I admit it: I’m a user-group junkie. I got my first taste of user groups when I worked for Apple – speaking at their meetings was one of my great pleasures. Their members were unpaid, raging, inexorable thunder lizard evangelists for Macintosh and Apple II.

These folks sustained Apple by supporting its customers when Apple couldn’t – or didn’t want to – support them itself. Now that Apple is the homecoming queen again, there are lots of people receiving, taking and claiming credit for its success. The Apple user-group community deserves a high-five tribute too.

Now that I have gotten that off my chest, I can move on to the topic at hand: how to create a kick-ass community. Here are some simple tips to keep in mind:

  1. Create something worth building a community around. This is a repeated theme in my writing: The key to evangelism, sales, demoing and building a community is a great product. Frankly, if you create a great product, you may not be able to stop a community from forming, even if you never tried. In contrast, it’s hard to build a community around mundane and mediocre crap, no matter how hard you try.
  2. Identify and recruit your thunder lizards – immediately! Most companies are stupid. They go along for months and then are surprised: “You mean there are groups of people forming around our products? Never heard of them.” If you have a great product, be proactive. Find the thunder lizards and ask them to build a community. Indeed, if you cannot find any self-appointed evangelists for your product, you may not have created a great product. But if it is, in fact, a great product, the mere act of asking these customers to help you is so astoundingly flattering that they’ll be thrilled to help you.
  3. Assign one person the task of building a community. Sure, many employees would like to build a community, but who wakes up every day with this task at the top of her list of priorities? Another way to look at this is, “Who’s going to get fired if she doesn’t build a community?” A community needs a champion from within the company – an identifiable hero and inspiration – to carry the flag for the community. Therefore, hire one less M.B.A. and allocate this headcount to a community champion. This is a twofer: one less M.B.A. and one great community.
  4. Give people something concrete to chew on. Communities can’t just sit around composing love letters to your CEO about how great she is. This means your product has to be “customizable,” “extensible” and “malleable.” Think about Adobe Photoshop: If it weren’t for the company’s plug-in architecture, do you think its community would have developed so quickly? However, giving people something to chew on requires killing corporate hubris and admitting that your engineers did not create the perfect product. Nevertheless, the payoff is huge, because once you get people chewing on a product, it’s hard to wrest it away from them.
  5. Create an open system. There are two requirements of an open system. The first is a software development kit (SDK). This is software-weenie talk for documentation and tools to supplement a product. The second is application programming interfaces (APIs), which is more software-weenie talk for an explanation of how to access the various functions of a product, and it’s typically part of a good SDK. I’m using software terminology here, but the point is that you need to provide people with the tools and information they need to tweak your product, whether it’s Photoshop, an iPod or a Harley-Davidson. Here’s a non-tech example: An open-system school would enable parents to teach courses and would provide them with a manual (SDK) showing how to do so.
  6. Welcome criticism. Most companies feel warm and fuzzy toward their communities as long as these communities toe the line by continuing to say nice things, buy their products and never complain. The minute the community voices anything negative, however, companies pull back their efforts. This is a dumb thing to do. A company cannot control its community. This is a long-term relationship, so the company shouldn’t file for divorce at the first sign of possible infidelity. Indeed, the more a company welcomes – even celebrates – criticism, the stronger the bonds with its community.
  7. Foster discourse. The definition of “discourse” is a verbal exchange. The key word here is “exchange.” Any company that fosters community-building should also participate in the exchange of ideas and opinions. At the most basic level, your website should provide a forum where customers can talk to each other as well as with the company’s employees. At the bleeding edge, your CEO participates in community events too. This doesn’t mean that you let the community run your company, but you should listen to what they have to say.
  8. Publicize the existence of the community. If you’re going to all the trouble of catalyzing a community, don’t hide it under a bushel. Your community should be an integral part of your sales and marketing efforts. Check out, for instance, the part of the Harley-Davidson website dedicated to the HOG (Harley Owners Group). If you search for “user group” (with quotes) at Apple’s site, you get 112 matches. (The same search at Microsoft’s site yields 16,925 matches – I’m still pondering what this means!)

With these principles in place, any company (with quality products) can leverage the evangelizing potential of its users. But it must be a two-way relationship where both the positive and the negative are open to debate and discussion. Open, honest communication is among the surest ways of winning customer evangelists and keeping them singing your praises.