With over 3,000 SXSWi panel submissions this year, picking panels that are interesting and worthwhile can be totally overwhelming. We have helped you out by doing our research and offering suggestions to you. We chose the following set of panels for you to consider based on both the panel topic and the presenters. We hope you’ll hop on the PanelPicker site and give a thumbs up to all of these great sessions. Voting closes September 2, so make your choices heard!

The List

We would be remiss if we didn’t suggest the panels Farland Group put together, so we’ll start with those. Then you will find an additional set of panels that we are looking forward to attending which also promise to be great additions to the SXSWi program.

1. Panels Farland Group submitted for SXSWi this year

While I have been to SXSWi for the past four years, last year, I was on a panel at South by Southwest Interactive for the first time and I had the fortunate opportunity to present with several people I respect in the industry. I learned a lot more from being a panelist than I did from attending any other panel. I did plenty of research on the subject of lurkers in a community and learned from my fellow panelists, as well as from the audience. We had a great discussion and the questions they asked allowed me to further my understanding of how people perceive community members.

Based on this great experience, this year, I submitted a panel and I encouraged my colleagues at Farland Group to submit one as well. Beyond the education we’ll gain from presenting, we are also very excited to have the opportunity to share some of the experiences we have had in community building with an exceptional group of peers, clients and companies.

The community revolving door: staying a step ahead
Some say getting started is the hardest part – and it can be, but often this is a phase of excitement organizationally and a time where everyone is focused on the shiny new toy. Year two, those internal stakeholders are on to the next new thing, your customers are back to their regular day jobs and you are stuck having to push that community rock up the steep hill of engagement. Welcome to the biggest challenge presented by community. From continuing to seek out new members, to finding the next evangelist, membership evolution can be an unexpected challenge, but so is content evolution and most importantly, strategy evolution. The first year or two of your community takes lots of seeding and seeking out content, and fine-tuning core areas of value. While you can’t forget those important elements, your next couple of years will be more about member nurturing and making fine adjustments to the focus of your community based on member interests, engagement, and shifting expectations of value.
Panelists: Heather Strout – Farland Group, Jim Storer – The Community Roundtable, Mike Pascucci – Ektron, Mark Wallace – Environmental Data Resources, Inc. (EDR)

Customer Communities: Connecting to the Future
Companies of all types are beginning to embrace community as a critical channel to integrate the voice of their customer into the business and deepen relationships, co-create new ideas for product or service development and evolution, and collaborate on strategies for business growth. While business communities are still an evolving concept, those that successfully secure deep customer relationships have great potential to disrupt how companies go to market. So what is next for communities in business? Will they become a necessary component for customer-centric competitive advantage? Will they be a commodity? What best practices will emerge as this value-based collaborative approach to the market becomes prevalent? How will communities be used and what does that mean for marketers looking to the future of marketing innovation? We will look at the future of closed versus open communities; insular versus distributed communities; at the evolution of co-creation and crowd-sourcing, and how you can prepare for the evolution.
Panelists: Roanne Neuwirth – Farland Group, Rachel Happe – The Community Roundtable, Daniel Brostek – Aetna, Matt Johnston – uTest

Community Scorecards – Metrics that Matter
You’ve finally launched an online customer community, you have the buy-in of key decision makers and your customers have arrived. Congratulations – now how are you measuring impact? This is a familiar scenario for many community managers and executives who are trying to understand the value of community and how it will have direct impact on their business that is measurable. This session will provide practical lessons and cases on how community managers and leaders are establishing successful scorecards that communicate the value of community to critical stakeholders.
Presenter: Jane Hiscock – Farland Group

Community Management at a Crossroads*
Community management is not a new discipline, but as traditional organizations work to evolve into social businesses, community managers are finding themselves in the spotlight. No longer relegated to back rooms, scanning message boards, community managers are finding their way into the boardroom to help executives understand this dynamic new reality. But community managers can’t claim victory just yet. The same changes that brought them from the back room to the boardroom could send them right back again. Services such as Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and the next great social app (insert name here____________) require community managers to constantly evolve the way they think about their organization in the social space. This panel will discuss how community management continues to evolve and how community managers can stay on top of it all.
Panelists: Jim Storer – The Community Roundtable, Heather Strout – Farland Group, Mike Pascucci – Ektron, Mark Wallace – EDR

*Farland Group didn’t submit this panel but I am a panelist

2. Other panels you should consider giving a thumbs-up

As I said in the beginning, there are lots of great panels out there. We have chosen these for content that is interesting and for the panelists who are compelling. Because SXSW’s panels are crowdsourced, it is up to us to pick panels where we know the panelists will work hard and do their homework to bring us a good presentation. In many cases, I have heard these people speak and I know they’re good. There are a few panels here where I haven’t heard the people speak but I know they have something valuable to say.

