Category Archives: Community management

The true meaning of points

Community reputation points are pointless if the community does not buy into their value. As a community manager, it is your job to discover the values that create that buy-in.

I’ve written at length now about how online reputation and rewards work to motivate contributions from your community. But before you rush to create a sophisticated system with bells, whistles, points, and badges, you need to make sure that they will be in tune with the values of your community. Why is that? Because if they aren’t, people won’t care about them, or worse, will take it as a sign that you are out of touch (which frankly, you would be).

A good online reputation and reward management system would reflect what matters to your community members, and merely* capture and quantify that value in the form of online reputation.

Let me give you an example scenario to illustrate the point.

Points are awarded every time a community member shares a forum post via social media. When rolled out to the community platform, Community 1 sees a spike in sharing activity and rise in SEO relevance. Community 2 does not see a measurable traffic increase, and the function is barely used; in addition an angry thread is started by a super-user about how instead of rolling out useless junk Company 2 should better fix existing bugs in the system.

So what went wrong with Community 2 and why was there such a backlash? We know that this can work, and we have seen examples of that in action. Then why is the manager of Community 2 being flamed for doing what is considered to be an industry best practice?

The (sometimes infuriating) answer to this question is that nothing is inherently wrong with this logic, until you put it in the context of your community. So let’s examine our two communities a little closer.

Community 1 is maintained by a software company which offers mobile productivity apps for smartphones. Their community forum is open for anyone to read, and only registered users can contribute. Discussions revolve around integrating the user’s existing services (such as calendars, email, exchange directory, etc.) with the apps as well as troubleshooting. By encouraging sharing of helpful Q&A threads, the community now is more visible on social media, reaching more users, as well as attracting new customers. This extra cross-linking also helps the community’s pages to be displayed higher on the search results page, allowing users with problems to find a solution sooner.

Community 2 is run by a home security company, which offers both software and hardware solutions. The forum is only accessible to verified customers, and closely moderated. Product support is strictly confidential, and forum discussions focus on best practices and special cases. Social sharing may lead to broken links and login prompts in the best case, and to confidentiality breach (if someone decided to quote part of the shared content) in the worst. Encouraging social sharing by points rewards will predictably not go over well, since this is not an activity that serves the values of the given community.

So in short: think before you reward. If you are unclear on what your community values, figure that out first. You are the one being paid the proverbial big bucks to help the community thrive, so do your homework, lest you look silly later on.


* “Merely” in this context doesn’t imply that it’s going to be simple or easy. It implies however that the points system is an add-on to the value system inherent in your community, and cannot function without it.

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Filed under Community management, Reputation

Don’t gamify. Engage!

Don’t try to game your users into doing something you want. Instead, use meaningful achievement tracking to encourage community contribution and motivate personal growth.

Forum points are great as a motivator for some folks, particularly the ones who are good at answering questions. However leaderboards can also be extremely demotivating for newcomers. Someone just joining your community may see the huge gap between their reputation level and that of a seasoned participant as an insurmountable obstacle. This leaves you in a little bit of a bind: how to keep your top contributors motivated while also encouraging participation from new members?

It is tricky, if all you can track are forum interactions, and you can resort to using “top 10” lists for the hour or the day to give everyone a chance to see their name in the lights. Sure. That will work for some people: namely the same ones who were motivated by the points all along. They are the ones who already spend hours on the forum, ready to pounce on an unanswered question. Maybe an improved points system will reach a broader mass of them, but they do not make up the majority. This is why I believe that any points-based system will forever be lacking effectiveness.

It’s not all about points.

Let me rephrase that: It’s not at all about points. Points are just an easy way out. Quick, and seemingly fair. But does your community truly exist on the Q&A forums? What about bloggers, user group leads, dedicated customers who take your training and achieve professional certifications? What about makers of video tutorials, and curators of compatibility lists? How many points do they earn if they don’t post in the forum? Zero.

Is their contribution any less valuable? Or as their points status indicates, completely devoid of value? No.

So what do you do? How do you capture all the other stuff that is not just a Q&A binary?

It will take work. Years, probably, and still you’ll never be done.

