In the good old days of community building, it was pretty common for top industry experts to share their best knowledge in hosted brand communities.
They published blog posts, detailed guides, videos, and photos.
But that doesn’t happen as much anymore. There are too many other platforms where people can share knowledge and build their audience.
This has resulted in a lot of struggling ‘success’ communities and empty knowledge bases. The problem is times have changed and the strategies for too many communities haven’t.
If we want experts to engage and contribute to communities (and prevent the evaporative cooling effect), we need to change our strategies and rethink our notion of community.
Who Shares Expertise In Communities?
To be honest, ‘experts’ is about as useful a term as ‘millenials’ to describe a group of people. It’s too broad to identify any meaningful shared traits or approaches.
This often results in ‘experts’ being invited to share in the wrong manner, for the wrong benefits, or contribute the wrong kind of information to any community.
So let’s break ‘experts’ down to the three specific groups of people who you’re most likely to target.
Like us, you should build out different approaches for each of these in your strategies.
1) Partners / consultants / freelancers.
The simple truth is the people most likely to share expertise (beyond just answering questions) in professional communities are the people who can best convert attention into dollars. This means audiences who sell to your customers. In most cases, this means partners, consultants, and freelancers.
This audience is usually looking to build their reputation. Their motivation is high and they have plenty of knowledge to share. It’s no surprise that in most successful ‘success’ communities, it’s partners/consultants who are doing the most work.
These folks can share guides, ideas, and perspectives from working with multiple organizations within the same industry. Success communities should commit 60 to 70% of their time to nurturing these groups to engage (in a manner that isn’t irritatingly promotional).
2) Industry veterans.
Industry veterans are people who work at mid to senior levels of an organization and have several years of direct experience with the product/service/topic.
It’s harder to engage this group because their motivation to share expertise is lower. They don’t immediately benefit. And because they’re often restricted in what they’re allowed to say. Sometimes they simply don’t want to share their lessons with competitors.
In addition, they often have a narrow lane of expertise from a single organization and can’t easily identify which lessons can be generalized to other organizations. However, this audience can excel in one particular area which is popular with other members; case studies.
They can share exactly what they did, what worked, what didn’t work and help you build up a database of great use cases and examples.
3) Senior Execs / VIPs.
This audience consists of C-level folks at large companies and (some top VIPs / influencers) in the sector). We’re talking about the elite of the elite here. The very people who would never lower themselves to write a guest blog post because the benefit is too small to consider.
It’s critically important when you engage this group to remember they are often several layers removed from doing anything tactical/practical. I often see these folks at conferences presenting ideas to an audience that, frankly, knows a heck of a lot more than them.
However, this audience is incredibly useful at contributing broader strategic ideas, industry-related thoughts, recommended partners, and things like big trends in the industry.
It’s important to know when you begin this process which kind of expert you’re targeting and what they can best contribute to your community.
What Motivates Experts To Share Their Knowledge?
If you want experts to participate, you need to understand what experts want when they share knowledge.
Sure, some might do it because they feel like it (and want to help). But that’s relying upon luck – and luck isn’t a great strategy.
In my experience, you’re far more successful if you identify what each group wants and offer them opportunities to gain exactly this.
The benefits vary by the type of expert, but they’re usually a combination of reach, scarcity, trust, and frequency as you can see below:
Generally speaking, experts want to become better known amongst a large audience or to build deeper relationships amongst a small audience. This typically benefits people personally and professionally.
For example, if you’re a partner/consultant, you can use social media, publish blogs *ahem*, or create as many podcasts as you like to build trust amongst your audience. But at some point, if you want to grow you need to reach an audience you don’t already reach. This is where you might participate in webinars, guest posts, and giving conference talks that can be shared in a community.
Likewise, if you’re an industry veteran, you can build reach for your work by engaging in high-frequency activities or, if you’re lucky, participating in high-scarcity but widely seen activities like major conference talks, news appearances etc…
And if you’re a VIP, being invited to invite-only gatherings/events is your preferred channel.
You’re most likely to respond to requests which let you impress peers, improve your organization’s standing, or directly earn money (e.g. speaking fees). The most common example of this are high-prestige events facilitated by individuals or organizations with a powerful brand name.