Community Management is the New Black
Community managers wear a plethora of hats these days, from community ambassador to storyteller and back again. There is no one job responsibility or hat. Each organization has to find the right mix and balance of hats a community manager must wear, but don’t be mistaken, a single hat does not define the species. Similar to a chameleon, a community manager does not change colors or hats to blend in, but as an act of communication. The position title, community manager, is relatively new, but the role is not new and is evolutionary of the public relations practitioner, customer service representative, and marketing consultant. It is the networks and subsequent transparency of those networks that have changed and will continue to change. Social networks, both online and off, will come and go, yet the conversations making up the content of these networks will remain the same. It is the responsibility, not just the role, of the community manager to participate in the communities of conversations and focus on the people behind the engagement, not the technology. Community management is not the ‘management’ of a community response, but the awareness and educated engagement of the community manager and organization represented. To succeed, community management begins as a mindset, the seed of strategic change and open communication within the business culture, then progresses into unique processes for smart community participation.
Presenter: Lauren Vargas – Aetna

The next Generation of Ideation
Remember when “ideas” sites were all the rage? IdeaStorm, My Starbucks Idea? Media attention to these communities declined, but the communities’ themselves evolved, and the second wave of customer-led innovation is fast-approaching. The panel will explore the first generation of ideation sites, and talk about how they are evolving their ideation communities to take full advantage of the social web, create more meaningful and impactful dialog amongst stakeholders and ensure that ideation is a key activity in their community engagement model. The panel will be punctuated by real-time online ideation activities with attendees. Panelists include social media executives that drove strategy for IdeaStorm, My Starbucks Idea, as well as a key industry analyst.
Presenters: Bill Johnston – Dell, Vida Killan – Starbucks

Community by Accident
Sometimes the best things that happen aren’t planned. The same is true for successful online communities. Facebook started out as a closed network of Ivy League students. Today, it’s a global phenomenon shaping our age. The Spiceworks community was a software engineer’s pet idea that was almost nixed by the CEO. Now it’s the world’s largest community of small business tech professionals. While it’s important to actively care for your community, the most successful flourish by learning how to capitalize on happy accidents. In this session, community experts from Spiceworks will share ways you can recognize and make the most of happy accidents. From picking an orange dinosaur as a mascot to using chili peppers as a rating scale, come learn about all the accidents we’ve had along the way and how we’ve made lemons into lemon hand grenades.
Presenters: Nicholas Tolstoshev – Spiceworks, Tabrez Syed – Spiceworks

Community & Influence: How to not piss people off
Marketing is social. We’re all sold. But how do you maximize your return in social without appearing like a douchebag? One the one hand, top influencers in the social space are the ones who can truly drive action back to your brand. Yet, on the other hand no one likes a brand who refuses to interact with the little person. As social marketing becomes more serious, more serious metrics are being demanded — learn what works and what doesn’t. And what about service — should influence affect whom you help first?
Panelists: Megan Berry – Klout, Evan Hamilton – User Voice, Maria Ogneva – Yammer, Frank Eliason – Citibank

Get Lucky: Create Serendipity to Spur Innovation
Call it chance, luck, or juju, serendipity is the act of unexpectedly finding something of value. It is the muse of innovation and a silent driver of business; consider how Alexander Fleming’s accidental discovery of the antibiotic penicillin revolutionized medicine, reducing suffering across the entire world. From the world changing to the mundane task of finding relevant information on Google+ or Twitter, serendipity is the mysterious force that gives us the breaks that many of us seek. But what is serendipity? How do you encourage it? Is there a downside to it? How does it apply to work, art or play? Can you design for serendipity? We say you can and should. Whether you’re building the next super social network, doing scientific research, or building a community, there are steps you can take and skills you can develop to help you recognize and act on it. It is more than just naturally being fortuitous; rather, it takes practice to get lucky.
Presenters: Rawn Shah – IBM, Rachel Happe – The Community Roundtable

Down in Front! How to Control Bad Fans
The customer ISN’T always right. You want to love your fans (customers, commenters, activists) but sometimes they don’t deserve it. The bad fans who tore up Vancouver after the Canucks lost the Stanley Cup deserved jail time, not a Kumbaya approach. The same is true for the social-media-enabled communities we count on to buy our products and promote our causes. An analogy: Major League Baseball games are a lot more fun to these days because ballclubs started cracking down on fights and drunkenness in the stands in the 1980s. Have no pity for the jerks who got tossed: the rest of us are better off for it. Just as organizations should “think before they click,” users of social media have a responsibility to respect the very organizations that they demand respect from. This panel will follow the fast-paced, ultra-interactive style of 2011’s “The Steroid Culture of Social Media” to call for new thinking about the implied social contract of social media, for organizations and fans alike.
Panelists: Tim Walker – BreakingPoint Systems, Aaron Strout – WCG, Troy Nalls – Third Cousins Media, Kate Brodock – Other Side Group