And it will take support and buy-in from groups in your organization that you may never worked with before. Such as channel marketing and training. So this is not for the faint-hearted.

Tell you the truth, I have yet to finish building such a platform in the wild, but inside my head, it would look something like this:

  1. Create a system that captures behaviours online. Some automatically, and some, you should be able to capture manually. Each behaviour that you capture can be called an achievement, and you can view it as a LEGO block that you can make other things from.
    Example: Post on your blog about Linux. OR Give a presentation at your user group meeting.
  2. Those other things can be called quests or missions or whatever you like. You get to write the rules how each of these quests is completed: ten of the same achievement, or maybe any combination of ten achievements from the same “family” that fit together well.
    Example: Post about Linux once every month for 12 months completes the “Blogger” quest. OR Five blog posts, one magazine article, two public presentations, and a podcast complete the “Public Figure” quest.
  3. Make it more of an honor system than a rigid bureaucracy. Allow people to claim achievements, and periodically/sporadically audit. Community is good at sensing BS, so rely on self-policing and moderators more than bureaucratic enforcement, and you’ll be golden.
    Example: Allow me to claim my “blog post” achievement by simply logging in and submitting the blog post URL. Issue the achievement badge immediately, but also list the event in the activity feed for all to see. Have a red flag or other abuse reporting functionality built in, so that others can report fraudsters.
  4. Start with a small, well-defined scope. Don’t forget the forums! Find a way to translate all those points earned daily into achievements, so that everyone can benefit. Thankfully, forums already capture a lot of data, so just come up with a balanced system where forum activity won’t drown out the rest — because it’s that “rest” that you’re really creating the system for (see opening paragraphs).
  5. Once everyone is on board, and obligatory bugs, quirks, and ruffled feathers have been dealt with (remember, you are unseating the reigning elite here, so be prepared), you can begin adding achievements that are traditionally not viewed as “community” or “social-media” like. Professional training and certifications are an example. Same can be done for partner training and certified system integrators. You will find that many of these programs are very similar to a quest in your system. It may take completion of a number or classes and an exam to become a certified partner. In many cases, there is already a system tracking it, so what you’ll do is integrate it with your system, in a way that makes sense.
    This is a really tricky part, and will require that you work together and get buy-in from people who you may not usually work with. If your company is large, there will be many more players involved, and progress will be slow, but in the end, you will have a system of achievement and recognition that will capture more than just forum posts, and will therefore reward and elevate people who contribute to your community in a variety of different ways. And we all love variety, right?

One day, somewhere, I want a chance to build such a thing, and then my joy will be great. Until then, it’s going to remain a vision for me to aspire to with all the community work I do: build each piece in such a way that were there a chance to expand it into this sort of an all-encompassing rewards system, it would naturally fit. If nothing else, it ensures that I never lose sight of the big picture and the overarching goal of running a community program.

In closing, this is more of a visionary post than the usual hands-on guides that I have been posting here. I promise that the next one will be practical again.

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Filed under Advanced, Community management, Reputation

Presentation from MongoSV Masters session

I have been in a major heads-down mode, having switched jobs, and elbow-deep in building the foundations for a community. Hence, no new wisdom was shared.

However, I have totally given a talk at MongoSV in December, and here are my slides.

Transcript

1. Community is not about you OR What community leadership is about by Alex Maier, Community Director, Nebula

2. Who am I to say this?
• 15+ years in online marketing
• 10+ years in open source
• Founded Fedora Ambassadors
• Led VMware vExperts
• Building a community for Nebula
Blog: comrademanager.com

3. How to be a successful community leader
Empower your community
then get the hell out of the way

4. People will only do what they want
• Community == Volunteers
• They came to do something they care about
• They likely have own ideas
• You can’t fire them
• You can however make them leave

5. Identify what people want
You can observe a lot by watching. -Yogi Berra
• Listen
• Look for patterns
• Distil into actionable projects

6. Connect the right people
Soylent green is people!
• Use your insight to find like-minded people
• Bring them together
• Explain why you think their interests are a good match for collaboration

7. Get them the resources they need
• Sometimes it’s money
• Sometimes it’s infrastructure
• Sometimes it’s training
• Only your community knows what they need
So ask them.

