Salesforce Lightning Bolt and the Accidental Community Manager

Last week, Salesforce.com announced a new online community framework, Lightning Bolt, which essentially allows customers to pick and choose only the most relevant features when creating an industry-specific online community of employees or customers. Building on pre-existing templates from Salesforce, customers and third party developers can now stand up instant, purpose-built communities designed to create engagement and action around a distinct and specialized topic, product, or industry.

With what feels like hundreds of community platforms out in the wild to choose from, what makes Lightning Bolt different than everything else? There are some interesting distinctions that community folks should take note of.

  • Tried and true templates. Salesforce partners like Accenture and Deloitte have created templates specific to certain industries (insurance and health, for example) that will help businesses focus on the exact type of collaboration that they want to happen. The upside? Templates will make it clear exactly what users and administrators are in the community to do. Features will be pared down to only what is necessary for the business case, meaning that if project management or ideation modules aren't needed, they aren't there. The downside? Any time you throw the Big 4 Consulting firms and their Just-As-Hefty cousins into the mix, things can get get pricey. Customers will need to watch out for possible upselling and additional development/design fees if customizations are requested.
  • Integration. Lighting Bolt-powered communities are built on and totally integrated with Salesforce's CRM systems, which means that any company keeping customer records can supercharge their customer insights by adding a community. I imagine that Salesforce is expecting big things from the analytics that will come from this integration, and as a Community Management pro, I'm excited to see the kind of data that is created around customer community engagement and how this relates to customer profitability, spending habits, and more. At the same time, it's a little big-brotherish, but fascinating nonetheless.
  • Total control. Unlike Facebook Pages, which arguably can host a community of product enthusiasts, new Lightning Bolt communities appear to be totally white-labeled without the ads that people see on Facebook's all-encompassing social networking site, or the distraction of competing shiny-object notifications (Michael "liked" your photo!). Total control also means opening up the option for communities in regulated industries where a more broad approach isn't appropriate. Lightning Bolt customers own the space and own the experience from end to end. However, companies will need to realize that they're asking customers and employees to log into another website for a distinct purpose. This leads me to the one thing that nobody is talking about regarding Lightning Bolt...

The Rise of the Accidental Community Manager

Much of the hype around Lightning Bolt is around the speed of deployment - it's fast and easy to create a community online. But the reality is that a community isn't a place - it's a group of people - and a group that needs to understand why they're participating and what the value of the community is. Companies deploying online spaces on Lightning Bolt need to remember that the community experience is about more than features. Companies will need to design their community programs, not just the platform.

Salesforce is bringing the ability to create online communities to smaller organizations that may not have any experience in this realm. One of the templates being promoted is for insurance agents, for example. A small business owner-agent may be tempted to create a community space to build loyalty and engagement in her hometown where her customers mostly reside. Customers aren't just going to visit and talk with themselves, however. The owner-agent needs to find ways to excite them, have ongoing dialogue with them, and be responsive to their questions. Indeed, what Salesforce pitches as a quick and easy way to build a community will actually create more work for small businesses that will need to learn the art and science of community management.

Ultimately, I love that every business owner is able to create a community that meets their business' needs. Salesforce Lightning Bolt is another opportunity for businesses to be engaging and human with their customers. Companies taking the plunge into online community development with this platform need to remember the human size of communities first, however, and ensure appropriate staffing, programming, and engaging dialogue opportunities to ensure their success.

Have you tried a Lightning Bolt community yet? How is it working for you?