LavaCon 2014 Sneak Peek: Ben Rubenstein on Community and Content

Editor’s Note: Ben Rubenstein, who manages social media and online communities for TechTarget, slowed down from his busy schedule long enough to complete a written interview for TechWhirl. Ben will be presenting a session on “From Comments to Content: Building Real Value from Community Participation” at LavaCon 2014.

Please tell us a little bit about yourself and TechTarget.

ben_rubenstein_200I manage the social media and online community team at TechTarget, a B2B media company that operates over 100 sites covering all aspects of enterprise technology (and a few consumer tech sites). Our primary audience is IT professionals who are researching products and troubleshooting issues; our primary customers are the technology marketers who want to reach these professionals via ads, whitepapers, custom sites, and other solutions we provide.

My team makes sure that our audience can find and interact with the content we produce via social channels and have positive interactions within our sites and related communities. Our goal is to use these external and internal tools to attract new members who will participate on our sites; this activity not only creates a good, sticky user experience, but also provides valuable insight that is used to create and deliver more relevant editorial content and help our customers to better understand the market for their products.

I came to this role with several years of experience as a writer, editor, content manager and community manager for a variety of media and not-for-profit organizations. When not working, I can be found bouncing my infant daughter on a yoga ball, over and over.

What things can a company do to leverage their community participation and deliver better products and services?

It depends a lot on the type of company and type of community, but here are some general recommendations on actions to take:

Listen and analyze. You can learn a lot about what your target audience wants just by observing how users interact, the words they use, and what topics generate the most interest and discussion. This is all valuable data that you can track and use to optimize the products you create, whether it’s redesigning interactive features on your pages, publishing in a given topic area, or modifying how you describe your own offerings to match users’ language. Depending on the data you’re collecting, you may also then be able to target specific users with messages you know they’ll respond to.

Build employee engagement. Talking directly with your users can help in any number of ways; it can humanize your company and turn users into ambassadors for your brand. Employees can increase their own visibility, building their personal brands and potentially making connections that make their jobs easier. There’s also the possibility of explicit content promotions and sales that can come as part of these interactions, though it of course has to be done with caution.

Optimize. Every discussion can be a potential entrance page for new users to your site and help them find out about what you offer. Optimizing community pages just as you do with any other content is important for getting the maximum benefit – that means paying attention to titles, formatting and – especially – user experience.

Create content. Whatever the industry, everyone’s looking for more content. High-quality user contributions can feed this need, whether it’s developing an article or blog post around responses to a given topic, or building a new testimonials or reviews page on your site.

Why do you think more companies don’t do this?

Well, it’s a lot of work – you’ve got to have someone (or a team) who can dedicate time to cultivating those conversations and finding meaningful trends within them, and then taking advantage of that information in multiple ways, working with multiple other stakeholders. While those community participants can end up being some of your best customers and ambassadors, it can take a while to get them there as compared to other methods that a company might have.

What are the main obstacles companies face? Are there different obstacles for large and small companies?

As mentioned above, time and resources are major obstacles – this may be true more so at smaller companies, although smaller organizations may have an easier time getting everyone on board and pitching in to help communities grow and begin to show benefits. Getting that kind of buy-in across a large company can be difficult and can slow down development of a truly strong community. I think technology and design can also prove to be obstacles, both with getting the necessary development resources and with implementing any community tools; the huge array of solutions and options out there can be overwhelming, and with lots of out-of-the-box solutions many will take the easy way out and create a solution that doesn’t necessarily meet user needs.

You’re presenting a case study at LavaCon on your company, TechTarget. For those who are unable to attend the event, what three things would you want people to know from your session when it comes to winning resources and buy-in?

  1.  Make it relevant. It’s essential to understand what the stakeholders in your company care about and tailor your arguments accordingly. For example, we put together an infographic for our internal staff that explained the benefits of a strong community for each department in the company. We’ve also found ways to package data from our community to serve different internal teams, focusing on delivering something of value to each, such as alerting sales reps about discussion activity from vendors they’re working with.
  2. Keep it simple. Whether it’s the executive team or a group in another part of the company, no one is going to fully understand about the nitty-gritty of how the community works like you do. Boiling down your message to only the most essential information always helps – but always have further details and data ready to back it up if you do get those probing questions.
  3.  Know how others can help – and make it easy to do so. It’s easy to say “I’m not getting support,” but if you can’t articulate exactly what kind of support you need, you’re going to be stuck on your own. Providing clear, simple instructions on what needs to be done gets a much better response than just a general plea for assistance. In trying to get more internal participation in our community, we provided step-by-step instructions for signing up and subscribing to certain topics, and included specific requests for how frequently we wanted employees to take action.

What changes have you made with your company because of community participation? Were there any actions that you decided not to take? Why?

Our community is still a work in progress, but I can say that it has definitely opened the door for us to new conversations and new projects with other teams. I see social media and community as something that should span across all departments, and the revamp of our community has borne that out – we’re now having regular discussions with our editorial, marketing and sales teams about how we can leverage and showcase this community information more effectively. It has also played a large part in the thinking behind our ongoing site redesign projects, which place more emphasis on community features and user-generated content, and highlight the active users within our community, rewarding them for their participation. The biggest change has really been changing the conversation about what community means for our company.

Any big projects, activities or events you’d like to share with our audience?

LavaCon 2014Looking forward to LavaCon at the moment! For any updates on projects, you can find me on Twitter (@ben_rubenstein) or visit benrubenstein.net.

 

Al Martine

A former non-profit fundraiser and strategy \ change management consultant and now he's the head of TechWhirl Janitorial Services. If it's going well or poorly with TechWhirl's websites he's probably the one to thank or blame. You can connect with Al through his Google + page.

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