Consumers Exert Ownership

I have written on several occasions about how social network users and online community members have exerted their shared ownership of a service to affect changes in policy and feature. This comes about from the reality that a social network without members isn’t much of anything therefore the users in a network have a purposeful sense of shared ownership.

@wendyslea sent me an interesting article in Forbes about how this is spilling over to corporations more broadly. It’s worth the time to read this despite it meandering across a range of topics, although all are rooted in the notion of consumer power through the ability of social networks to form groups.

The one area that I get conflicted on is the notion of showing your weaknesses in order to appear authentic. While there is certainly truth to this, the other truth is that customers want a wide range of things from businesses, but mostly they want to be heard and they seek competence. If all you are doing as a company is exposing the things you are not doing well then you need to ask yourself why that is before you let it all hang out and expect people to just get over it.

Benioff is right, social success is based on trust, much like relationships between people. I think this is where a lot of companies go wrong, they seek trust by attaching people’s names to statements made publicly in an attempt to cloth themselves in the silk of authenticity without actually changing anything else about how they interact with their various constituents… a CEO blog isn’t going to help you if your customers are always pissed off about the customer service they are getting and the quality of your products and services.

The second thing that catches my interest in this is the power of advocacy in an age when the barriers to forming groups in the public space are so low. One person tweeting about the cable guy sleeping on their couch wouldn’t get much attention if millions more didn’t share it, effectively attaching their advocacy to the unstated cause and achieving an exponential effect. Governments in the Middle East would not be falling today were it not for the power of people – everyday people – to connect and organize online (much to the dismay of Malcolm Gladwell).

What does this mean going forward? It’s subject to a lot of interpretation but a couple of no brainer things seem to emerge:

  1. Companies no longer have a behind the firewall presence and a public one. The boundary between employee and customer is very porous so rather than attempting, futilely I would add, to control it the time is right to plow forward and aggressively connect all parts of your company to the customer experience.
  2. Authenticity is critical but so is being good at what you do. Your customers are your marketing team and they don’t care about how efficient your business operations are from a P&L standpoint, they are demanding that you deliver a good product with good service wrapped around it. If your idea of being authentic is to shrug your shoulders, kick the dirt and say “yeah we could do better” without actually making the sincere attempt to change the things that are wrong, then go home now and save us all the trouble.
  3. Connect with your customers where they are because that is where your brand is. Don’t go to Twitter or Facebook or, ultimately, Google + with the idea that you are going to drive that traffic back to your website… engage your customers where they are and if that means you need to invest in technology that connects your front office with social networks, then by all means get it done.
  4. Lastly, and this is the one that will cause the most heartburn in the CEO suite, is that your customers have an interest in your success or failure. Gone are the salad days when all you had to care about were shareholders, now you have to address the needs of customers in ways that go beyond products and services. Customer advocacy is built on the foundation of your customers expressing a deeper connection with you as a company, they care about your values because whether they realize it or not the expressing of advocacy is ultimately the connecting of their personal values with yours as a company.

 

The Ascent of Q&A as Community

Q&A communities have become grown in popularity in recent years with consumer and business offerings being developed at a blistering pace and established players emerging with their own offerings.

The Q&A interaction model has existed for years, as long as search engines have been around and this is not a coincidence. Q&A takes advantage of a common behavior that web users exhibit through search engines, they query in the form of a question.

Early generation Q&A sites existed as consumer grade services and an outgrowth of these services are expert based where the person responding to a question is a vetted expert on the subject matter and is compensated for answering. More recently Q&A sites have morphed into a variant of social network where users build profiles and interact with other members and topics by following them and cross posting to Facebook and Twitter.

I am most interested in the generalized Q&A communities, not the expert networks.

Search and Q&A are Different

While no data is publicly available, it is generally accepted that a significant percentage of search queries are in the form of a question, and it is this behavior that has created the opportunity for a raft of Q&A sites to emerge. Search is often Q&A but Q&A is not well suited for search and in an attempt to differentiate from Google several search engines, Bing most significantly, have invested heavily in advertising campaigns that highlights the shortcomings of search for answering questions.

