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Successful Support Communities

Publication date: 7/2011

Executive Summary

More than ever, technology companies have embraced the idea that it s good to encourage communities of customers and other stakeholders. Of course, many of the benefits that communities are supposed to bring self-service call resolution, enhanced loyalty, early warning about public relations blow-ups can be tricky to quantify. And plenty of managers still feel that letting customers talk to each other is just asking for trouble. But for better or worse, communities exist whenever a company has customers. The only real question is whether these informal communities can be transformed into serious corporate assets.

That s often a frustrating question even for managers who are strong voice-of-the-customer advocates. Plenty of communities, both online and live, never get beyond a zombie-like state, not quite dead, not quite alive. Investments in promotion, new technology, and community organizing often don t seem to make a difference the hoped-for members just don t show up. Oops.

What does it take to create a successful community? There doesn t seem to be a set of simple guidelines. The social media experts mostly focus on consumer companies with huge customer bases; the recommendations they emphasize include openness and quick response to complaints about service snafus good practices, but not much of a formula for much smaller, technically-oriented communities.

In fact, support communities tend to be about expertise more than anything else. The chief attraction of these communities is likely to be the presence (real or virtual) of exceptionally knowledgeable users and advisors, people with hands-on experience with products and solutions. These experts show up because it s good for their reputations or maybe just their egos to be seen as extra-smart, plugged-in, and influential. And the rest of the community shows up to learn from the experts and perhaps to share an occasional bit of wisdom themselves. That s a very different dynamic than you might see on a site for disgruntled airline passengers or Lady Gaga fans.

It s also worth noting that successful communities aren t necessarily Web-based. Our industry (and the world in general) has a long history of communities that came together regularly for live events conferences, user group meetings, trade shows, roundtables, and the like. Yes, online communities are cheaper to organize and more spontaneous. But human beings are social animals: We love to get together in crowds and hold near-chaotic conversations that would make little sense online. (Heck, even social media enthusiasts hold big conferences all the time...)

The variety of community formats creates its own questions. How do we measure the relative value of an online forum vs. an annual user group meeting? Should we invest in a special home for highly influential community members, such as power users, press and analysts, and third-party resource people (e.g., consultants, resellers, and trainers)? Is there a risk that community members will air their grievances in public, compete with our company s own services, or expose us to legal liabilities?

To help answer questions about best practices for building support communities, the ASP surveyed a variety of software and technology-based companies about the role such communities play in each company s business. We collected useful data from 120 respondents, and we also asked an open-ended question about the most important lesson learned about generating high levels of participation.

Topics include:
  • Types of communities
  • Growth patterns
  • What's the payoff?
  • Tangible benefits
  • Getting to critical mass
  • Attracting experts and champions
  • Defining your own role
  • Six simple metrics
  • Support and the online conversation


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Copies of the survey are free to ASP members in the members-only area.

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