Customers expect to participate in a conversation about your products, although the level of community participation that you can reasonably expect varies for different industries. But even in highly regulated, restricted environments, the user community can offer critical feedback. Your community’s motivation level is important—you want to invite users to participate, but you do not want them to feel as though you are sloughing off content responsibilities onto them. Open source projects are built on community participation, but many of them also have terrible, outdated technical content precisely because only the community is providing content. (A notable exception to this is WordPress, which provides excellent technical documentation via the WordPress Codex.1 Because WordPress is a publishing platform, we speculate many people in the community have good writing skills.)
The general purpose of a user community is to engage users—to shift people from passively consuming content to participating actively in evaluating or modifying content. In increasing order of engagement, they might:
- Read content
- Rate content with stars, likes/dislikes, or votes
- Attend an online event, such as a webcast
- Send email with comments
- Write a public comment
- Edit or update content
- Write original content
- Attend a user conference
Remember that only a small percentage of users will participate. The general rule of thumb is that for every 100 users, 90 are lurkers (passive readers), 10 will participate, and only 1 participant will be very active.2 That implies that you need thousands of users to have a successful community.
Assuming that your user base is a reasonable size, you need to weigh the risks of user participation. First, if you are in a regulated industry, such as medical devices or pharmaceuticals, your organization may be held accountable for user content. Unlike other industries, you cannot simply disclaim responsibility for user-generated content in the web site terms of service. This rules out uncontrolled submissions, such as unmoderated (and often raucous) user forums. You might, however, consider allowing industry partners to create content that is reviewed before being made available to your customers. For example, a medical device manufacturer could ask physicians to contribute articles about how they use a device. These articles would be reviewed by the manufacturer before publication on the corporate web site or perhaps in a newsletter distributed only to other physicians.
If your product is generally not dangerous to use (for example, most software and consumer electronics), then the risk of allowing user content is minimized. For these products, you need to carefully consider the risks that come from not allowing user participation:
- Do your customers expect a community? Does failure to provide a community have negative implications for your product positioning?
- If you do not provide a community, will a third-party community spring up over which you have no control at all?
- Are your competitors providing user communities for their customers?
If you have a vibrant community, you have:
- Access to product testers.
- Access to end users. You can ask them questions, send out surveys, and use metrics from user discussions to direct product decisions.
- Access to people who write additional content for you. They will probably focus on edge cases, and that is acceptable. You need to produce the basic technical content.
Differentiating user content from official content
If you allow users to contribute content, be sure that user-contributed content is clearly differentiated from corporate content.
This approach helps you to maintain the distinction between official content and user content.