The walls that keep your competitors out also limit your community.
A little while ago, I spoke at the Badgeville Engage 2012 conference, and a woman approached me at the evening reception. She was working for a SaaS company and asked me for advice on increasing engagement levels in the customer forums they were running.
My first question was: Are your forums public?
The answer was No.
I asked why that was, and she explained that they were afraid that their competitors would join the forums and poach their customers.
While I understand how one may come to think that way, I most certainly disagree that this fear is justified.
Let’s assume for a moment that the competitor’s salesforce is an exception to the overworked norm, and they have the free time to join and peruse an online forum in search of disgruntled customers. A few scenarios come to mind:
- Competitor approaches Customer 1. C1 is dissatisfied and ready for an alternative solution. Competitor lands a deal. Now do you think keeping the competitor from finding that customer on your forums would have saved you from losing the customer? No. C1 would have googled for an alternative solution anyway, and one of your competitors would have got their business. If not this one, then another. Either way, C1 was on the way out.
- Competitor approaches Customer 2. C2 has problems with your solution, but is invested and trying to solve the issues. Now put yourself in C2’s shoes for a second. Here you are on the user forums, trying to figure out why you can’t get the software to do what you need it to do, and instead of a helpful suggestion, some sales dude plugs a competing solution. If you were C2, would you react to that positively? I would not. And neither would your customer. As a result, C2 may even have a worse opinion of the competing company for trolling the forums. Because that’s what this is called, and nobody likes trolls.
- Competitor does not engage directly with your customers, but instead starts threads in your forums saying how much better their stuff is. Where I come from, we call this spam. Unsolicited off-topic posts have nothing to do on a forum, and that’s what you got your moderators for. Spammy posts from your competitor will be cleaned out, and after a few attempts they will leave.
Whichever way you look at it, there is very little risk to opening your forums to public. The benefits however are huge.
You will be generating daily fresh content that is relevant to your brand and sending your SEO through the roof. Potential customers will be able to see that you have an active community, which is always a plus when selecting a product.
If you can, make sure that your support and documentation group is involved in the forums. Ideally, they would jump on every complicated question that stayed unanswered for more than a day, but we all know how busy they are, so don’t expect miracles there.
At the very least, ask that the Knowledge Base (KB) team creates weekly posts in one or a few of the most popular forums. Here are a few ideas for recurring posts, each can be a monthly, but four of them would cover the whole month:
- most popular KB articles of the month
- new KB articles of the month
- KB articles updated this month
- team picks — this way you can highlight some articles that are neither fresh nor popular, but may be useful to get people to look at anyway
If you can at all, integrate your KB and support platform with the public user forums, and provide an incentive for your docs and support employees to promote a certain number of threads/documents each month (say, one a week) to the public area. Here are some ideas for recurring Support posts:
- most popular support question of the week
- most interesting support question of the week
- top 10 issues of the week
- a “tips and tricks” series covering your basic technology or some advanced know-how
Both the Docs and the Support posts should come with deep links into the Knowledge Base and Documentation, to both get people to learn more about your stuff, and to drive up the search engine relevance of your content across all platforms.
This is the point where you realize that your KB and documentation both need to be made public, too.
The rule of thumb should be to make it all public, unless you absolutely, positively have to make it private, such as would be the case with partner content or private betas. If you can’t find a very good reason to keep it closed, open it up, and reap the benefits of transparency.