Some context for how I think about online communities and social engagement.In my previous life , I worked for more than a decade as a director and producer in the professional theatre. What I loved about the theatre was that it was:LiveDynamicCollaborative…and provided real-time feedbackWhich are essentially key components of successful online communities and customer engagement. But whereas theatre is limited in scale and reach – with a fixed number of seats and performances - technology and the social Web enable us to have that kind of connection with users in perpetuity and at infinite scale. In fact, our customers are demanding it.
On December 14, 2008, if you were a mainstream consumer and went to microsoft.com to ask for help from your peers or have a conversation about Windows Vista, you may very well have ended up here, in a newsgroup, an outdated technology without many of the social features that might engage you – like rich profiles, content voting, RSS, etc. This text on the page is just one small example of how consumer-unfriendly this experience was.
On December 15, 2008, if you were a mainstream consumer and went to microsoft.com to ask for help from your peers or have a conversation about Windows Vista, you would have landed on Microsoft Answers, the company’s first online forum and community for mainstream consumers.
How great was the demand for Microsoft customers to have an accessible community help-&-how-to experience? The numbers, since that launch of for one product in English, bear out both the need and the opportunity. In less than a year, Microsoft Answers became perhaps the largest and most successful community support site in the world.While the overall traffic numbers are impressive, it’s the community contribution (which the site was conceived for, and which many were skeptical about) that is worth drawing attention to. Currently, 66% of all solutions are coming from the community, with more than half of that total coming not from power users or influentials, but from the general community. This means that some 155,000 solutions that would have either come from a support agent or content team – or not been provided at all – have been provided by customers for customers, and at minimal expense to the company.
So, you say to yourself, how did we get here?I didn’t come from a support background; my pivot was very much customer experience engagement. And while I understood driving cost containment and operational efficiency, the key support concept of “deflecting” your customers was new to me – and didn’t sit quite right.I’m a word guy, I really love language, and when I have a question or problem I’m trying to get my head around, I find the Webster to be a pretty great resource. Sure enough, I found the definitions of “deflect” to be pretty counter to any concept of help and support, and not a real good basis for building a customer relationship of long-term value. Would you be comfortable putting any of these definitions in your help files or online support sites? #FAILThe definitions for “Engage,” on the other hand, describe exactly the kind of relationships all enterprises should aspire to have with their customers. Furthermore, the goals that the business was trying to achieve through deflection could be much better achieved through engagement (and without customers feeling abused). Though we talk about “customer engagement” a lot, it can often be as a concept versus an executable action. It’s always good to remind ourselves of what words really mean.
Microsoft was brilliant at deflection in consumer support, so good that ¾ of the customers looking for help left without finding it. For the consumer support business, people needed to decide if they wanted to be in the deflection business or the engagement business. This was a bigger question, and forced a bigger cultural shift, than you might imagine, and it took a long time – and the crisis of customer dissatisfaction with Windows Vista – to convince stakeholders that a change needed to be made.
Once you decide to dramatically change your customer experience, the question becomes what you’re going to create to encourage the type of interaction that users to accomplish their tasks, and the kind of engagement that will deepen their relationship to the company. With the barrier to entry so low today – let’s be honest, any idiot can stick up a Facebook page or create a Twitter feed (and we’ve all seen them) – it’s very easy to get lulled into believing that voice that was whispering in Kevin Costner’s ear, imploring “If you build it, they will come.”
On the flip side, if you don’t enable the kind of experiences your customers expect when they buy your products and services, they’re going to be justifiably aggravated. They will search for what they need elsewhere – as Microsoft customers did when 3rd party sites blossomed to fill the needs the company didn’t – but they’ll always resent you for it. This is not a way to build loyalty. Even if you have lock-in, these customers will only upgrade out of necessity, they will always search for the cheapest price, and they will never recommend you. Know the basic needs of your customers and meet them (within the constraints of your financial and human resources).
Most importantly, you need to know why and how you’re going to meet those customer needs – and your business objectives. Getting back to that low barrier to entry, all online communities are not equal, and neither are social networking experiences. Without strategic planning and clear goals, you’ll fail. Oh, you may have a lot of fans on a Facebook page or get a lot of page views on your site, but it will be activity without impact, and eventually trickle away.
One side note worth mentioning: your customers are always looking for help (whether it’s to solve a problem, learn something new, research a product or share feedback) and they will ask for that help wherever and whenever they see an opportunity. For instance, Dave Lagesse made a blog post about the launch of Microsoft Answers for U.S. News and World Report, which quickly got lots of user comments – all of which were asking for technical support. Similarly, Microsoft Office put comment boxes on download pages asking people to rate the quality of the content, but 99% of the comments were asking for help with Office. Unfortunately, since no one on the Office team was monitoring for those comments, cries for help went unheeded, customers got aggravated and they had to pull the feature of the site.
