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Why Support Communities Work

  |  October 31, 2012   |  Comments

Vibrant online communities, built to tap the passions, lifestyles, and causes that we all organize around, naturally restore the social component of business.

Considering a vacation, you look at TripAdvisor and find more than a few reviews about the places you're considering. As you read through the reviews you may be thinking, "I sure am glad someone wrote all of this!" Or maybe it was a smartphone question, or something to do with the sudden appearance of spots on a toddler's tongue. In each of these cases, a quick search on Google and you're probably in some sort of peer-driven support community where that problem is recounted, discussed, and resolved, all seemingly for your benefit. Nice, eh?

So the question arises, how does this happen? Or more importantly, why does this happen? When I have a question I'm generally not thinking about contributing an answer…I just want my problem solved.

As it turns out, for many there is a reward for contributing, and people seek that reward. The reward is recognition for having done something helpful: writing a review on Amazon, and especially seeing that review marked as "helpful" by others. This sort of reward/recognition is a huge motivator: the top reviewers on Amazon have authored literally tens of thousands of reviews…each! The top contributor in Logitech's support forum has contributed over 45,000 solutions. The leading contributors in peer-to-peer forums for Dell and HP are right up there too.

And it's not just tech, books, and electronics: Sephora's community - where people talk about beauty products - is an integral part of the overall Sephora experience. Peer support is a universal concept: think of nearly any interest, activity, or specific product or service and there is a support or discussion site, driven by customers and by peers helping each other out. The result is a stronger link to the brand itself - people like to associate with other people, and brands that build and sustain a vibrant peer community are direct beneficiaries of that basic human behavior.

Back to the question of why this happens. Yes, humans are social, so we "create content." And yes, humans are also opportunistic, so we "consume content." I recently documented (step by step, 10 pages in total) how to do a particular repair on my Mercedes E300D and posted that in the BenzWorld peer community. This past weekend I had an offline experience that showed this type of shared purpose and desire to help was rooted in our inherently social nature. Online or offline, people will naturally gather and look for ways to help each other out and to thereby trigger the reward/recognition cycle that I referenced earlier.

Case in point: I had replaced my wife's kitchen sink about a year ago and was never really satisfied with the way the drains and sink connected. I decided to fix it before something bad happened. So on Saturday I pulled off all of the drain pipes and headed to my favorite Austin plumbing supply store.

Crump's is filled with a mix of plumbers and DIYers. The store has everything you need, and they sell both "contractor grade" (the quality level you'd use if you were to planning to either move in two years or flip the house next month) and "professional grade" (the quality level you'd use if you were putting your own name on the repair and wanted to work for this customer again in the future).

So right off, I had lesson number one played out in the real world: when your reputation - and your future new business pipeline - depends on it, you choose quality over price. The drivers for this are social: think word-of-mouth, and the folly of trying to "clean up" your reputation on Angie's List after someone has posted something negative. It's much better to do the job right and avoid the negative post altogether. The social web and the connection to the purchase funnel have reawakened the drive toward quality in more than a few local businesses.

Standing in Crump's with a half-dozen plastic drain fittings that in total looked right out of "Alien" I was immediately asked by several of the people standing near the counter if I needed help. I said yes and explained that I wanted to replace all of this with "the right stuff." I even added, "I want it to last, so I'd like stainless (steel) if you have it." Understand that stainless is about twice as expensive as plastic, so pay attention to what happened next: everyone - counter professionals and plumbers alike - said "You don't want stainless…plastic will last longer." They explained that chemicals like drain cleaner and bleach will eat up steel pipes. So they collectively saved me about $50 right off. Then they added, "Oh, and don't use those cheap fitting parts. Instead use these" and pointed to the pro parts. One gentleman in particular, a plumber named Frank, helped me find every single part I needed and then made sure that I also had the typical spare parts I might need in the future. The total bill was about $30.

Intrigued, I spent some time talking with Frank. It turns out that he and most of the other plumbers in the store come in on Saturdays just to talk and answer questions. They have expertise, and they have knowledge. And they get immediate positive feedback in the forms of handshakes and thank yous when they share that knowledge! It's so unbelievably simple and it applies to business whether it's a local plumbing store or a global retailer.

Actually, it's probably even more important as the business grows larger. The local business has the fallback of the store itself and the customer base associated with it. But as the business grows, the customer base becomes more "anonymous" - how many people did you talk to the last time you were in a department store? Did you meet the person standing ahead of you in line? Probably not, unless you were both complaining about how long the line was. Now move that transaction online, and unless you do something to recreate that sense of community, any sense of shared, human social interaction associated with the purchase process will be lost. The entire buying experience associated with your brand is reduced to an electronic transaction and a shipment that arrives a few days later.

Vibrant online communities, built to tap the passions, lifestyles, and causes that we all organize around, naturally restore the social component of business. People helping people in communities like Sephora's, friends shopping together in the online Levi's or The Wet Seal stores, small business owners working together in the American Express "Open Forum" community along with many others. Savvy brand managers, now connecting the dots from social media marketing to social support to social commerce, are recognizing the role that a community platform can play as a part of the overall marketing and business strategy.

The fact is, there aren't enough "Franks" to go around. It's too bad, too, because people like Frank and the many contributors who have offered the reviews we all increasingly rely on are essential to successful business. As you consider your own social technology and strategy for your business, think about how you will find the people like Frank in your online community, and how you will develop many more. While implementing peer-to-peer technology may seem as simple as downloading a generic forum package and slapping it onto the side of your website, ask yourself, "If the guys standing in Crump's when I walked in had glanced over…and then kept talking amongst themselves, would I be advocating for Crump's?" No way. High impact peer-to-peer is anything but generic.

In my case, I was welcomed, helped, and left the store confident that I had the right stuff to do what I set out to do. Your branded peer community has to rise to the same level, and if the underlying technology won't help you spot and develop the experts, if it can't reinforce and amplify that basic reward/recognition cycle…then keep looking until you find a platform that does. Because in the end it's not about some software and checking off "Got community?" on a tactical checklist. It's about creating a place where your customers want to hang out, spend time, create and share experiences, and help each other.

So how do you know when you're there, when you've got this right? Walk into Crump's. If your online community feels like that, you're good to go.


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Dave Evans

Dave is the VP of social strategy at Lithium. Based in Austin, Dave is also the author of best-selling "Social Media Marketing: An Hour a Day," as well as "Social Media Marketing: The Next Generation of Business Engagement." Dave is a regular columnist for ClickZ, a frequent keynoter, and leads social technology and measurement workshops with the American Marketing Association as well as Social Media Executive Seminars, a C-level business training provider.

Dave has worked in social technology consulting and development around the world: with India's Publicis|2020media and its clients including the Bengaluru International Airport, Intel, Dell, United Brands, and Pepsico and with Austin's FG SQUARED and GSD&M| IdeaCity and clients including PGi, Southwest Airlines, AARP, Wal-Mart, and the PGA TOUR. Dave serves on the advisory boards for social technology startups including Palo Alto-based Friend2Friend and Mountain View-based Netbase and iGoals.

Prior, Dave was a co-founder of social customer care technology provider Social Dynamx, a product manager with Progressive Insurance, and a systems analyst with NASA| Jet Propulsion Labs. Dave co-founded Digital Voodoo, a web technology consultancy, in 1994. Dave holds a BS in physics and mathematics from the State University of New York/ Brockport and has served on the Advisory Board for ad:tech and the Measurement and Metrics Council with WOMMA.

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