Aristotle Shops @Wal-Mart | CSR, Ethics & Community
Aristotle is known for his establishment of what we consider “value ethics” and five years ago Aristotle would NOT have stepped foot into a Wal-Mart. At the time the company was under fire from environmental and labor groups. In fact, a 2004 report found that between 2 and 8% of Wal-Mart’s customers had stopped going to their local Supercenter because of the negative press they had heard about the chain. Today, Aristotle would be a Wal-Mart greeter, or perhaps manage its online community. What happened? The company changed their vision when CEO H. Lee Scott Jr. launched a massive Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) campaign to, in his words, “…create a better story”. CSR can take many shapes, from environmental to socioeconomic, and it often can grow revenue and profits. CSR has also become a main marketing vehicle for establishing communities, online and offline, centered around the company. Though not every company has the size, reach and resources of a Wal-Mart, all companies need to consider how CSR can help build and strengthen online and offline communities. This session will dive into how to build CSR programs and use them to help build online and offline communities.
Presenters: Kyle Flaherty – BreakingPoint Systems, Alex Hahn – Vox Global

Future of Location Marketing: Dummies Perspective
Three years after the launch of foursquare (at SXSW no less), the business world is starting to warm up to the idea of building loyalty, discovery and deals through location-based services. While many companies know that there is some “there” there, they have no idea how to leverage the concept of location-based services. During this informative session with the authors of Location Based Marketing for Dummies [http://amzn.to/lbm4d], Aaron Strout and Mike Schneider will walk through the 5 golden rules of location-based marketing, the key players along with several business case studies (big and small).
Presenters: Aaron Strout – WCG, Mike Schneider – Allen + Gerritsen

Can growing a moustache change the world?
Movember is a global movement committed to raising awareness and funds for critical men’s health issues. Over the last seven years, Movember has grown from a handful of friends in Australia to the largest non-government funder of prostate cancer research in the world, with over $174 USD million in funds. This has been accomplished in part by creating and nurturing a passionate online community of brand ambassadors. Join Adam Garone, CEO/co-founder of Movember, as he discusses how Movember leveraged the support of a few daring partners and pockets of loyal fans to generate a global movement that saw 450,000 moustache growers in 2010. Learn how Movember captivated the attention of a demographic infamous for not discussing their health, converted them into evangelists by turning the brand over to them, and sent them off to build the campaign. Discover how inspiring supporters to become ambassadors helped Movember stay lean as it expanded globally. If you work with a non-profit, this is THE panel to attend. If you want to turn customers into ambassadors, this is THE panel to attend. Just grow it – get inspired and change the world.
Presenter: Adam Garone – Movember

Elastic Waist Entrepreneurship for Women 40+
Some of us running a startup-type business online also have families, mortgages, minivans, hot flashes….and years of work experience and savvy. Although we do order a lot of pizza like those young’uns, we don’t ever sleep under our office desks (hey, that’s hard on our back.) Did you know that 80% of the total entrepreneurship activity during the teeth of the Great Recession (2009) was from people over 35? TourismCurrents.com co-founder Sheila Scarborough and serial online entrepreneur Wendy Piersall (the Woo! Jr. network and author of “Mom Blogging for Dummies”) will talk about strategies and lessons learned for 40-ish women and older who are interested in taking advantage of tech and social media to launch online businesses that bring their passions, knowledge and life experiences to the web. We may need reading glasses for our smartphones, but we can still kick butt. Step aside, young pups….Mama’s starting a business on teh interwebz!
Presenters: Sheila Scarborough – Tourism Currents, Wendy Piersall – Woo! Jr.

Can You Tweet That? Social Media and the Law
A resident tweets about a moldy apartment; the apartment company sues her for libel. An employee is fired because of a photo on Facebook. A monkey takes a self portrait on a digital camera accidently left in the forest by a photographer. Who owns the copyright – the monkey or the photographer? A month after the court verdict, there are more than 40 Facebook pages entitled F*ck Casey Anthony. In today’s digital age, technology is advancing faster than the law. Do old-school laws apply to new-school technology? Don’t we have 1st Amendment rights online or should we be scared about what we post? In this thought-provoking session, we’ll look at legal issues, such as defamation, copyright, the 1st Amendment and hate speech, and how these issues apply to social media. We’ll discuss the definitions of these issues and examine recent court cases around social media and let the audience decide if these cases have merit.
Presenter: Dara Quackenbush – Texas State University

Marketing vs. IT: How to End the Bloodshed
IT is frustrated by Marketing’s constant changing direction. Marketing wants to fire IT because it’s too slow and limiting. What’s going on here? The rapid growth in digital channels are increasingly the intersection between technology and marketing departments. This increased interaction frequently causes friction as Marketing becomes more focused on digital channels and IT seeks to gain relevance through alignment with business partners. The two departments usually have very different perspectives on priorities, decision making and cost management. Further, they are subjected to different internal pressures that drive them to view the world differently. In this session we’ll review the situation in more detail offering insights in how Marketing & IT can co-exist in better harmony.
Presenters: John Refford – Natixis Global Associates, Rob Brosnan – Forrester Research

Other SXSWi panel lists for your consideration

I hope you found the list of panels valuable and that we have made it easier for you to find interesting and useful panels for you to vote on. We are not the only ones to put together panel lists. In fact, I used these lists to help me choose which panels to vote for.

