Community success can mean quite a few things, but the biggest gains almost always occur when the needs of the company and the needs of the users overlap. Whether the community focus is on support, promotion or innovation, both users and the organization stand to benefit.
I recently had the opportunity to talk with Mark Hopkins, Social Media Project Manager and community manager for the Lenovo Community - and known around these parts as Mark_Hopkins. I've been fortunate enough to interact with Mark a number of times over the last couple years, from the launch of the Lenovo community on the Lithium platform almost 2 years ago, and then more recently here on the Lithosphere community. An extremely active mind and a self-effacing personality, Mark has worked tirelessly to build the Lenovo Community into a place connecting customers to customers, Lenovo engineers, and even Lenovo partners to increase the quality of the customer experience with Lenovo products and the Lenovo brand.
Just a few examples:
Following the launch of a new W500 model laptop in late 2008, some customers were having difficulty in accessing the graphic acceleration features under some CAD packages, and were confused by how the video drivers reported the graphic processor model. Lenovo engineers and engineers from the graphic processor supplier interacted directly with customers on the community to come up with a solution within weeks, instead of months.
Customer feedback collected in the community concerning the sunset of the popular Lenovo ThinkVantage System Update application in April, 2009 was a significant factor in the investment and relaunch of the application in late May.
One skilled and enthusiastic customer wrote a fan control application for a popular netbook computer, shared the application in the forum, gathered usability and bug feedback from his peers and provided several updates. The application allowed members to fine tune the operation of the cooling fan on their netbook.
More to the point for Lenovo as a business, the messages marked as solutions in the community have been viewed over 3.74 million times since the feature was enabled in April 2008. In fact, a recent Forrester case study of the Lenovo community noted a 20% decline in the rate of call volume comparative 2007 to 2008 time periods in the US - and that's when normalized for the install base under warranty.
The key to their amazing success? Mark has this to say:
"Our community works because it's a collaboration...between the company and our most enthusiastic customers."
Mark and his colleagues at the Lenovo Community make it their mission to get to know their community, and especially the superusers who power the results listed above. By focusing on helping his members be successful, Mark ensures they will continue to return and fuel the business success Lenovo needs as well.
One such superuser in the Lenovo Community is Jane Loyless, who is also an administrator over on http://forum.thinkpads.com. According to Mark, Jane has logged over 5K hours in their community since it launched, and is currently the lead volunteer moderator at the Lenovo Community (she's also active helping others on the Lithosphere as well - you may recognize her as jloyless here). Before launching Lenovo's own community, Mark reached out to already active users around Lenovo products in the social web to ask for their support and lend his own.
Both Mark and Jane were gracious enough to answer a few questions for us here about how they have accomplished so much in the Lenovo Community:
ScottD (to Mark): How did you get started with the Lenovo Community?
Mark_Hopkins: After monitoring the blogosphere for substantive discussions about Lenovo and some of the major product brands like ThinkPad, we noted that the majority of the content originated in several forums. Passive viewing only took us so far and we wanted to learn more, be able to ask questions, and offer guidance. We approached Bill Morrow, the owner of forum.thinkpads.com to see how we could get involved. Bill, and his moderation team welcomed us, pointed out some of the broader topics being discussed, and fostered the relationship building.
ScottD (to Jane): How did you get started at your own community at Thinkpads.com?
jloyless: In the mid-90's when I got my first ThinkPad (a 755CE), I joined the TP Mailing List and IBM's TP forum on CompuServe to learn about it and to get help with a few problems. As IBM was winding down their participation at CS and setting up their own forum, Bill Morrow decided to provide a user-to-user support forum at thinkpads.com to complement his TP reseller business. The ThinkPad forum (TPF) and the mailing list became homes for the CS TP refugees and grew rapidly as word spread. When the forum got too busy to handle himself, Bill invited James Maugham, me and a couple of others to help him moderate the forum. Eventually, James and I became admins there as well.
ScottD: Why did you reach out to Jane and others prior to launch?
