Posted by: Andrew Hemingway | November 16, 2009

How to Introduce New Features to Your Community


Though not normally a “How-to” type of writer, I have been asked about this many times, and wanted to share from my experiences. Not surprisingly, I learned a lot from studying shepherds and how they introduce change to their flock. A well-known shepherd says:

Here are a few tips I have picked up from experience and other shepherds:

Food: Icelandic sheep thrive on grass and hay.  They will eat almost anything, but introduce new foods gradually.  Avoid too much alfalfa.  If a sheep eats too much rich food, it can “bloat.”  You should keep a bottle of Therabloat on hand just in case.

A shepherd is warned here to introduce to their flock a new food gradually, and for good reason. Notice the second sentence- “sheep will eat almost anything”. There is so much  that can be applied here to community management, but let’s stay on course.

How to introduce changes to your community. I was speaking at Pod Camp NH recently about Online Community Management, and the question that took up most of the class was how do you introduce new things to the community. In my experience and I am sure yours, like sheep communities are VERY sensitive to changes. Things as little as change in font on a certain page, move some links around, adding contact us page, and many more. Communities are sensitive. Here is the rub… most corporations  that  have a community are also wanting to see changes and “improvements” to the communities, and managers have to be ready to introduce those on a time-table. There is going to be conflict.

At a recent event, an attendee told me the story about his company, they had these new great features that they had spent all this time and money on, and they were sure that this would fire up their community. You all know how this ends, the community revolts at the forced changes, and does not use the new features at all. So, what is the secret how do you introduce a new feature or a change?

In an earlier post I talked about Leadersheep, you need to know your community! I can not emphasize this enough, you need to know how they will react to the change you are suggesting. Here are some easy steps to follow to introduce a change to your community.

  1. Determine if the change is for you or for them– the community is about them. It is about people connecting with people not about you selling more product, or pushing your amazing intellect on people. So…is the feature or change you are suggesting for them or is it for you? If it is for them proceed to step 2. If the change is for you, I would freeze and reevaluate the decision. A change must be good for both of you to be a true success. It must be a win-win. I know cliché right? But it is true! You have business goals and objectives, and your community has passion and connections, can the two work together? They better…
  2. Start at the top and let it filter down– You need to gently introduce a change. In-order to do this I suggest you start with your moderator team, then your power users, your community leaders, and so on. Let the idea float out there, and see the reaction. The idea is not “we are going to be changing the font in 3 days”. The idea is “what do you think about changing the font on this page?”. You need to sincerely ask for their feedback, and listen to them.  Watch as your idea floats down the chain, I would let it work itself out… not interfering too much in the conversation.  You will see that the idea once it has gone all the way down will start to come back up, but this time it will be their idea. It is in this moment that a change or a new feature will be adopted heartily, and you will be cheered for listening to your community. Your community will gain a greater sense of worth, and your company will benefit from it.
  3. Wait for it!! – The challenge is that you may see a great need for a new feature. It may be so obvious to you and you can just whip it out and throw it out there. Please do not do it! The community is owned and run by the community, so please use step 2. It may seem small to you, but it could be huge to your community. You must respect them by sending it down the chain. Many times a CM will be in a rush because their corporate over lords are wanting them to show that they are doing something, so they will develop a calendar of new feature releases. I understand having goals and preparing, but you had better wait for your community to be ready for it, or it could be your undoing. Let it go all the way down, and work its’ way back up, and you will be a star. Rush it and force it on your community, and be a scoundrel. The choice is yours.

These are my thoughts about introducing a change. What are your steps to new features, or other changes?

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