2012 SXSW Interactive panels worth your vote
By Bryan Person

Bring on the Content at SXSW 2012!
By Aaron Strout

SXSW PanelPicker 2012: What Boston Companies Are Doing
By Kaitlin Maud

I’m looking forward to seeing you all in Austin next March! Did I miss a great panel? Let me (and readers) know in the comments.

We all know that core to successful employee relations is trust. Trust is fundamental to employee interaction and to running a business. Employees must trust all parts of the senior management staff to run the business successfully, and senior management must trust that their employees will follow through on the stated goals of the organization. If we know this to be true, doesn’t it make sense that trust could also be a key factor in other business relationships as well?

There is no difference in the value of trust when it comes to customers. This is particularly valuable and important when discussing direct customer interaction in the form of advisory boards and customer communities.

  • It is necessary – Trust is necessary in building a community. Members want that sense that there is mutual effort and returns and they want to know that their comments, posts and other efforts will be used for mutual value. This also means that you will be protective of their privacy and not misuse their email addresses or other contact information.
  • Comes with some level of transparency – With trust comes a fair amount of transparency, but complete transparency is not needed to build strong trust. Honesty and some level of transparency go a long way in building trust, but current and potential customers know your business can’t share everything. Be as open as you can and when you’re not able to share, customers will be more understanding.
  • Two-way interaction helps – Trust is not always assumed in community. Often times the more the company shows its willingness to share, and communicate, the more it increases members’ willingness to share and communicate. While open communication is great, communicating through the backchannel can also provide that personal touch that shows there is a human behind the community, giving one more opportunity to build that necessary trust.

It is an obvious factor for most when thinking about employee relations. That same trust needs to be discussed and reviewed more overtly and more often when thinking about customer relationships especially when building communities.

What other factors help build community trust? Why is it so necessary in building an active successful community?

Photo used under Creative Commons from Brian Woychuk.

I have had the opportunity to do a lot of thinking about the breakdown of community members lately as I prepare for my panel, Lurkers: Your Most Important Community Members, at SXSWi in about a week.

Lurkers are those members who log in to your community, read blogs and discussions, and don’t contribute to discussions. These community members are often dismissed as not valuable or at least significantly less valuable than your contributing community members. I think part of the reason that’s the case is because it is much easier to determine the value that your active contributors are providing to your community and your business. What is often more difficult is determining what value your lurkers have on your community.

Who are your lurkers?
Before you start determining any type of value your community is deriving from lurkers, you must create the parameters you will use to analyze lurkers, as well as your contributors and evangelists. This includes things like the timeframe by which you measure activity such as weekly, monthly, quarterly, or annually. The measurement timeframe you use should be based on that community’s expected activity rate.

Why lurkers are valuable community members?
In most communities, lurkers make up the bulk of the community membership. They come to the community to read, learn, and digest the information contributors and community managers provide. Additionally, those who are lurkers are learning from the contributors. If the lurkers weren’t deriving value from the community, they would not login and peruse content.

From my experience, lurkers experience significant value from the community.

  • They can often be very loyal brand advocates who communicate the brand value to their networks.
  • And, while contributing participants are critical to a community, many of them don’t start as contributors but lurk for months, or even years before they start contributing.
  • While there’s not arguing that contributors need attention, you are remiss if you ignore lurkers and their value as members.

Converting lurkers to contributors
The best way to convert lurkers into contributors is to reach out to them. Call or email those who are high-level lurkers. A great way to start getting them to engage is to invite your most active lurkers and occasional contributors to join a member steering committee focused on getting them to feel comfortable to participate and lead others to do the same.

Overall, there are some general principles to follow so that both your contributors and your lurkers will find value from your community: good content, a variety of content types, email reminders such as newsletters and member outreach calls. Content can include videos, white papers (both short and long white papers), blogs, discussions, in-person events, roundtable events, etc. This variety allows your members to determine what channel works for them. Once your community has been live for a period of time, analyze which content items and channels are most valuable to your members, based on quantitative and qualitative feedback and focus more of your energies on those that are more interesting to your members. Then, constantly evolve your offerings based on what your members have indicated they want from their membership.

You may also be interested to get a different perspective on the value of lurkers from the blog post Mark Wallace wrote about Social Media Lurkers. Mark, along with Jim Storer and Mike Pascucci will join me on the panel. If you’re going to SXSW, you can learn more about lurkers by joining us. If you do, please say hi.

Update 3/8/11: Read Mike Pascucci’s blog post for a bit more about what we’ll cover in the SXSW panel and why you should attend.

