If you used a computer in late 1990s, you will remember the proliferation of community forums that occurred during that time. Forums were a big thing, and for good reason: they had an easy-to-use graphical interface and were intuitive to navigate. If you were lucky, you could even use a search bar to find the answers you sought.
One of the forums I followed religiously in late 1990s was supercars.net, and what characterized their success was the ability to bring everyone together into a forum where they could discuss cars of all shapes and sizes. The extensive sub-forum list and constant activity meant that whether you wanted to talk about cars in general or specifically about Dodge Viper’s handling characteristics, you’d find a following even larger than those on dedicated Dodge Viper boards.
These days, our expectations for what is intuitive and easy to use are much different. Due to the prevalence of social media networks such as Twitter, Facebook and Google+, our community experience has changed, too. This new generation of communities shaped by web 2.0 has the potential of redefining brands and how they interact with customers.
Let’s say you are in the business of selling chocolate chip cookies. You are focusing your efforts on marketing and signing distribution rights with suppliers. Why would you care about creating a community anyway? Your main objective should be to sell as many cookies as possible, not commit yourself to managing an online community. Here are two reasons why communities are good for business:
In our competitive and fast-paced business environment, companies that create a community following have a head start on building a solid customer base. A community allows companies to not only tackle support issues, but to also identify alternate contact points with their customers. By maintaining control over the customer lifecycle using a community, companies can engage customers using pre-sale advice, effectively provide ongoing support and increase overall customer satisfaction.
With millions of people worldwide actively using Facebook and other social media sites, your customers are already pre-conditioned to interact in a social environment where they can voice their opinions easily. Social media websites have demonstrated that customers will talk as long as there is someone who listens.
Therefore, if you can capture your users early on and get users talking about your cookies rather than your competitor’s, then you have already demonstrated value to those customers. Once you establish this rapport, customers will be better poised to make a purchase decision.
It’s one thing to get your users to talk. It’s something else entirely to get users to engage directly on your site. A community doesn’t bring any value the business if its users cannot be actively involved in conversations.
To get people talking, every aspect of customer experiences—from initial registration to posting and conversation tracking—needs to be intuitive and easy to use. Customers want to engage in natural conversations that are objective and non-sales-y. Only a user base of like-minded individuals can offer unbiased advice to fellow participants, growing the community in the process.
First, let’s look at user experience. When users find themselves in a community, they start by typing a question—since we all know the modern internet user is apt to search first, and ask questions later. A search function with autocomplete functionality is a great tool for an online community, as it will display topics that were already created and direct users to where they want to go.
Communities should give users the ability to categorize their requests by type. By providing this capability, the company can better understand the outcomes their customers are trying to reach through their actions. Here are three scenarios that your online community should be prepared to handle:
1. If a customer asks a question, he or she expects to find an answer from other users or customer support agents who represent the company. A customer may expect to vote certain answers up or down, and subsequently single out answers that best match the question.
2. If a customer has an idea, he or she will want to know if other users agree, how long the idea has been considered for and when (or if) the idea will be implemented. Whether rejected or implemented, users expect to actively participate in this process.
3. If a customer has a problem, he or she expects to find a solution in a reasonable time frame. Users who communicate their issues using company communities are likely hoping to comb through solutions from various users, as well as the company’s support team.
While there are numerous online community platforms on the market today, these are three top solutions that you should definitely consider.
Arguably the most well-known customer community platform out there is GetSatisfaction. A cloud-based solution powering almost 70,000 companies worldwide, this ubiquitous platform powers giants such as Proctor & Gamble, MyCokeRewards and IMDB. GetSatisfaction features a “smart search” system that allows users to look for similar posts before submitting the question, as well as other features such as mobile and company website integration. Plans start at $1200/month.
Helprace by Satisware offers a one-stop help desk and community solution. One admin panel makes it easy to keep tabs on customer support tickets, the knowledge base and the community simultaneously. Helprace offers 4 feedback categories: users can ask a question, suggest an idea, post a problem or give praise. There’s also a flexible voting system—users are able to vote feedback up or down, driving the most relevant and helpful information to the top. Helprace also offers a feedback widget that is embeddable directly on the website. A free plan is available.
Another great example of an online community is the discussion platform from Zoho. It features a wide array of drop-down lists that help speed up navigation for the end user. Multiple forums and sub-forums can be navigated in the same fashion. On the administrative side, Zoho offers single sign-on, extensive branding customization options and built-in spam tools. A free plan includes one forum with no sub-forums and size limitations on attachments.
Looking for the right software to build and manage a thriving online community? Browse product reviews, premium content and blog posts at our community forum research center.
[Image courtesy of Joe Wolf]