You can see more specific examples of what each group of experts wants in the table below.
A critical part of your strategy is to make sure you’re offering audiences what they actually want. If you don’t get this right, nothing else really matters.
Where Do Experts Share Their Best Expertise Today?
If you’ve got some great expertise to share, would you share it as a poorly formatted forum thread that would appear alongside every other thread published that day (and quickly disappear off the page?).
Or will you publish it on your own blog or social media account where you can build an audience? Or as a guest article on a popular site where it will be seen by thousands of people?
This is the problem for most customer success communities, there are simply far more (and far better) channels for people to share expertise than in a traditional community experience.
If you want to build a community with experts sharing great advice, the first lesson is you have to incorporate the channels they want to use, not waste your time trying to persuade them to use the channels you want them to use.
This means recognising that some channels are naturally better for sharing particular kinds of expertise.
You can see the most common below.
However, each type of expert also prefers different channels to share different kinds of expertise.
Outside of the tech world, for example, most CEOs don’t waste their time writing long twitter threads to share their expertise. They prefer private peer groups instead. Likewise, industry veterans don’t tend to have their own blog, they share their knowledge when invited in webinars and other channels.
You can see a table of the different channels different groups use to share expertise today below.
This isn’t definitive. Partners and consultants, for example, almost certainly want to do keynote talks/attend invite-only groups (and often do both!). Likewise, senior execs and VIPs can occasionally be tempted to participate in webinars and podcasts if the size of the audience or the prestige of the audience is big enough.
However, it does highlight the primary channels each group either prefers to use or has the ability to use to share knowledge. And we should use these primary channels to build our strategy.
Now we know who the experts are, what they want, what they can offer, and the best channels to engage them, we can bring this into a simple overview below.
If you want to engage experts and build a truly vibrant success (or thought leadership) community, you need to be clear about the best value an expert can offer, understand what they want, and select the best channels to engage them within the community.
This gives us the contours of our strategies, but it doesn’t fully identify the right tactics to engage each of them.
Examples Of Successful Tactics To Engage Experts
It’s one thing to see all the elements pieced together in the table above, it’s another thing entirely to develop the right tactics and approaches to make this work.
If your current tactics aren’t successful, it’s usually either:
1) What you’re asking experts to do requires too much effort. This is common when you create a knowledge base/wiki and expect experts to spend hours of their time creating content for it. It’s probably just not going to happen. The effort is too high. So you need to help them with the heavy lifting (more on that shortly).
2) The perceived rewards are too low to justify the effort. This is common when you want experts to share a testimonial video or spend hours participating in events with tiny audiences. The reach or prestige simply isn’t high enough to make it worthwhile.
The ‘Is it Worth It?’ Line
You can think of an ‘is it worth it?’ line going through the effort vs. reward chart as shown below:
Some common tactics clearly fall on the right side of that line and some fall on the wrong side of that line.
But the real art of what we do here is to make a few simple adjustments to some common tactics and see how reducing the effort or increasing the reward can change everyone.
High-Reward Tactics To Engage Experts To Contribute Knowledge
As we’ve seen, increasing the reward is all about increasing the reach or prestige (scarcity) of the benefit.
Imagine you want your best customers to share a case study of how they use your product. You could try asking them to write an article or record a testimonial, but it’s not clear how it helps them. But what if you increase the prestige by:
- Building a showcase of your top 5 customers. Tell your best customers they’ve been selected. Can they share an article explaining what they did and how well it worked and you will promote it widely.
- Letting all customers nominate themselves for ‘customer of the year’ award. They have to share a case study with results (or even find industry awards they may want to nominate themselves for).
- Featuring experts. Invite a consultant to become a ‘featured expert’ in the community with a monthly column sharing examples and best practices.
- Hosting a monthly showcase. Invite the expert to share their example and take questions in a monthly ‘best of’ showcase.
- Inviting experts to an exclusive gathering. Each person will share their case study with a small group of peers and learn from one another.
- Paying the expert a fee for sharing their case study. You can pay a flat rate or, sometimes better, pay based upon the level of traffic it receives each month (this incentivises the expert to share it widely).