Last year, Jeremiah Owyang started Community Manager Appreciation Day #CMAD, held on the 4th Monday of January. It may seem unnecessary on first blush, but Community Managers can offer you, as a business, and as a customer, a better experience. This year’s CMAD will be held Monday, January 24 and it is a great way to learn more about the benefits of community and how good community managers lead the way to value. It is worth pausing to consider the role, and what makes it important.

What is a community manager?

In very basic terms, community managers run a community (online or offline) to ensure the brand, industry or company community is being managed appropriately. A community manager creates an important bridge between the organization and the community members. They are the representative of the brand to the members of the community and the community’s voice back to the business. They are always providing a delicate balancing act of providing the community members what they want so that the community is active and valuable to members, while at the same time making sure the organization is deriving value from sponsoring and funding that community. The expertise required to make this balancing act effective runs a wide gamut, from understanding business strategy in order to create a complementary community strategy, to relationship management, content strategy, communications, and operations.

As you can imagine, this requires juggling many balls at once, including keeping the community vibrant and tied to overall business goals, making sure experts are available to answer member questions and that everyone is following community guidelines. It also means measuring value (return on investment) and communicating that value both to the members and to the organization.

Why do we need a special day to recognize community managers?

I have played the role of community manager for several communities, and the reason I’m excited about taking the time to thank community managers is twofold. First, it gives all of us the opportunity to recognize those folks who are doing a great job. Secondly, being a community manager is a new field and often community managers are cutting a new path for how communities are created and managed. My hope is that by recognizing the men and women behind the community curtain, and sharing their hard work with others, we not only thank them for paving the way, but we can learn from what they are doing well so that as other businesses create and grow their communities, they can learn from those who paved the way.

To my fellow community managers, thank you. Thanks for collaborating with me to do a better job running communities. There are lots of events happening around the world to celebrate Community Managers. You can see the list of events on Jeremiah Owyang’s blog.

A community strategy is not a campaign or a single dialogue; it is a shift in the way you communicate with your customers, and the way they communicate with you.

Three key points to think about as you pursue a community strategy for your business:

  • Tools are good but they don’t make the community. The strategy does.
  • Community is just one element of an overall, integrated shift in business communication.
  • Communication is great, but it means nothing without measurement and actions.


An online community platform is the tip of the iceberg. The community must have multiple points of connection back to the business. Here are some tips as you begin to build your community strategy:

  • Create a specific community plan and answer the following questions about your strategy: What’s the goal of the community? What’s the ideal outcome? How does it bring value directly to the business?
  • Your company has to be ready to receive ideas from the community members. What’s the funnel for processing member ideas and information? It is easy to have a fire hose of information to send to the business, but there has to be a planned way of determining what is actionable and what will provide the most value to the business.
  • Measuring is what keeps the lights on. Senior management may think it’s great to experiment with community, but unless you can prove value, the shiny new object will soon be pushed to the back burner. Create your plan for measuring ROI when you’re creating your community plan and, most importantly, communicate and deliver.

Why community matters

A legitimate long-term community ties directly back to the business:

  • Improved communication will benefit the value your company can provide to your customers.
  • More with less. Community building is not free but once the community hits a steady state, the returns can be exponential.
  • Customer experience. Your customers want to communicate with you. By creating an easy and clearly valuable way for them to do that, you’re creating loyal customers.

Want to learn more about building your community and how your community can tie to your overall marketing and business plan? Register for the Farland Group webinar, October 13 at 1:00 PM: Using Communities to Elevate Marketing.

Photo used under Creative Commons from winkyintheuk.

This was originally posted on Farland Group’s blog, Voice of the Customer on July 16, 2010.

One of the best blogs on community is Martin Reed’s Community Spark. The blog is good for a few reasons: he has a depth of experience in community building and managing, his blog is educational and prescriptive, and he’s happy to share his expertise. I commented on a post that resonated with me, An open letter to companies planning online communities. In this post, Martin does a great job covering all the points for building a community as well as some of the pitfalls to avoid. Whenever I comment on a post, I always subscribe via email. That way, if the blog writer, or another commenter mentions me and that warrants a response, I can reply.

Your Customers Use Social MediaEven though Martin wrote this particular post in April 2010, 3 months ago, it still receives comments. Just yesterday, Jim added the following comment, “Communities can be a double edge sword, gives a place for customers to complain about your products.” This gave me pause. People will complain about your product whether you have a community or not. If you have products people complain about, they can air their issues on Twitter, Facebook, Amazon, discussion boards, to their friends, to the person next to them on the train, etc. Just ask Apple.

On the other hand, I see two reasons why companies interested in improving their products, services and customer satisfaction should build an online community.

