Expect Rapid Evolution of the Branded Support Community

Companies With Support Communities Not Ready For Changes To Come
For over a decade, with simple BBS systems to community platforms, support communities haven’t undergone much innovation.  Often a silo and tucked away in a website, these communities are going to take center stage.  With social technologies appearing on every webpage, and more existing systems starting to connect, expect to see interesting use cases evolve.   Support focused communities will evolve to touch marketing, sales, channel partners,  CRM systems, and even become a thriving platform in the next few years.  Let’s explore the rapid changes coming together.

A Support Community, Defined.
Take a look at Microsoft’s media centric Channel 9, VMware communities, or even AAA’s travel tips. These branded communities are offered by companies and encourage members to self-support each other, or the company will support them directly. The members are often customers, developers, or implementation partners. It’s not limited to them alone, prospects of a company may peer in to see how vibrant –or angry–the community is. There are over 100 technology vendors offer these commodity features.

The Opportunity: The Support Community No Longer A Cost Center
New forms of monetization for the brand are going to emerge. Support communities won’t just be a cost-center, we should expect to see new forms of value that meet the needs of the community members themselves, the brand, and the partners. To kick start the discussion here’s a few ideas of where I think the support community could evolve to:

  1. Become a thriving marketplace of buyers and sellers. Not just through discussions, but through automated matching of buyers and sellers using reputation systems, and needs analysis tools.  See how the concept of VRM is slowly taking hold.
  2. New forms of value from third parties will spur innovation. System integrators, consultants, and other vendors who have services to offer community members will want to offer training, webinars, or other campaigns.  Branded communities can monetize this as an intermediary.
  3. Formalized advocacy programs will take hold beyond the organic evangelist. Some communities will offer features and programs that encourage members to join an unpaid army and reach out to prospects –and ready them to arms when the brand is under attack.
  4. Communities members will ideate and start build new products with R&D. In some cases, they may help the brand define new products and be very involved in the R&D process.
  5. Developer platform will let community create their own experience. Taking a nod from Facebook, MySpace and Twitter, someday, support communities will offer platforms that will enable the members to create new applications, tools, and even products within the context of the community.
  6. Connecting to CRM systems to offer better service. Community platforms will connect to CRM systems identify upsell, crosssell, and underserved accounts, increasing the efficiency of support.
  7. Connections to other systems yield new experiences. Support communities will no longer be a silo but will connect to brand monitoring tools. ERP systems, business intelligence systems, web analytics, and social analytics tools.
  8. The walls of support communities crumble as they connect to the public web. There are support communities in existence all around the web (see Get Satisfaction, UserVoice or even a customer created community). Expect to see branded communities tie to these off-domain systems.
  9. Leave a comment below with your idea.  The opportunities are abound.

A Key Constraint: Members first, Company Second
Despite the many opportunities for innovation of communities, first and foremost, the sanctity of the community members must not be broken.  Companies have learned, often the hard way, that the members are in charge, so this needs to be a win for them first, the company second.

Join The Discussion and Upcoming Roundtable
I plan to hold a no-fee “Community Innovation” roundtable in Q1, to ideate the evolution of the branded community beyond support. Should you be interested in attending, I look forward to hearing from you in the following web form. I’ll be extending an invite to some key thought leaders in this space, to really spur the thinking from the top minds.

  • Susan_Davis

    I think Best Buy has a handle on this with their Twitter account for their Techs. It is the Best use of Twitter by a Big Brand that I have seen. I agree. this is the wave of the future. Sometimes wish I was a programer!

  • Awesome post Jeremiah, This is definitely out of the box and detailed post, I think community is not just about being on major social networks, the niche networks specially designed for a certain audience are also important to get the right words flowing,you have accesses the situation already on how they can implement this by keeping members on the front.
    Earlier we used to think that brands with big contact facilities can tackle the support side of the business, but brands can no longer depend on that to give people solutions for there problem, but as you mention now support can do a lot more apart from giving answers to certain questions.
    My idea would be to give them more and more information on how they can help there peers to solve the problems and further on, this would surely help to spread the word for at least there service.

  • That's a great point Susan. Best Buy has extended support using other mediums –beyond branded communities (like Twitter).

    While a step in the right direction, I question if that's truly an innovative leap, they can do more –way more.

  • Akash

    You're on to something, encouraging more P2P support. Yet, I'm still pondering, how can support communities add more value beyond just supporting products?

    There's a bigger untapped opportunity here.

  • This is a great post because there are many, many support forums (not even sure the word community always applies) that have been sitting around in their own little corner of the website for years in some companies, with very little time or attention paid to them. I recently spoke to a relatively large software company who had a large number of these forums which generated a lot of user generated support and content but but they didn't even have enough staff applied to oversee it to be able to even generally calculate its benefit although there was some acknowledgment of the value being created and delivered. To my mind, this is a huge wasted opportunity and it needs management to appropriately feed the value back into core businesses processes.

    Interestingly, I think you are right in that this is not necessarily where innovative community strategies are happening. Working with a lot of community managers, we are also seeing the motentization opportunity – but only for those communities that have established community value (which has often taken them years). These early innovators are giving us some sense of the cycle time expectations for various targeted communities to become robust and value-creating.

