I'm a blogger of habit, and tend to post on things that are topical for me at a point in time, and one thing that has popped up recently has been the curious compulsion for people to mix commercial and community activities into the one blob. Now, there is nothing wrong with this per se, as there is nothing wrong with washing your cat with your socks, except that something's are best done separately.
So what is the concern/issue/problem? Well, it's particular to the situation where entities (companies, contractors, individuals) are in the process of building a new business (or trying to expand an existing one), and want to attract new customers. Now, the first thing some see is the amazing network that communities can provide, and start to get involved in community activities, which is great.
The next evolution for some is where the problems start to occur; it's when these entities start down one of two paths:
1. They start to use their community platform (user group, website, blog, etc.) as a sales platforms...WRONG!
2. They start to hold special meetings (info sessions, breakfast meetings, etc.) under the guise of community activities for sales generation purposes...WRONG!
Now, why is it wrong? Well, it's not wrong as in "Why did you slap my face?" wrong, it's wrong from a customer engagement point of view.
See, you always want your sales engagement strategy to be clean and crisp! You want it to be free from ambiguity, easy to understand and digest, but most importantly, most critical, most MOSTLY, you want there to be a clear purpose. And that purpose is, "I want your money!".
So let's set down some basic rules of engagement...
Firstly, create two, separate strategies! One is your Community Engagement strategy, one is your Commercial Sales strategy.
Your Community Engagement strategy needs a clear charter, and this should not include, in fact, this should prohibit any form of selling, spruiking, cajoling, etc. It should focus on bringing people together, it should be about drawing value from the members and disseminating this in a social way. It should be all about building strong relationships amongst like minded people.
Your Commercial Sales strategy on the other hand needs to be a little more direct. It needs to include:
Right, so now you have two strategies, but the funny thing is, you could run the one type of event, but depending on the context, suddenly the outcomes are very different. For example, take the situation where Alex (not their real name) wants to get some new customers, so Alex holds a "Lunch Session". It's a free event, held somewhere in the city, and the topic is, "Get the most out of Tire Server 2007 (not a real product)". The invite is sent out via Alex's blog, which is aggregated on a RoN style site, and people start to register. At this point, there hasn't been a mention of what the intent of the session is, so there are some people who are interested in buying Tire Server 2007 (let's call them 'buyers'), so they register, and there are some people who are using Tire Server 2007 (let's call them 'users'), so they register too. So everyone rocks up, Alex gets up there, and the session goes one of two ways:
1. Bob gets up and starts talking about how he (or his company) can deliver the best solutions using Tire Server 2007, using certain techniques, IP and processes, on time and on budget. For the 'buyers', this is great info, and they may approach Bob afterwards and engage Bob for some follow on work. For the 'users', they feel cheated out of their time, as this "Get the most out of blah" session just turned into a sales conference!
2. Bob gets up and starts talking about the best techniques when using Tire Server 2007, goes through the best practices for designing Tire Server 2007 solutions, does a demo on some of the cool feature of the product, and even shows some hints and tips for doing some things better. For the 'buyers', this session just turned into a techie thing, which went over their head, and they have no idea why they would want to buy Tire Server 2007, how the product stacks up against other products in the marketplace, and who is able to deliver Tire Server 2007 solutions. For the 'users', the session is great, they get some quick info, hints and tips, and get the chance to ask some questions.
What I think is a better approach, is if Bob clearly frames the activities being conducted, as being community or commercial. This not only ensures the audience is right, but also that Bob's reputation is not sullied when people start talking, and start making assertions that Bob is just trying to scam people or misuse the concept of community. Again, I think getting involved in community activities and commercial activities are critical, but for those who are trying to do both, keeping the two clearly delineated helps remove potential confusion, and also ensures you get a direct result; whether its a vibrant community or a great pipeline tool.