  1. You don’t have to chase down that complaint. There’s not much a company can do when a complaint is posted on someone’s Facebook wall. If the complaint is in your own community, then you know about it, and if valid, the company can take action internally so there aren’t more complaints like it.
  2. You have the opportunity to respond to the complaint. If one person is complaining about your product, chances are there are others out there as well. By posting that complaint in your community, it gives you the opportunity to respond with an apology, and allows you to explain how it’s being fixed, or why it’s an issue in the first place.

Now, I know there are sadly plenty of companies out there who know their products aren’t good and there are so many issues to fix, and they don’t want to hear from their customers. I also know there are many who still can’t quite grasp the fact that providing no answer is much worse than telling a customer that the issue is real and the company is working to address it (or can’t fix it and here’s why.) My advice to those folks who want to control the community message but are afraid of negative comments is, focus on your business issues first, then think about starting an online community.

For those who want to improve your products, want to hear what your customers say and want to be able to respond, but are still concerned about negative comments – do it anyway. Prepare yourself by sitting in a room with the customer support folks, the sales folks and others who have direct interaction with the customer and ask them what the complaints are. Write those down, and create real and honest responses to them. While you might not be able to capture all of the expected complaints, you’ll come close. You’ll realize that you can handle the issues and addressing them will benefit your business by making your customers realize you’re listening and responding.

Image used under Creative Commons from ronploof.

This was originally posted on Farland Group’s blog, Voice of the Customer on June 18, 2010.

“We tend to overvalue the things we can measure and undervalue the things we cannot.” –John Hayes, CMO, American Express

This past Wednesday, Farland Group hosted a web event titled The ROI of Community where Dawn Lacallade, who has managed the community strategies for Dell and is currently the Community Manager at SolarWinds, and Jane Hiscock, President of Farland Group, presented on the what, why and how of the ROI of community.


As we look at the Return on Investment in community, there are two important factors. You need to be measuring what type of return your business is getting from your community appropriately and accurately. More importantly, you want your community to be valuable and you want to be able to prove that the community is providing value to the business in a way that matters to the business.

You will get the biggest return for your community investment when you start with your business. While you are building the strategy for your community, focus on the area of the business where there are pain points that can be resolved through a community or where you can increase value by building (or expanding) a community. Building the foundation of your community around a business issue creates the first step in framing the measurement for ROI.

This image presented by Jane Hiscock in yesterday’s ROI of Community webinar demonstrates the framework for building value and measuring that value.

While there were many important items discussed in the webinar yesterday, there were a few key takeaways. As you look at metrics to communicate ROI to your business, report your information in terms the business will understand. For example, if you are talking to sales, report conversion, not number of discussion posts. Another item Dawn discussed was the idea of a balanced scorecard. The three areas she suggested reporting on in the scorecard are Brand Value, Business Value and Community Heath. While this scorecard is specifically for a customer community, it underscores the need to think about community ROI in a broad spectrum, using business terms.

Another point that really resonated was that while there are dozens of points in a community that can be measured, successful communities focus on a few key areas that really matter, especially as you are starting out and may not have the bandwidth to follow multiple measurements. Spend the time up front to identify your key areas of focus and then calculate ROI that will inform on those selected areas that resonate most with the business.

Community metrics can be easy to measure. ROI is more difficult but certainly not impossible. Start by building community strategy around a strategic business need and focus on the long-term purpose of the community, and make sure you think about what measurements can calculate ROI and deliver those metrics in a way the business can understand.

A Request

I spend a significant amount of time talking with my colleagues in this space about how to advance our collective understanding of community management to make sure that those who are working in the space have the tools they need to be successful. The more we can help them manage successful communities, the larger this very important area of business can grow.

Dawn offered to present on the Farland Group webinar for an important reason. She shared her deep understanding of community ROI in hopes that others will do the same with the ROI of community and case studies for all aspects of community success. If you have written a case or a post about your community ROI, please share it in the comments, below.

This was originally posted on Farland Group’s blog Voice of the Customer on May 10, 2010.

There have been many blog posts written on the value of content in building and managing successful communities. Often times, people say that “content is king”. In our experience, context is often more important than content because the content follows the context of any successful community.

Without context in a community, members will not know where content belongs, or even what type of content they should share. They won’t know where to find content others have shared and the momentum of the community will be disrupted. Context provides the threads that weave together a set of ideas and thought pieces to help define the purpose of the community and offer meaning to content and interrelationships.