  • Boom!! Thanks for the prompt reply Jeremiah, I was talking to myself after reading this post and found out that there are a lot of opportunities to explore when it comes to what you have called P2P support .For example lets consider a support facility of a PC manufacturer, the main thing they offer are solutions to problems,but once they have assisted customers with this,They can invite them to be a part of there community online and tell them that they can reap benefits such as getting updates on how they can prevent such problems themselves, educate them on how to use the PC so that it gets a long life,educating them on where all channels they can get support from the company, I am thinking about more such things…further on I'll look forward to your thoughts as well.
    Thanks again!!

  • Jeremiah – You're right. We should expect companies to continue to gravitate to this type of model and innovate in this space. They seem to (finally) be discovering that “Creating More Value Than You Capture” is a critical principal of Web 2.0 success. We're all getting through the initial social media/web 2.0 craze smarter and with much more data. It's not surprising that they're figuring out that it's not about them, their product or their story. It's about how they can add value to the communities that include them, and more importantly, about creating incubating spaces where their community members can add value and contribute.

  • dcrowfoot

    Great post. I think you are right on. We are just at the tip of the iceberg as far as experiencing the real value of online communities. At first, people thought “if you build it, they will come.” But now more and more companies are realizing that an online community needs a dedicated community manager focused on constantly adding value to the online community–adding new high value content, regularly reaching out to members with content that entices them to join the conversation, asking for and responding to member feedback and recruiting new members.

    Two years ago, we launched the DePaul Quad, an online community for parents at DePaul University in Chicago. It went from a ghost town to a thriving community when we realized that it required proactive management. It's been well worth the effort. The online community gives parents a place to support each other through the college transition and to answer each others’ questions and concerns. In addition to helping each other, parents have asked us a number of questions and have given us a number of suggestions that have ultimately helped us improve our communications and processes.

    And the possibilities are endless with this online community now that we have engagement. We are excited to try new things that could benefit our members and the university community.

    Dara Crowfoot
    Enrollment Management and Marketing
    DePaul University
    Chicago, Illinois

  • Thanks for the insightful post, Jeremiah. The points you raised are consistent with a growing trend that I'm seeing with our existing and prospective clients. These organizations want to converge their (typically disparate) community strategies and unified their (typically fragmented or siloed) online assets not only to save on operational costs but also to improve R&D (ideas, feedback, betas, etc.) and to accelerate sales (more efficient evangelism, more qualified leads, etc.).

    Savvy execs understand that a company's online community is an extension of its business. As much as there needs to be unification (in the form of alignment of goals and integration of systems) inside a company, the same approach must be taken with external facing online communities.

    Lawrence Liu
    Telligent

  • TaylorEllwood

    I think social networking sites such as Biznik and Active Rain capitalize on what you're discussing here. Biznik in particular extends the support community outside of the web to in person networking and classes, which consequently strengthens the online community and emphasizes the member first aspect you mentioned. Good post.

  • Thanks for bringing this up, you make a lot of excellent points, and the technology is simple and worth remembering.

    Just to add, http://inthemotherhood.com created a circular narrative and built what became an ABC series by shifting the mental model of the forum just the way you describe in 2008 — sponsored by unilever and sprint. I covered a bit of how they melded sociality, game mechanics, and video here: http://su.pr/8WF8PQ

    Thanks again

  • The work that INgage Networks (Formerly Neighborhood America) did on the AMEX Open Forum leads to point 1 where ultimately the goal is to provide a true social marketplace where not only collaboration by business owners occurs but also true commerce based on needs and services. I also agree with the need to enable platforms to extend beyond the vendor and enable partners. One of our goals that maps to this understanding is our approach towards a cohesive social strategy. Meaning enabling the existing social strategy, consumer networks with a branded social interaction across multiple points of the business all while driving value through 3 key pillars. 1) The data created from consumer network interaction (Radian 6, Crimson Hexagon) 2) Branded social analytics driving key performance and influencer insight and 3) Social + CRM integration to tie key social profile elements to actionable cause. So much of what happens today is listening and storing of social data. Without a cohesive social strategy built on integration and a fully enabled platform it is difficult to move beyond a silo'd approach to drive true change. I also agree with the ideation point and the power of crowdsourcing and we have addressed that with our platform approach as well. Thanks again for the great article!

    Tom Edwards
    @theblackfin

  • Thanks Tom, I agree, having a holistic view of the customer –beyond support, is key in adding additional value.

    Companies fail to look at the whole ecosystem (partners, prospects, services companies) and to factor that in.

  • Jumping in the discussion here – I still think it's incredible to see a company the size of Best Buy spend as much money on a marketing campaign as they did simply to tell people they can speak to the Geek Squad via Twitter.

    Chris Guthrie

  • Dara, I'd love to hear more.

    What did you do that brought it to a thriving community?

  • Agreed Rachel

    The support-community-in-the-corner has a chance to come forward and be a key part of marketing, partnerships, development, and ideation for companies. Looking forward to hearing more from other folks.

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  • A really great and interesting post.
    I just dumped into your blog today and WoW it looks great.

  • Another prime example of how consumers now control the marketplace. For the first time in history, consumers can afford to seek out the advertising/marketing they desire, and they have ample choices at their disposal. In the past, selections were limited, and consumers were held captive to the marketing of the few existing companies. Now, consumers are reshaping how companies act/think/market. In response, innovations like branded-support communities have emerged.

  • Another prime example of how consumers now control the marketplace. For the first time in history, consumers can afford to seek out the advertising/marketing they desire, and they have ample choices at their disposal. In the past, selections were limited, and consumers were held captive to the marketing of the few existing companies. Now, consumers are reshaping how companies act/think/market. In response, innovations like branded-support communities have emerged.

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