8. Arbitrate when necessary
• Passion begets conflict
• Don’t expect kumba-ya
• Don’t be afraid of conflict
How to arbitrate:
• State the rules—clearly and in public
• Apply rules equally to everyone
• Even to yourself!

9. Stay out of the way
• Don’t micro-manage
• Actually, don’t get involved at all if possible
• If they follow the rules of the community and are productive, leave them alone
• Learn to accept unexpected outcomes
• Learn to love them
• …even if they weren’t your idea

10. Show gratitude
• Recognition is a powerful motivator
• Simple “thank you” email or message on forum does wonders
• Promote volunteer leaders
• Give them more responsibility
• Don’t stop thanking volunteers
• Gratitude never gets old

11. Don’t take all the credit
Sounds like a simple thing, no?
Brings us right back to the beginning:
Community is not about you

12. Thank you

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Filed under Community management, Events

Soylent green is people!

At its core, community is not a platform. It’s the people.

Last week I was participating in a panel about Marketing Cloud, and we touched on both the aspect of marketing cloud technology and marketing using the cloud. I wish there was a recording of the discussion, because my co-panelists were super knowledgeable and engaging, and over the course of an hour we’ve touched on a number of really good topics. But there was no recording, and therefore I can’t share it with you.

At one point, Joshua uttered words “open community” and I just could not resist the urge to ask in my best smart Alec tone, whether there is any kind of community other than open. “Oh yes, there is! Failed!” I concluded, and was challenged rightfully to explain myself. Joshua pointed out that Twitter for example is thriving yet they do not generally open all their APIs and their solution is proprietary.

My response: Twitter is not a community. Neither is Facebook.

A community, at least in my mind, is a group of people, united by common interest or experience. While I use Twitter on a daily basis these days, I do not feel a particular sense of community with random people posting there about what they just had for lunch. While all of Twitter users could thinkably come together as a community should the company say, announce that they plan to start charging for their services–the outpouring and insta-unity would be overwhelming–until something of that scale, impacting all tweeps, were to happen, we are rather a smattering of communities.

There are foodies, movie lovers, friends keeping in touch, artists, and nurses on Twitter, talking to their own communities about things that matter to them, which have little relevance to others.

I find that there is a lot of confusion coming from people equating community with the platform that is used to host it. A platform does not a community make. People do.

I would even go as far as to argue that you can have a successful community that did not use a social platform at all. Listserv, anyone? Or even–gasp!–completely offline communities that meet in real life? Like a church or a book club?

Let me revisit the quip about two kinds of communities: open and failed.

Openness in this context does not mean open source. Neither does it mean absolute transparency and openness towards any and everybody. All it means is that the community should be open and transparent towards its members.

As a corporation, you may want to run a private beta or a pilot program that you would not want to share with the world yet. As long as the participants know what’s going on, and know what is expected of them, and what they can expect in return from you, running a private community with them is a-okay.

If you are openly recruiting customers for such a program, you must share as much about the organization and selection criteria of the program upfront as you can without saying too much about the actual secret bits. If you are collecting names, but not everyone will be accepted, say so. Then there will be no bad surprises for the folks who did not make it in, and no speculation about why.

Whether you use an open-source solution to power your community programs changes nothing on the fundamental openness of your interactions with the people who make it up.

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Filed under Community management, Responses, Transparency

Rent or own?

If you care about shaping the discussion around your products and brand, you won’t get around hosting a community.

With all the existing social channels, do you really need to host your own community platform? Your community is already congregating on Facebook, and Twitter, and StackOverflow, and Reddit, and you barely have enough resources to keep up with the goings on there–Can’t you just meet your users where they are?

In my previous post, I talked about the seeming redundancy between a branded community and documentation/support content. Having read it, my friend and colleague John Troyer has sent me this article on The Role of Brands in Online Communities, which deals with the other seeming redundancy: branded community v. third-party social media sites.

I agree wholeheartedly with what the author says: by limiting your community engagement to only the third-party sites such as Facebook and Twitter, you would miss an opportunity to create a “clean, well-lit place” for your community to engage with you  and your brand, help each other, and find professional connections, to name just a few.