Back to knowing why you’re building it. There’s a lot of talk about the ROI of social media or online community. More often than not, the problem is lack of measurements but a lack of planning. Before launching an online community or social networking effort, it’s critical to have a crisp vision and clear goals. “We should have a community” or “Everyone else is on Facebook” are not good business drivers. If you’re not clear about the specific problems you’re trying to solve for your customers and your business, you will never get to the point where you need to worry about ROI.
Don’t mistake this7-point plan for a simple path to launching a community; this is a framework that provides a high-level view of all of the bases you need to touch in planning for, launching and sustaining a successful online community. The underlying tactics will vary from project to project and company to company, but having been involved in several online communities and social media efforts, I can vouch for the importance of each of these fully exploring, planning and executing on these each of these workstreams.
Regardless of the purpose, quality content and relevant conversation will bring people to your site – drive them to return.Make sure opportunities for participation are obvious and that customers can clearly achieve their goals – as contributors to or consumers of the experience.An “expert” in the context of your community is anyone who provides a useful solution to a customer need, whether it’s to solve a problem, learn how to get the most out of a product, explore a purchase or provide feedback. Putting a spotlight on those contributions not only drives continued participation from those “experts,” but assures the general community that those contributions are valued and trustworthy.You don’t really own the community, but you are accountable for the relationship fostered with your customers there. This cannot be a campaign or a “go have fun amongst yourself” proposition ; if you’re not planning on engaging as an equal member of the community, this is not a path for you to pursue.Company-created content can often be unfriendly or unusable to its intended audience, being filled with jargon or omitting the customer’s POV. People want to hear from folks who look and sound like them, and your community can be a great place to have customers “translate” your messages in a way that they can be better heard.Communities without activity are like sharks that stop swimming forward: dead. Expose real-time activity so browsers see that this is a dynamic and lively place worth exploring and returning to.
While you need to be thoughtful about changes that impact the user workflow, most sites are far too timid in regularly making changes that are responsive to feedback and can improve the customer experience, conversion rate, etc. Communities are LIVE with thousands of real-time interactions daily, and having a long-term static environment makes you appear unresponsive and out-of-step with the real world. The days of big, twice-a-year refreshes are long gone.
As for participation, you’re probably familiar with the “90-9-1” principle; my colleague Jake McKee has a site (http://www.90-9-1.com/) with more details around this general rule. This is not a fixed law, but simply a general rule of thumb that’s useful to set expectations around activity and participation and give a good snapshot to folks who may not be deeply involved in online communities or social networks.
The reality will be different for every community and business, and you will find different floors and ceilings based on those variables. When designing and building your community, you should always:Remember that while your top participants will lay the foundation for your community, success at scale will depend as much on the 100,000 users who make one post as the 100 who make 1000.Toward that end, you must create an aspirational environment, with a low barrier to entry and a clear path to move up the ladder of participation.
This is who we are…
…and this is who we help engage with their customers.
Making Support SocialMicrosoft Answers & Community Support Steve Alter Social Business Strategist Ant’s Eye View www.antseyeview.com @stevealter
15months later… 13 80 languages forums in 114,044,046 Page Views 211,363 23,991 250,073 Visits/Day Unique Visitors/Day Returning Visitors/Day 31% of answers from general users of answers from MVPs 35% 568 77% 200, 829 Views/Answer Answered in 7 days Validated Answers 5
What business are you in? 6 Deflect De*flect”, v. Prevent the occurrence of; prevent from happening. Turn from a straight course, fixed direction, or line of interest. Turn aside and away from an initial or intended course. Draw someone's attention away from something. Impede the movement of (an opponent or a ball). Engage En*gage”, v. To attract and hold the attention of; engross. To gain for service; to bring in as associate or aid; to enlist; as, to engage friends to aid in a cause. To gain over; to win and attach; to attract and hold.. To draw into; involve: engage a shy person in conversation. What Business Should You Be In?
A huge number of consumers come looking for help… …but 75% leave without finding any! Self-help…doesn’t always
What problems are you trying to solve? 12 Vision Empower consumers to easily discover and use trusted content to solve problems and extend their capabilities with our software and services through rich, online communities supported by Microsoft experts. Goals
6 Must Haves for Community Success 14 Surface quality content Create a rewarding space for influencers Expose expertise, increase trust Create an invested customer relationship Reach people with their own language Provide clear sense of community vitality
5 Truths About Community Support 18 One answer goes a long way. Hundreds will make extraordinary contributions. Hundreds of thousands will make ordinary contributions. People will take help wherever – and from whoever - they can find it. A post is forever.
5 Myths About Community Support 19 “It’s the same as phone support, just online” The community does all the work now Assisted support is going away Traffic = Success (or Volume > Quality) People will just talk about how much they hate us