Mark_Hopkins: We knew they had more than 5 years of experience under their belts running the kind of community we were looking for, so they were the ideal guides and coaches to have onboard to help us make the right choices, and craft balanced policies. We also wanted to be sure that the two communities could coexist in a constructive way - that we weren't seen as a disruptive force.
jloyless: In mid-2006, we got an e-mail from Mark asking how he and the team from Lenovo could help. After some lively discussion internally about whether we were letting the fox into the hen house, we decided to accept his offer on a trial basis. It didn't take long for Mark and his co-workers to become valued contributors, and over the next year or so, he and a few others from Lenovo regularly visited TPF, helped us resolve issues, passed along tips and just spent the time getting to know us and the community.
ScottD: What were your first thoughts when you heard about the Lenovo community? What made you decide to participate?
jloyless: Our first thoughts? Hmmmm.... probably not printable here! ;-) It was a little scary because, even though TPF is mostly a hobby forum for Bill now, we were afraid it would suck all our traffic away.
Mark's openness and invitation to include us in the planning and implementation made a difference to me, though, and as I told Bill and James, the train was leaving the station whether we were on it or not.
Having dealt with Mark for nearly a year at that point, I assumed Lenovo's forum would be successful unlike IBM's earlier failed attempt, and I intended to be on the train. Mark followed through with his promises and actively involved us by getting and, most importantly, listening to our advice on everything from boards needed to community guidelines to who to invite in for the soft launch. And even now he continues to visit TPF to check in with us there to see if he can help.
ScottD (to Mark): Did you have some initial concerns? How close were they to what actually happened?
Mark_Hopkins: I worried that we might have too much overlap, that we would not grow membership because another mature community already existed. I was nervous for the first week after launch, but quickly realized my concerns were unfounded. We grew faster than expectations, and as our product portfolio expanded, so did the scope of our community.
ScottD: How soon were you able to see benefits from the relationship with these superusers?
Mark_Hopkins: Oh, from day 1. Having a seasoned moderation team managing the day to day affairs and helping to get the word out, was invaluable in that it let us focus more of our time on the content, finding answers to some of the broader concerns. As the team grew in size, and diversity, the value has expanded. Some of our moderators speak more than one language and participate in multiple communities. They act as nodes in a human network, expanding our collective awareness, understanding, and ultimately, influence into other spheres.
ScottD: How did the company letting the customers be the moderators affect participation?
jloyless: I think it helped because we were familiar faces to the ThinkPad community whether they were coming from one of the forums, the mailing list, or the Usenet groups. It was a sign that Lenovo was going to fit into and cooperate with the existing communities rather than trying to supplanting them which went a long way towards minimizing territorial hostility. It also helped because, at least in the beginning, we knew a lot of the members coming in and could identify our initial superusers. Now, it's a fluid network of communities, and core groups of members float back and forth between their "home" forums and Lenovo's.
ScottD: What do we see as possible future steps for collaboration?
Mark_Hopkins: I think there are a lot of potential opportunities for collaboration - certainly languages, social platforms, and technological elements and features of the community itself, and of course, we are always looking for ways to incorporate feedback into our products and services.
ScottD: Why do you think the superusers, the Gurus and other active members of the community keep coming back?
jloyless: I think it's two-fold. First, most of us started out looking for help ourselves, and we know what it's like to not understand why our computer isn't working. It feels good to have someone come back and say "that fixed it!"!
Second, that close working relationship that Mark built with us has continued even after the forum launch, and as new superusers develop, they're included in our "Guru" group and in many of the conversations.
Some of them have gone on to become moderators as well giving us a volunteer moderator team that spans the world. As a result of being included from the start, we feel like we have a strong stake in the forum that keeps us coming back every day, and Mark continues to foster that connection daily by asking for our advice and opinions and making sure we know that we're being heard. We don't always get what we want, but they are listening.
Something that Mark said just before the forum launched was about wondering what would happen if he threw the customers the keys and that he was about to find out. I think he found success for the forum by doing just that, and speaking for the mod team, it's rewarding to watch the forum grow up and to be part of its success.
ScottD: Thanks so much for sharing your knowledge and experiences with us Mark and Jane!