While “clean, well-lit place” makes total sense to me as a metaphor, let me explain what I understand it to mean.

First and foremost, it means a place where disruptive behaviour such as flaming is not tolerated, and a certain level of professionalism and politeness are the norm. This creates a welcoming atmosphere that encourages participation from people who may not otherwise be active on other public forums.

Second, hosting a branded community gives that space a sense of being officially endorsed. Anyone can start a Yahoo mailing list or a Facebook group dedicated to a product, but when the maker of that same product hosts their own, it puts the weight of the brand behind the community, and that matters to the users a whole lot.

Finally, by being hosted on your corporate web domain, it is easy to find, and therefore can become a hub for your users  to discover your hosted community as well as all the other communities related to your brand, such as a listing of your third-party social media channels.

You may say, “Sure, sounds great, but it also sounds like a lot of work.”

It sure is.

So what do you get in return for all this trouble?

You get to control the context in which people engage with your brand, as well as to influence the discourse somewhat. If you only use third-party sites to talk to your community, you give up all that control.

Mind you, with great powers come great responsibilities, so use that control wisely and remember the main tenet of community building: It’s not about you. If you think that people will put up with your self-centered patter just because you got a pretty branded community site, you will be wrong, and end up with tumbleweeds before you even get going.

In order to grow the community engagement, you will have to come up with things you can do to provide something of value to your users. Otherwise, they’ll just stay on Facebook and prove your naysayers right.

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Filed under Community management, Essentials, Responses

The Importance of Reputation in Online Communities

A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to participate in a panel on importance of reputation in online communities. I was privileged to share the limelight with the most excellent community managers: Bill Platt of Engine Yard, Sean O’Driscoll of Ant’s Eye View, and Annie Fox of Buzznet. We were quite an unruly bunch, and almost gave our moderator Caroline Dangson a heart attack when we decided to have a drinking game on-stage. Some say, it was diluted Coke, but there are no guarantees. Enjoy.

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Filed under Community management, Events, Reputation

Moderation, in spades

Volunteer community moderators are your secret weapon in keeping your community friendly, professional, and helpful.

When run well, a volunteer moderator organization can do wonders for you. They can be your eyes and ears into what’s going on in the community, they can be your sounding board for new ideas, and a source of ideas and suggestions to make your community even better.

Before we even start with recruiting your volunteer moderators, let’s talk about what makes a volunteer moderation team work well.

First, you need to provide clear set of rules for your forum. You may already have some, or none. Start with community code of conduct, where you state the goals of your community and the general rules of engagement for all users. Also write up some FAQs and make sure that all these documents are clearly visible in the forums. Consider linking them from the global site footer, right next to the legal terms of use.

Once you got that covered, you will need moderator guidelines. That’s a document with clear rules for the moderators to follow while enforcing your code of conduct and the terms. Things such as what to do with a flame post, when to lock a thread, and how to deal with spammers. Spend a couple hours in the quiet spelling that out. If you have never written such guidelines before, google “forum moderator guidelines” and adapt what makes sense to you.

Do we get to recruit moderators now? Nope, not yet. If you are starting a new volunteer organization, you better lay down the rules for how one becomes (and stays) a moderator right from the start. Who qualifies to be a moderator? Maybe someone who’s been on the forum for X months, or someone with N forum posts.

In order to avoid creating a clique, and to combat volunteer fatigue, you will also need to put in place some succession/election mechanisms that will allow you to introduce new blood on a regular basis as well as give the old guard a way to step down without losing face.

The rules that work well for my volunteer group are pretty simple, and go something like this:

  1. You have to have 500+ forum points to qualify.
  2. We hold elections every six months and qualified people can step forward at that point, while the existing moderators get to vote on the candidates. We allocate a full month for that process.
  3. If a candidate receives no negative votes, they’re in. Even a single negative vote is enough to take the candidate out of the race.
  4. All existing moderators have to re-commit for the next 6 months during the election time. If they don’t do that during the election month, they get removed from the group.
    Note: Spare no energy to repeat that there is no disgrace in stepping down if you have no time or your priorities have changed. You want this group to consist of active moderators, not sleepers.

