New: Well-forgotten (and renamed) old

No matter what you call it, your community of users beats an overseas call center any time.

You know that something has gone mainstream when the Economist writes about it as a new trend. In this week’s edition dedicated to technology, the newspaper writes about “unsourcing” as the next big thing in tech support after outsourcing.

Quote:

“Unsourcing”, as the new trend has been dubbed, involves companies setting up online communities to enable peer-to-peer support among users. Instead of speaking with a faceless person thousands of miles away, customers’ problems are answered by unpaid individuals in the same country who have bought and used the same products. This is done either in discussion forums set up on the company’s own website or on social networks like Facebook and Twitter.

From there, the article goes on to extoll the awesome savings TomTom and BestBuy have seen by allowing their customers help each other. As usual, Gartner is cited as ultimate authority, claiming up to 50% potential support cost savings.

So how do you make your customers do your support work for you? Enter another buzzword (that one I have actually heard of): Gamify! Provide points and achievement levels to entice the customers to play and compete, and you’ve got it made. People will fall over themselves to answer technical questions, and you will be able to lay off half of those Philippino support agents you hired back when Outsourcing was the name of the game.

Winning!

That’s all fine and good, but as with many business publications, the focus is entirely on what the company wants. In this particular case, the company wants its users to provide tech support for each other, and needs to game them into doing this work for free. I dunno, this sounds one-sided, and a little scammy to me.

What this article fails to mention, and many Business majors miss on a daily basis, is what the customers actually get out of it. Because it’s not the points. You can set up your community support forums using the latest software, and use the newest gamification technology to motivate people to donate their time and expertise, and you will still fail if you only focus on your selfish goals.

Online communities of use have existed for almost as long as the Net itself, despite what the Economist and Gartner may believe. Smart companies have been embracing online communities for a long time, and the really smart ones have built such communities and kept them free of the corporate censorship and marketing copy.

The distinguishing quality of a community of use, as opposed to say, anime fan forums, is that the users come together to help each other succeed with whatever it is the community organized around. Like knitting, or using Photoshop or other software, or fixing vintage automobiles. In order for such a community to thrive, it needs to empower its members to exchange opinions and information freely, and to allow constructive criticism and even talk about competition.

In order to thrive, the community needs user’s trust, and you gain that trust by making sure that:

  • The information in the community is unfiltered by corporate and therefore genuine.
    Some policing is always necessary, and I will write about community moderators separately. Things such as flame wars and profanity do not enhance a community and should be kept to a minimum and cleaned up. What I am referring to is removing user posts that are not in line with corporate messaging or having employees post on forums without disclosing their affiliation.
  • User contributions will not be censored because they may express criticism or suggest a competitor product that may help resolve the issue better.
    “Help users be successful” is your mantra as the community manager. If a competitor’s product will help your user succeed, what would you rather have: an unhappy user of your product, or a happy user of a competitor’s product who now trusts your brand more for allowing them to find out about the alternative?
  • The forum owner (the corporation in our example) will not abuse its power for propaganda and will mostly leave the users in peace to do their thing.
    When building a community, your goal should be to empower the users to do what they came here to do–ask and receive help–and get out of the way. If you come up with nifty new ways to help users help each other more effectively, or create a new reward program to recognize the power-users for their disproportionately huge contribution, that’s fine, because it helps. But don’t dedicate prime real estate of the landing page to a new flash ROI calculator and push the forum list down below the fold!

So in short, yes, the savings from engaging and empowering a community of your users can be very real, but they will not just magically materialize if you don’t approach this exercise with user benefit in mind.

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1 Comment

Filed under Community management

One response to “New: Well-forgotten (and renamed) old

  1. MusicBrainz has been doing this for a long time now and its written into our contracts: Our IRC channel is our support center. And we’ve gotten good marks for supporting our customers. +1 to this concept — I fully endorse it!

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