also, our product marketing team produces tech huddles about what’s new and next for our products. These are quarterly webinars targeting existing customers to share with them what we’re excited about and think will excite them too. The discussion continues past the end of the webinar in the hub in a discussion topic.


About once a month, I’ll ask a question about business tactics, new industry ideas, or up-and-coming advances in technology to gauge community interest in that topic. I might say, “We all hear a lot about advances in AI these days. What applications do you think it has for your business and the industry, and do you want to learn more about it?” 


Based on community response, I may invite a thought leader on that topic to reply directly to customers or do a podcast. We recently had an industry economist who coined tagline was, “Don’t waste a good recession.” We wrote a blog post centered around the main themes of his podcast, and posted to the discussion forum asking our customers how they prepare for a potential economic downturn. In the discussion forum, I linked to the podcast and the blog, so all these tools feed into one another to make for a rich experience.

Be Yourself and Make It Personal

How can you find similar success? One common mistake I see community managers make is they might ask a question around the content in such a way that it doesn’t show the opportunity for the customer to engage with it. Don’t just put content out there and pray someone will respond—consider all the ways you can drill down with that question so that it provides value to the customer if they participate.


When trying to better understand how customers feel about a particular aspect of their work, I’ll actually ask four or five different questions. With each question, I’m trying to get at the same information, but I pose the question in different ways so that the post resonates with a diverse group. To give you an example, how does a question about expense management differ if I’m asking someone at entry-level versus C-suite? When I ask questions, I’m always cognizant of how the post can speak to all levels.

Authenticity engages your community. Show people your passion to jump-start your online discussions.


If I can offer one final word of advice, it’s be authentic. Be who you really are. Let your personality and your passion shine through, because people will pick up on that and respond positively. I have people in the community say to me, “Gosh, you’re working so hard. This thing that you’re doing is so great.” I can’t take all the credit, but what those people pick up on how much I care about this. Authenticity engages your community. If people see how hard you work to make a difference for them, they’re going to want to be that much more of a brand advocate for you.


What being myself means for me personally is sometimes I like to make fun of myself, so if I make a typo, I’ll point it out. Those little things remind everyone of who Viewpoint is. We’re not this faceless money-making machine. We’re people.


With a community program like AdvocateHub, it doesn’t take much to add a personal touch. I will quickly send someone a direct message and say, “Hey, I just read that thing you posted, and it was awesome. Thanks for helping that customer out.” I might perk them a few points too, but just acknowledging them and making that small personal connection can go a long way.


It all comes back to how it’s the customer who drives everything. As community and advocacy managers, we have to listen, and part of that is giving customers a space where they feel safe to share freely. I’m fortunate that we don’t get a lot of negative feedback. When we do, in my view that’s great, because it means people trust us to share what bothers them and it gives us an opportunity to respond quickly. Whether the comment is positive or negative, we can turn it into a positive for our customers. And a positive for our customers is a win for us!