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Herding cats for fun and profit: Four tips for working with online communities

If 2008 has a buzzword, it's probably "community." I've seen a lot more interest lately from many companies (not just mine) in learning how to work with a community.

If 2008 has a buzzword, it's probably "community." I've seen a lot more interest lately from many companies (not just mine) in learning how to work with a community. While I don't claim to have all the answers, I do have some suggestions based on my experience with Novell over the last year, as well as my observations of other companies in and out of the open source space.

  1. Don't start a conversation you can't keep up. When launching a project, blog, or other avenue of communication/collaboration, have a plan for keeping it up long term. It's easy to start a blog or launch a project -- but it takes time and effort to tend to those. So don't launch something you don't have a plan to maintain. Don't have comments enabled if you never read them. That doesn't mean you need to respond to every comment -- but if the community sees you never read or reply, it's a good sign you're not really listening.
  2. Plan to act on feedback. When you open the door to feedback from a community, be prepared to act on it.  That doesn't mean that any and all feedback has to be accepted, of course -- but if the conversation is one-way only, it's useless. When you say "what do you think?" be prepared to listen and act.
  3. Have an open process. When making decisions, planning features, working on code, and so forth, you need to have a process that's as transparent as possible. This takes time and effort, and won't happen overnight. Depending on the nature of your project, some things may always take place behind closed doors -- for instance, when dealing with security bugs, many projects choose to make those bugs private until the vulnerability is disclosed. Only a few developers will have access to that information, and the community at large may not have access to those issues. But, the bulk of the process should be open to the larger community if you want to be successful.
  4. Bad news is better than no news. It may be a good PR practice to stay "on message" all the time by touting all the positives and staying silent on the negatives, but that's poor community management. Maybe a little less off-message than Monty, but you should never be afraid to admit to making an honest mistake.

Of course, other people might have better ideas than mine. I'd love to hear other ideas on best practices for working with a community. What's worked, what hasn't, and any creative tips for companies looking to do right by their communities.