There are three areas to focus on to create context for your community:

  • Theme: Organizations rarely think of the word “theme” as they are building their community, but while your organization is building the community strategy, theme should be sister to purpose. For example. if your organization is building a product development community, you will need to think about how you want members to contribute to product development and then how the language, style and design of the community will communicate those ideas to the community members. This all leads back to establishing a community theme. Built from the community mission, goal and purpose, your organization will need to create a theme so that you are able to clearly articulate the characteristics of the community to your membership.
  • Tone: Your community tone should be a direct representation of your organization and the type of customer, or member you want to attract. If you are building a community for professionals like Sermo, focused on engaging doctors to post clinical observations and discuss clinical issues with their peers, you are going to want to set a very professional tone for your community. On the other hand, if you are building a hobby community, like Ravelry, you will want to make sure the community tone is light and fun.
  • Moderation: Moderation is the act of reviewing content for context, appropriateness and content. In most communities, a good moderator is not the enforcer, but rather the guide, helping members understand what to discuss and at what time or in which location those member interactions, conversations and content belong. Community moderators play a critical role by determining the right topics for discussion, and organizing content that has been created so it resides in the appropriate places. A successful moderator is also responsible for making sure questions get answered in a timely manner and that the theme and tone are adhered to as the community matures.

There is certainly no denying that content plays a critical role in community. Without content, there is no community, but if you have provided your community with clear context, the community purpose is clear to members. They can be sure of what they are supposed to be discussing, what they are learning and why they are members. Community members – like most people – want to contribute and participate effectively, and seek the focus and the framework to help them be “right on target.” Ensuring your community has a clearly defined context will not only allow you to gain more value from your investment in content; you will find increased engagement from your members as well.

I promise you that I haven’t abandoned this blog.  I have, however, been posting on my company, Farland Group’s blog, Voice of the Customer.  I will continue to post original content here as well.

This was originally posted on Voice of the Customer on March 31, 2010.

When I started in the field of community building in 2006, social media and community building was a bit of the Wild West. Companies building online communities were few and far between, and experimentation and patience were key. To be fair, online communities have been around since before LISTSERV was created in 1986. They were not called online communities, but the principle was the same, getting a group of people together to talk about topics relevant to them. Many of these eventually evolved into online forums and extended into online communities, including member profiles, wiki documentation pages and blogs.

Small groups were forming in the 1990s and early 2000s but the fuse was lit in about 2006-2007 when companies like Shared Insights (now Mzinga), Jive, Leverage software, Awareness, Inc. Communispace and a handful of others started gaining traction in the community space. Social Networking, Social Media and Online Communities were starting to get buzz. At that time, online community building was so new, there were few best practices. The good news for me was that most of the companies I was working with as a Community Strategist at Shared Insights were ready to hear that solid strategy, not tools, is what’s required to build a successful online community.

In the past year, those whose job it is to build or manage social media/social marketing/online communities have struggled with defining the purpose of each. I think we have finally started to round the corner on that issue. For example, note how one expert, Rachel Happe, has evolved her thinking and her ability to define roles in this industry. Read the post she wrote almost two years ago, and and compare that to the one she wrote just a few days ago. Notice the evolution. In her first post, she begins to explain what community is in context of why it’s not social media. Her thoughts on the subject seem less concise than they are in her recent post. Having read her post then, it really represented where we were as an industry, only emergent in our thoughts on the difference between the two concepts. The comments on that post allude to this as well. In her second post, her language is more concise, she is able to define both community and social media, and how each might apply to business. You will also note, her examples of when to use each are more concrete. She’s even able to define responsibilities required for the two different roles. Her ability to delineate between the two roles of social media and community management is representative of how the industry has matured over the past year.

You hear about b2c communities regularly in the news, but there are many very vibrant b2b communities that warrant attention. Why don’t you know about these communities? These tend to have a niche audience so there’s not such a big effort to get these into mainstream news. Here are a few examples:

  • commonground from EDR– the global social network for environmental and commercial real estate due diligence professionals.
  • The Center for CIO Leadership – a global community to advance the CIO profession. (managed by Farland Group)
  • MarketingProfs know-how exchange – the most vibrant marketing forum on the web.

While there are successful b2b communities, there are still many opportunities for companies in the b2b arena to take advantage of an online community strategy to understand, communicate with, and reach out to their customer. In the next 3-5 years, we’ll see an explosion of b2b communities, communities and social media built into the fabric of many organizations, and a better understanding of what social media and online communities mean for business.

I refuse to do it. I refuse to be another SXSWi naysayer. While I can see that it might have been overwhelming for some, and the panels can be woefully disappointing to others, if you didn’t get anything out of SXSWi, you weren’t trying hard enough.

I have been to SXSWi for three years and I recognize that because it’s such a big conference with such a diverse group of attendees, you may need to work a little harder to find the right panels, get into the right parties and find where the folks you interact with are congregating, but, no matter what you’re looking for, it’s there.

There are lots of blog posts and tweets that provide advice on how to prepare for SXSWi. The best post I read on prepping for SXSWi was Kyle Flaherty’s post, Will SXSWi Rock for a B2B Marketer? My favorite piece of advice was, “If you leave SXSWi and say that the best conversations you had were in the hallway you did a poor job planning your schedule…” While I had many valuable hallway conversations, this year I focused on making sure I made a must-see list of panels, and I made most of them. (I made it to all of them but some were too full for me to attend.)


