A common and much disputed saying about online communities is 'build it and they will come,' referring to the concept that all you need to do to create a thriving online community is launch the software. Obviously, it's not that simple.
There's a lot that goes into the success or failure of an online community - strategy, site design, integration with whatever back-end database the org is using, etc. Not to mention community management. But one facet of online community that I don't think gets enough recognition is support, e.g. help for the person/people managing the community and helping them make their platform as good as it can be.
As a Chief Customer Officer (CCO), I'm absolutely passionate about this topic. Unfortunately, support is a feature of online community that is often overlooked in the software selection process. Access to support and help from both the software vendor and other community admins is an essential element of the online community platform selection process.
I regularly see organizations which migrate their community from one platform to another. Usually, the problem is not necessarily with the platform itself, but it's more to do with the support and guidance (or lack thereof) which the organization has received. Support is crucial to the success of anyone undertaking a new online community initiative and can come in many flavors, so it's important to understand what type of support you might need. For example, if you're not big into watching online videos, webinars, etc., then what alternative support options are there?
When I took the role of CCO earlier this year, one of the first things I did was to implement a quality improvement process (QIP) initiative (using the Net Promoter methodology). As a result of the Net Promoter feedback, we identified several support improvement opportunities. Here are the core problems we found and the solutions we implemented to overcome them:
One of the first things we heard from our quality initiative was that people who are new to our software were often overwhelmed with all the options available. Unfortunately, when you offer an enterprise class software platform with full content management system and a very deep CRM/AMS integration, it goes without saying there is a crazy amount of things you could do with it - all of which are configuration options available to the community administrator. While we've always offered our online learning portal and self-learning environment, it was clear that this just doesn't work for some people, or perhaps the individual just needed some old-fashioned in-person training.
Solution: Create a Training Academy
The solution to this particular problem was fairly simple, but we did add a nice twist :-) Every month, we provide a 2-day, in-person training program which we affectionately call the "Higher Logic Academy". There are typically about 30 attendees and about eight staff (half of our Customer Success team). The Customer Success team members present the various parts of the program and help walk attendees through how to deal with their various business scenarios.
Now for the twist. For many software companies, providing in-person training can be a cash-cow. However, charging a lot of money for training can present a barrier to those people who need it most. When we looked at the problem, we saw it a little differently than most software companies: The more clients we could get to attend the Higher Logic Academy, the more knowledgeable our clients would be with our software and ultimately the more successful they will become using it.
As a result, we decided to eat the entire cost of the training and from the day it was launched (about five months ago), it's been completely free for clients (we even provide lunch and a happy hour at the end of it!). Needless to say, the Academy has received rave reviews from attendees.
Problem: Proliferation of Knowledge
For those who are familiar with the principles of community management, you'll know that there isn't one model which fits all. Beyond the tools and technology that is available, a huge part of the success of an online community relates to the implementation strategy. While we consider ourselves experts in the area of community management, we'd be foolish if we didn't recognize the amazing talent which we interact with every day - the 500+ community managers which use our software. So the question is: How can we leverage this intellectual capital in a way which provides value to all?
Solution: Create a User Group
In early 2007, when Higher Logic had just a handful of customers, we immediately recognized that we were not just teaching our clients about our software and the strategies around community management, but they were also teaching us. Needless to say, you don't have to be a genius to recognize the opportunity which this presents.
As a result, shortly after Higher Logic was launched, we created the Higher Logic User Group, otherwise known as HUG. This is probably one of the most valuable things we've ever done as a company. Not only did it give all our customers access to each other, so they could ask questions, share solutions and brainstorm, it also helped to instill a culture of transparency which to this day remains a core part of who we are.
The results of this initiative have been beyond amazing. Since 2007 when Higher Logic started with just a single customer, to the present day, HUG has collectively posted more than 14,000 questions or answers to our user group discussions and shared over 1,000 files. Of course there was another benefit which we didn't really plan for - HUG has also helped us build a sense of community and customer loyalty which has ultimately resulted in amazing word of mouth advocacy. The user group also provides us with incredible insight which in turn helps us prioritize our development efforts and ensures we stay focused on our core competencies.
Just as the 'build it and they will come' approach doesn't really work for online communities, software vendors' user groups are only as good as the activity in those communities. We are fortunate to have an incredibly active, smart client base who don't mind sharing their knowledge and expertise. This is probably why it's one of the top reasons cited by new clients for why they chose Higher Logic's Connected Community platform above others.
Problem: How to Keep Up with Software Updates?
This is an issue which many Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) companies have. Since there is always just one version of the core code which powers the software, it goes without saying that the software company can usually push out upgrades to its offering on a fairly frequent basis. While this sounds good in theory, in our case we continually find that it can be overwhelming for the community manager which often has other duties to attend to. This is an area which we've struggled with for a while, until it finally dawned on us that the simplest of solutions was staring right at us.
Solution: Do it For Them
For the many clients who don't have the time or energy to read all of our release notes, we decided they really don't have to. Instead, we implemented a new service where we asked each of our clients to submit a support ticket whenever they wanted (we recommend at least every 6 to 12 months) to have their site revamped and their engagement levels assessed. Similar to the training academy, this service is also free and has been tremendously successful. Even if the client doesn't submit a ticket, we'll reach out to them anyway and ask for a meeting and even build them a new "beta" site with all the enhancements.
While this may sound like a big deal, it's really not. With the right scripts, it only takes us an hour or two to build a beta site, which includes all their customizations, their unique integration and all of our best practice recommendations applied (where applicable). We then spend another hour or two on the phone with them to walk them through all the recommended changes and the rationale behind them. Then, with their blessing we make the beta site live.
So now the community manager can focus their limited time and resources on generating member engagement vs. trying to keep up with the rapid pace of technology innovation. We implemented this program earlier this year and so far, we've revamped over 100 of our client websites and are actively soliciting more.
Summary: Support Should be a Key Consideration
When selecting your next software vendor, be sure to find out how they perform in terms of their support. One effective way of doing this is by seeing if they offer any of the above (or something comparable to address the key problems identified). In addition to this, consider attending their annual conference (if they don't have one, that is a red flag also). It's a great way to meet with their existing client base where you can ask the very candid questions. Don't just ask soft questions such as "Do you like the company?" Also ask very precise questions such as "How many times have they proactively reached out and updated your website in the past 12 months?" or something like that.
With the above in mind, please consider this an open invite. On December 2nd, 2013, Higher Logic will be hosting our fourth annual Higher Logic Super Forum. The Super Forum offers clients the opportunity to connect face-to-face with friends they've made in HUG, share ideas, learn about ways to enhance their online communities and hear about Higher Logic's product roadmap for the upcoming year. This year we're expecting over 300 attendees for this two day event, and 18 of the 22 sessions are being presented by our clients, show casing innovative ways they have used our software with the replicable steps for any organization to re-create.
If you haven't already signed up for the event, please do so - even if you are just an interested community manager who wants to see next generation community management technologies - we'd love to see you there.
If you can think of other key support related questions or considerations you should look closely at when assessing a particular software vendor, please share.