You get the idea. The same tactics can be turned from a failure into a success simply by improving the reward you offer.
It’s a contrary idea but limiting who can share expertise often increases the prestige of it and attracts more knowledge. If you have an article featured in ProjectManagement.com for example, that’s a big deal – but it has to be good!.
It’s also important to be mindful that as people grow their audience or prestige, their cost-benefit equation is likely to change for them.
In the early days of building FeverBee, it made sense to say yes to every opportunity possible. We needed to get our name out there. These days, we need to be more discerning and balance the reward against the effort.
It’s still worth investing dozens of hours in a keynote talk seen by hundreds of key people in the industry. It might be less worthwhile to spend hours on activities that have low reach (or reach the types of audience which we’re not trying to support).
Engaging Experts Through Low-Effort Tactics
The other approach is to make it easier for experts to participate in the community. If you want consultants and partners sharing advice for example, there are plenty of interesting ways you can make it easier for them to do that. For example:
- Asking to repurpose their existing content. Reach out to people who have created popular content in the past and ask if you can republish (or at least include parts of it) with a link back to them. Often experts have a huge back catalogue of great content which isn’t getting any attention (but hasn’t been seen by newcomers in the industry). The Community Leadership Institute is one example of this.
- Aggregating ‘tagged’ content by experts. You might ask experts to tag social media content or blog posts that you can include in your community. Platforms like BazaarVoice, Mavrck, Fohr, Aspire, Olapic, and many others can provide a range of different services for this. FentyBeauty is one example of this in action. Sephora, a past client, even includes this kind of user-generated content on product pages. You will need to filter and approve contributions like this.
- Invite experts to webinars/interviews and turn it into articles. This is where you record a session with an expert (to an audience) and then you take on the hard work of turning this into a great article. It’s more work, but it’s a win-win (they’re more likely to promote it too). Since this is demand-driven, you can also build up a list of key topics from your audience and build articles on each one.
- Creating an advice/opinion round-up. Less common these days, but you can find a topic your audience wants to know more about – ask a group of experts for their best advice on the topic, and publish the results.
This isn’t a comprehensive list by any means, but you get the idea. If you want more participation, you can reduce the effort required.
Creating A Plan To Engage Experts In Your Community
Once you understand all the elements that make a success community tick, you can begin building out the strategic plan.
You will notice that this is goal-driven with clear objectives, targets, channels, and benefits.
Once you have all this in place you can determine the best technology to use. This is the ultimate goal of the process; to create a plan which is aligned with current trends and members needs to deliver the most value to your community.
What Should A Great ‘Success’ Community Look Like?
As you might have noticed, a big requirement of this approach is often being more flexible about how knowledge is integrated within a community. Right now, the typical approach is perhaps best personified within knowledge bases like the one from Anaplan below:
This is probably one of the more successful knowledge bases. But even this only attracts a handful of contributions per year because the reward/benefit ratio isn’t high enough.
You will need to visit the site or open the full image to really understand what’s happening here. But it’s very clearly a community-driven content site (and maybe the best ‘success’ community out there today). The difference is the presentation and permeance of the content.
Long-term, I think a ‘success’ community needs to move beyond a single hosted platform and include a combination of:
- Links to featured experts in the industry (in exchange for their contributions).
- Aggregated content from across the web in newsletters and on the site (The Overflow does this well)
- Aggregated social media content which is getting a lot of attention.
- Regularly hosted events and activities with top experts (which are recorded and converted into knowledge articles).
- Case studies created by industry veterans in exchange for awards (and rewards).
- Invite-only peer group with senior execs.
- Recommended resources and courses by top experts.
Not all of this can be integrated into a standard knowledge-base section of a community. Instead a ‘success’ community will thrive when it resembles a content-driven site created by a community like UXMastery (below) rather than a traditional forum.
This includes a forum but the focus is on member-driven content and providing a definitive set of resources for anyone interested in the topic.
If you want to build a community that features member-driven content, you might have to completely rethink what your community should look like and how it serves the audience and creators.
Examples and Resources
- The Overflow Newsletter
- The Economist Events
p.s. If you want help to build your community strategy, let us know.