Procedure matters, of course. And you have to make sure you hold yourself to the highest standard first, and never ever break your word. Even if your favorite community member has just been vetoed from being elected a moderator.

Why? Because you want this group to work with as little friction as possible, and that requires that no single person has major problems with any other. Also, because you have to show them your trust in order to earn theirs. Trust begets trust, and you’ll have to always have their back, so that when the time comes, they will have yours.

Now you get to go recruit moderators. If you have no volunteer moderators yet, go find out who are the most active forum contributors and approach them. Tell them that you are looking for volunteers, and point them to the guidelines and forum rules that you’d ask them to enforce. First batch you can just let in at your own discretion, and make sure they know that the elections will be happening at regular intervals after that.

Give them a private forum to talk amongst themselves, where only you and the moderators will have access. Establish a moderator meeting or some such to get the group feeling like they belong, and if you have a VIP program, include them in that.

You will have to be an active participant in the forum yourself, to make sure you don’t miss any questions, and also to let them know that you are around if they need you.

As the moderators start implementing your guidelines in real life, you may need to amend them or to add new rules. If you are unsure what to do, ask your moderators. That will show them that you respect their opinion, and help them feel appreciated. And that is what makes a volunteer organization thrive.

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Filed under Community management, Transparency

Why community management isn’t

When it comes to community, “management” is a misnomer. You don’t “manage” a community, you serve it.

When asked what I do for a living, I say “community management,” and cringe. For me, the term management implies a business-like approach, profit and loss, ROI, that sort of thing. Instead, I rather see myself as a mayor of my community.

Come to think of it, with just over a million registered users, I got myself a town to run, with moderators as the police force, web engineers helping with the town infrastructure, and all the different product groups setting up shop in the forums, to help the town inhabitants with their questions and problems.

Every morning, I read through my community notifications: moderators reporting spammers who need banning, new members asking for help finding information, maybe some bug reports for the engineers to fix. My resources aren’t unlimited, and most times I have to choose how to allocate them between regular maintenance work as well as upgrades and bug fixes.

Just like with a real-world town hall, I get requests from different groups for new features, and to raise priority of certain bugs that have been on the back burner for a while. And every once in a while I even get to be a judge in disputes between community members or vendors.

So all in all, I think this analogy stands up pretty nicely, so I will go ahead and stretch it out a little further.

In all languages that I know, the work that a city hall worker does is called a service of some kind. It is public service in English, öffentlicher Dienst in German, общественные услуги in Russian. Are you catching my drift? What I am saying here is that as a mayor of your online community you are less like a corporate manager, deciding between outsourcing jobs to off-shore and cutting local wages, and much more like a public servant, serving your little community and responding to its everyday needs.

Now with this “public servant” mindset, reasons for many of the popular “community management” failures become duh-obvious. Take my favourite pet peeve, the video contest. Just because Coca-Cola corporation is able to attract some brilliant submissions, doesn’t mean you will. And it’s not because your community is any less talented, although I suspect that computer engineers may not make best moviemakers, or they’d all quit their jobs in the datacenter and move to Hollywood. You will not get the videos out of them because that video is what you want, and not what they want. They are your townspeople, not your employees, and you cannot tell them what to do.

Same goes for any “engagement” efforts that have the goals of your company at the center, instead of the goals of the people that make up the community: share your story, photo, video, tell us how great our products are, for a chance to win a trip to our company event or an iPad. Initiatives like these treat the community members like workforce, and try to “pay” them with a prize that may not even be relevant to your company or product. If it’s a cool gadget, you may get a dozen submissions, but you will not inspire hundreds, and you will not make anyone feel like you are tuned into what is going on in your community. It will be perceived as soulless marketing, and that will be the end of that.

To have a community that is abuzz with cool people doing cool stuff, you have to keep your ear to the ground and your hand on the pulse of the town, and look for cool things that your community members are already doing. The moment you see a cool project in the making, swoop down and shower the person(s) in question with any kind of support you can provide, and don’t really ask for much in return. Just empower them and get out of their way.

