Tag Archives: Customer

Why do you need a community, anyway?

Aside from helping your users be successful with your solutions, you need to build a community for the conversations about your products and your brand to happen in a friendly civilized environment.

Since most of us work in corporate environments, it is not a far-fetched scenario where you get asked: “Explain to me, why do we even need to invest in building a community? Can’t we just have a good Knowledge Base and Support instead?”

If you only approach this question from the standpoint of helping your users with their technical questions, then you really don’t have an argument for deploying a user community platform. If you only want the community there to field questions, spending the money on hiring more technical writers and support agents will indeed bring you more bang for the buck.

However.

Once your product is out there for the world to see, conversations will start happening around it. People will talk about your brand and your products, and their experiences with them. There is nothing you can do to prevent this, and neither should you. Conversation is a good thing.

Just like in the olden days people made friends and invited them up for tea, creating an official space for your users to get together and have such conversations will get you good will from them.

What you (and your hypothetical question-asking colleagues) need to realize, is that your community exists independently of you. The moment you let people get their hands on your product, you have created a group united by their user experience. When you spin up a forums platform, all you do is give that user community a welcoming home, where you get to set the tone and rules of engagement.

If you don’t give them a home, they will go and talk about you on somebody else’s online forums, the conversation will become fragmented, questions will go unanswered, and frustration will build.

The “welcoming” part is also important.

You know the typical internet forum: full of snark, flaming, and other such things that leave an unpleasant aftertaste. Since you want your community forums to be a welcoming and professional place where people can have conversations undisturbed by trolls, some amount of benign control on your behalf is necessary and will be welcomed by the participants. As long as you only police the tone and not censor any negative comments or criticism, your efforts to keep the discussions clean will be supported, and when you are ready to recruit your volunteer moderators, they will have a clear example to follow.

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Filed under Essentials

If you love them, set them free

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

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Filed under Care and feeding, Transparency

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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Filed under Community management