Building Strong Product Communities

Strong communities can make an enormous difference to the success or failure of a product or technology. Look at Linux, or VMware as good examples of a strong community. But why do they matter, and how can Product Managers encourage community formation?

What Defines a Strong Community?

The most important part of a strong community is end-users helping other end-users. A product, or technology takes on a life of its own, and people within the community start extending a product, helping other users, writing documentation, providing valuable feedback, and even become product evangelists. All for free. This is a dream to all Product Managers - when a product becomes an eco-system, and becomes self-sustaining.

Relevance to Selecting Products

When evaluating products for customers or my own networks, one of the criteria I look at is the community surrounding that product. I give this a significant weighting in my evaluation criteria. Where strong communities exist, I know it will be faster to solve my problems (Google has lots of answers), easier to find skilled people, and if engagement is high, I know the vendor will be working hard to rapidly improve their products.

If the community appears weak or non-existent, I get concerned that it will be hard to fix problems (Google isn’t going to help), and that I will need to pay a lot for product specialists. I also get worried that all the communications are between Product Managers and a handful of extremely large customers. They have some very specific niche requirements, and they end up pushing the product in a direction that is inappropriate for the vast bulk of customers. Look at any of the Big Four monitoring platforms for the results of this - bloated, over-priced, over-complex solutions that are difficult to deploy, and solve the 1% “hard” problems, but not the 99% “easy” problems.

How Can Companies Create a Strong Community?

If you’re a Product Manager, and you think that it’s important to build a community around your product, how can you help it happen? Here’s some ideas:

  • Open Access: Provide open access to documentation, trial versions of software, and emulators (if possible). Use registration if you must, but don’t lock documentation behind support contracts - there’s no competitive advantage in restricting access to your documentation. Engineers should be able to easily download your software too. We don’t like talking to sales people, so don’t force us to go through that charade.
  • Open Forums: You don’t have to run forums on your own site - they could operate independently. But you should encourage open conversation. Let them operate with a relatively free voice. Get your own staff to actively participate and engage the community. Help out when people post questions. OK, so they don’t have a support contract…but they’re trying to use your product, so help them if you can.
  • Engagement: Try to engage with people who are using your product. Look at how you use Twitter - do you just broadcast a stream of press releases, or do you have real people running your accounts, who actively engage in conversations? Reach out to people in the community who are trying to work with your product - e.g. those participating in forums, or writing blog posts. Help them where you can.
  • Listen: This is related to the previous item - be prepared to listen to what people are saying, and take constructive criticism in the right way. If people are out there talking about issues with your products, and ways they can be improved, they may have a point.
  • Encourage Sharing: When people create interesting enhancements or customisations to your product, you want them to be able to share these in an easy way, that is consistent and repeatable. Let’s say someone has created an integration between your NMS and Cisco switches. That could be really useful to other people - so you want to make sure they can share it easily - e.g. by downloading a settings file, that others can upload. Versioning systems help a lot here too. You don’t want people to have to describe, with screenshots, the 15 steps they went through to create it. Inconsistent, hard to repeat, and discourages people from sharing their configs. ScienceLogic’s PowerApps do this very well - they make it simple to share your work, encouraging further improvement from the rest of the community.

These ideas on their own don’t guarantee that a strong community will form - your product might be too niche, or it might not be good enough. But the ideas above should help remove impediments to forming a community of helpful, committed users.