That last bit about getting out of the way is very important too. You see local government supporting citizen initiatives all the time. Say, there’s an art project that got a grant. While a grant will often have clear guidelines as to what kind of art project will be sponsored, you won’t see the mayor actually picking up the paintbrush or donning a tutu to help. Once the grant recipient is picked, they can do as they please within the constraints of the grant.

As a result, the town gets a new mural or a dance performance, the starving artists get to stave off starvation for a while longer, and the mayor gets a happier community.

The sooner you realize that you are the one serving the community, and not managing it, the sooner you will stop stepping on the rake of artifice and begin having genuine engagement with people in your community.

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Filed under Care and feeding, Community management

Orgcharts are stupid

Your users don’t care how you organize your company internally. Community web architecture has to make sense to them and be persistent, not change whenever two departments get merged.

When building and running a community, you constantly have to make choices about information architecture starting early on. Which products get forums? Do you want to organize them into categories? What to do with products that have been discontinued?

Whether you are starting from scratch or taking care of an existing community, you will have to fight to keep your forum structure independent from the corporate orgchart.

Sooner or later, a product manager or some such will come to you and request that you move, or delete a forum because their group has been moved to a different department or the product has been discontinued.

First off, you should never kill a community forum when the product has reached its end of life. There are probably many people still using it, and why would you want to prevent users from providing support to each other after your call center won’t? Your responsibility as a community manager is primarily to your peeps, the users. Taking away what may well be their last resort to getting help will not please the customer who is already unhappy that your company won’t support the product they are invested into.

Same goes for moving of an existing forum just to achieve symmetry with internal organization. If it is active, and people know where to find it, it is best to leave it where it is. If you have to move it, at the very least set up a redirect so that the old bookmarks continue to work.

If anything, my preference is to keep the forum structure as flat as possible. Unless your company has more than 20 products, there is no need to create hierarchies and categories, which will only make it harder to find the right forum. Having a simple forum structure that does not necessarily mimic the way products are presented on your official company site will also allow you to stay free from demands to reorganize every time the company departments get reshuffled.

Now to new forum creation. If you want to avoid creating ghost towns, you have to be judicious with how many forums you create. Assuming you already have all products covered and want to serve your community better, how will you decide which new forums to create and which to stay away from? Thinking from your user’s perspective can help you figure this out.

Communities of use are centered around the needs of people implementing and using products and technologies. So they will either want to talk about a particular product, or a use case, such as “Canon 500 printer-scanner” or “virtualizing mail servers.” If you watch a certain use case get a lot of traffic across your forums, you can expect that a new separate forum for it will get some traction.

However forums that target a specific customer demographic are usually destined to failure. What I am talking about are forums dedicated to vertical market segments, such as healthcare, government, or elusive groups such as SMBs.

While segmenting your customers by demographic or vertical looks good on a quarterly report, it has absolutely nothing to do with your community, which is built around helping people get answers to their technical questions. Unless your software crashes differently in a Fortune 500 bank than it does in a local library, there is absolutely no reason to make a banking forum separate from a librarians forum.

Creating forums for customers based on company size such as SMB is even more dicy. The term SMB stands for “small and medium-size business.” For the longest time “SMB” has been a pet peeve of mine, because all it really says is “customers who are too small for our sales people to bother talking to directly, and we’d rather they self-service or talk to our partners.”

This is why in my professional life, whenever a colleague comes to me for help setting up an “SMB community” I ask “are you sure that your target audience self-identifies as SMB?”

Seriously, do you expect Joe Blow to come to work one morning and realize “Hey I need MegaWidget for my business, but my company is too small for Megacorp to bother returning my calls, so why don’t I google for ‘MegaWidget for SMB’ instead? Surely they will have a microsite for small fry like me!”

Chances are, Megacorp will have a page like this, only it will be frequented by its partners, not SMBs, because in real life, very few customers stop to think from their vendor’s perspective. And sadly the reverse is true for vendors, resulting in SMB forums with nothing but tumbleweeds in them.

In community marketing, it is never about you, it’s about your user community‘s needs. Just because it is convenient for you to define a target group in a certain way, doesn’t mean that they will automatically self-identify and embrace such definition.

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Filed under Community management, Usability

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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