People generally say the panels at SXSWi are the least valuable part of SXSWi. While I agree that there are many useless panels, there are also many valuable panels. Some panelists mail it in because they don’t mind being one of many bad panels at SXSWi. I think as attendees, we need to hold panelists accountable.

One thing I learned at SXSWi my first year is that some of the panels were more 101, while others are more advanced learning. It was kind of a bummer to sit in panels where I knew more about the subject than the speaker. Then I learned that the title isn’t enough, spend just a minute or two reading the description and looking at who the speakers are. These provide a lot of information. While it was more difficult to do this year because many of the sessions were full before they started, panel hopping is always an option, as is walking out and starting the ever-so-valuable hallway conversation, but more on that below.

Despite what you may have heard about SXSWi, there were some really good panels, even for those of us who are considered long-timers in this space, who eat, sleep and breathe Community Management/Social Media. I went to some great, well thought out, well put together panels and I learned something from them. Here are just a few:

  • Crime Scene: Digital Identity Theft – I have to be honest, I wasn’t that interested in attending this panel. I went to support my brother, Aaron Strout. It turned out to be an energetic informative conversation that made me realize that I am responsible for digital security both as an individual and as a community consultant and manager.
  • Keynote: Opening Remarks: Privacy and Publicity – This seemed to be a bit of a theme at SXSWi. The message I came away with was that just because someone’s content is public, it does not mean they want it to be publicized.
  • Lost In Translation: The Nuances of European Social Media – A great panel that was true to its name. It covered a large number of social media angles. It scratched the surface but was a great intro to what to think about regarding approaching a Social Media strategy in Europe
  • Evan Williams Keynote Interview – I described this to a friend as an MBA case study, valuable but boring. That said, there were some great takeaways from the conversation. Read the interviewer, Umair Haque’s takeaways. It could have been better but I’m happy I went.

There were other great panels as well, like the best ever Sports Metaphor core conversation led by Tim Walker, who made sure we left SXSWi on a high note.

Lunches, dinners and other get-togethers

There were too many great ones to name here but conversations over dinner tend to be very different from those that happen at a party or in the hallways. Lunch or dinner conversations at SXSWi allow you to catch up with old friends and learn from new ones. They also allow a debrief and download of what you’ve learned at the conference with those who are just as involved in the conference as you are.

Meetups in the blogger lounge, hallways and other serendipity

The blogger lounge is probably one of the best things about SXSWi. SXSWi is huge, 12,000 people signed up to attend SXSWi and I believe there were closer to 15,000 attendees. As I’m focused on Social Media and Online Communities, it’s nice to have the blogger lounge to meet up with those focused on Social Media and Online Communities as well.

These same conversations start in line, in the halls and sitting next to folks in panels.  People start talking about a great panel they just went to, a thought or conversation they just had, and you find yourself in the middle of a valuable, educational conversation.

And of course the parties

Lots of companies have private, SXSWi only and public parties and this year was no exception. Unlike in years past, I didn’t have to wait in nearly as many lines.  Twitter and experience helped me know where to be to avoid most lines.  In the past, it seemed the parties were largely all the same, free food and drink in the day, free drinks at night, but not significant variety. They all seemed to be at downtown bars. Don’t get me wrong, Austin bars are awesome, especially with the amazingly beautiful weather we had, we were able to take advantage of the roof decks. I also made it to the best party I’ve attended at SXSWi, the Powered Inc. party, where comedian Brian Posehn did some standup. I also got to see The Walkmen at the Digg party and saw some amazing Karaoke at the TechKaraoke party.

Of course, I also met great people and continued lots of conversations with people I had met at the blogger lounge and other locations throughout the day.

No jerks allowed
There’s another term I’d prefer not to publish that we use a lot when talking about folks at SXSWi. It’s a term reserved for those who have big blog and/or twitter followings and act like superstars and those who only feel complete when they namedrop.

While I can say I did witness these personalities, I overwhelmingly witnessed lots of smiles, lots of handshakes, many business card exchanges, and an overwhelming warmth that the Social Media industry is known for. Even those like Chris Brogan and Jeremiah Owyang, who can’t move without someone telling them how great they are, manage, somehow, to stay humble and open through what I’m sure is five incredibly overwhelmingly busy days for them.

I realize this blog post is particularly long and I don’t feel like I even scratched the surface on the value I got out of SXSWi this year. I learned so much and met so many great people. Even more valuable to me, I had the opportunity to catch up with old friends and I look forward to doing it all again next year.

Special thanks to Kyle Flaherty for reminding me that SXSWi has value and that preparation is key and for writing a great follow-up post on this same subject. I also want to thank Aaron Strout for being a great brother and the über-connector who makes sure everyone is introduced to everyone, and to Jim Storer for letting me show him some of the best of Austin. Thanks also to Farland Group, my company, for sending me and allowing me to be a representative of a team I’m honored to represent.

It was great seeing and meeting everyone, if I tried to name you all here, this post would stretch way beyond its already extra-long length.