A few months ago, Richard Millington and I were chatting about a study Richard’s team at Feverbee had recently performed to map the landscape of online customer communities. Richard remarked that most of the communities out there seemed to be focused on peer-to-peer support. Did I agree? Absolutely!
Amid all the talk about communities for loyalty, advocacy, co-creation, etc., what brings customers together most often is the need for help and advice. This need isn’t limited to a single industry — think about healthcare and financial services for two examples — but a large portion of this conversation focuses around complex products or services in the high-tech space — i.e., technical support.
Now, communities are often a hybrid of several use cases or objectives, and it can be difficult to say whether a community’s purpose is primarily support. But I can say that at least half of the approximately 500 communities on the Lithium platform have support as a primary or secondary purpose — maybe the largest single use case we see. And I would guess that’s as true of the community landscape at large as it is of our customer base.
So a few weeks later, when Lithium’s Director of Marketing Rich Reilly proposed a small event at Lithium headquarters co-chaired by Feverbee, Rich Millington and I thought immediately of having support community as a topic. It seemed like a great topic to test out the kind of small-group conversations we’d like to have more of through the course of this year.
The event was last Tuesday. Attendees included director and senior manager level folks responsible for community programs at their organizations. They came from high-tech companies and online services, business-to-business and business-to-consumer companies, and Lithium customers as well as those running on other platforms. It was a great group of experienced people grappling every day with the challenges and opportunities of large-scale, many-to-many customer engagement for the purposes of customer support.
Following are a few of the topics we discussed.
Where does your community effort sit in the organization?
Contrary to expectations, support communities don’t always report into the support organization. In fact, about half of participants said they sat in marketing, not support. A marketing home for community is common in B2B companies, whereas B2C companies generally keep their communities in the support org. B2B communities can also sit in the product development organization, customer success, an innovation group, or developer relations.
In some organizations, the decision of where community should sit isn’t completely settled: “We have to be super fluid; tomorrow we might be under a different organization.”
What are your goals for the community’?
Historically, support community goals have focused on call deflection, and indeed, one participant noted that an influx of calls during a community outage was one of the most effective things in demonstrating the value of community to her organization. But if this roundtable is any indication, there’s a shift toward customer satisfaction and the overall effectiveness of the community in providing the help customers need.
At the same time, challenges abound in measuring those impacts. They include finding the right way to collect satisfaction data in a community, given all the exogenous factors influencing sat, and the best measure for effectiveness, since not all customers indicate whether their question has been solved.
When B2B communities sit in marketing, the objective of providing support to customers sometimes comes second to proving the community can help in acquisition, retention, and upselling. These goals are inherently more difficult to prove because of the many touch points involved in any B2B sale or renewal decision.
Most communities also have goals focused on traditional community metrics like registrations, visits, contributions, etc. — particularly in situations where the community is intended to help grow the business (start-ups) or grow a population critical to the business (developers).
A complicating factor is that today’s support communities are multidimensional, serving more than one goal or more than one audience. Some B2C support communities also include areas for discussion around hobbies or lifestyle. High-tech communities often include areas for technical discussion by developers in addition to more general help and how-to for end users. Many communities encourage participation by employees, which presents its own unique challenges.
How well is your community understood and supported inside your organization?
The short answer is: not as well as it should be.
Regardless of where the community sits, it usually has many other stakeholders across the organization, which complicates reporting structures and makes it hard to achieve a clarity of purpose. Stakeholders often form their own opinion about what purposes the community should be serving, and these can be at odds with the goals the community is designed for or committed to.
Business leaders generally don’t understand community metrics, so reporting has to educate as well as inform. In addition to metrics, customer anecdotes and direct quotes go a long way toward conveying the unique value that community brings to the business.
While most organizations get that community is a good thing, community often lacks the broad understanding and support that exists for more traditional functions. A lot depends on getting buy-in for a method for quantifying return on investment. FeverBee recently published a useful report on calculating ROI. And, as I’ve previously observed, the ROI approach can’t -- and shouldn’t -- come from the community team alone.
How large is your team and how is it composed?
Community teams have three components: dedicated resources who report directly to the community director or manager, 2) contract or shared resources who report into other organizations but have a dotted line to the community team, and 3) voluntary resources from the community, which can be either customers or employees.
In terms of dedicated resources, participants described teams ranging in size from two people to seven. Most common roles included program manager, community manager, administrator, engagement manager, event manager, and content manager. With contractors and matrixed resources, teams range up to 20 people or more, with the most common roles including moderator, analyst, developer, IT support, and community manager for specific categories, languages or subcommunities. When voluntary resources are added, the numbers can go up to the hundreds, and include employee subject-matter experts, leaders for specific topics or boards, advocates/ambassadors, and the traditional community top contributors/superusers.
How do you recruit for, and evaluate, your team?
Community team members come from external and internal sources. External folks are typically brought in for specific community or social skills, and internal for their knowledge of the community, company or industry. Internal candidates might also be sourced when the required skills already exist in other functions (i.e., content management). A good mix of internal and externally sourced team members is often the result, to get the best of both worlds.
Evaluation focuses on successful execution of plans as well as demonstrated positive impact on the team or the community. In most cases, evaluation methods are derived from corporate-wide programs for assessing performance — a marked change from the recent past, when community and social programs were considered so new and unique that standard assessments didn’t apply. At the same time, there remains a challenge of evaluating the community team based on participation or engagement trends, which can be influenced by so many factors (new product introductions, product issues, marketwise developments) that are beyond the community team’s control.
What are some high-impact ideas you would share with all of us?
Here are just a few of the successful ideas participants shared:
Invite user “origin stories ": People love to talk about how they became a gadget geek, a small business owner, an engineer, etc. Focus on whatever identity community members share.
Entrust your users with a decision: Find an opportunity to change or improve a community process, feature, or experience by asking your community’s opinion. Usage can increase when people feel ownership.
If you sell a product, introduce product loans for top contributors: Allow them to donate to a non-profit at the end of the loan — people are often more motivated by what you enable them give to others, than they are by what you give them.
If users create something with your product, create a space for them to share and get feedback on what they create. If you sell website building software, share page designs. If you sell analytics software, share reports. If you have a developer community, share code.
Pass along customer stories to your product team: You can start small — anecdotes and one-offs are fine. Sometimes efforts that don’t scale are exactly what you need to get started.
Make connections between superusers and executives.:A one-to-one connection can give execs a window in the experience of customers and the value of community.
Invite employees to sit in on calls or meetings with superusers: Like execs, employees want and need that direct voice of the customer.
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Thanks to all the participants for their willingness to meet and share. We’re currently surveying them for feedback on this session. If the feedback is positive, we may do more. Interested in attending future support roundtables? Have ideas for roundtables on other community topics are with different attendees? Let us know in the comments below.
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