The problem with search for Q&A is the methodology for serving search results. When answering questions, the volume of inbound links to a given web page, the accepted search technique for ranking web sites, does not tell you the site with the best answer; it just tells you the most popular page with relevant information.

Text matching, another useful technique for serving search results, is also inadequate for Q&A because the text in a question is rarely found in the best answer. Similarly, click through analysis on search result links to determine site relevance is ill suited to Q&A because presenting the answer to a question requires no click through to measure.

Source: Ask.com

Finally, the nature of questions presents quite possibly the biggest hurdle for search engines attempting to accommodate questions as well as keyword searches. Any given question can represent degrees of complexity and subjectivity, as well as be time based.

Why Marketers are Taking Notice

Brand companies today are already monitoring Q&A communities as a normal part of their social media monitoring and response systems, it is not unreasonable to speculate that companies will seek greater participation in Q&A communities for the same reason that they are participating in social networks and in customer communities:

1)     Exert brand influence by demonstrating expertise in topic areas. Q&A communities, such as Quora, prominently display company information associated with a user profile and this is a powerful signal in the community as it relates to specific topics.

2)     Gather honest and detailed feedback. Q&A communities that allow for multiple members to interact with a question provide the equivalent of a micro focus group for a company interested in gathering feedback. The nature of Q&A communities has thus far not proven appealing for trolls and bad actors, ensuring that the quality of feedback is high.

3)     Social media integration is a bonus for brands interacting in Q&A communities, cross posting in many cases to Twitter and Facebook.

In addition to brand to customer interactions on Q&A communities and in some cases the ability to populate web assets with widgetized content, brands also have the ability to do something in Q&A communities that they cannot do in any other forum, which is the ability to support an entire product category through a Q&A community.

I already do a form of category support now on Quora, replying to questions concerning social media, customer communities, and community support. This is a powerful market facing activity that projects industry expertise and builds confidence in the company brand.

It is foreseeable that Q&A sites will sell sponsorship of topics to brand companies much in the same way that Google sells search keywords today. With the strong SEO that sites like Quora exhibit the value of keywords on the site would be considerable and they could in fact implement the same auction methodology that pervades search making it a natural extension for online advertising initiatives.

Will Q&A Encroach on Customer Community Platforms

The short answer to this question is that there are too many variables to project what the point of intersection between Q&A and customer communities will be, however it does seem plausible to forecast that there will be a convergence in these two closely aligned sectors over time.

Business.com released a research study in December 2009 (which I apologize for not being able to locate online now) that revealed surprising closeness in the perception of broad based communities vs. Q&A sites. With 1,200 people surveyed across a spectrum of functional roles, the participation rate in online communities and Q&A sites was virtually identical at 51% and 49% respectively. This study is one data point and to be clear it reflects how business users view each type of community for professional use, however the fact that little sunlight separates the perception of each reveals that the definition of community is very pliable.

Q&A and customer community platforms are complimentary for the time being and for a small cross section of customer community platforms there exists an opportunity to build out a Q&A community that weaves in and out of customer communities.

3 Classes of Q&A Companies

The first generation of Q&A services were consumer based and highly generalized in nature, allowing for virtually any question to be asked and, hopefully, answered. These sites are often advertising monetized therefore the primary objective is traffic with quality of answer a distant second.

Interestingly, the generalized consumer grade service remains a primary offering for many “answer sites” and is even being re-imagined by newer entrants with large user communities, Facebook Questions being the most recent example.

The other end of the spectrum is the curated expert community, such as Mahalo Answers, where the objective is both traffic and quality. In the case of Mahalo a virtual currency is used as a form of compensation which incentivizes quality contributions. This approach takes advantage of a primary weakness in search engines, an inability to provide quality answers for open ended questions.

More recently Quora has emerged with a compelling model that takes advantage of a primary social network characteristic related to social graphs. Quora, and LinkedIn Answers, both rely on the likelylihood that a member’s social graph will have collective insight on topics that the member finds interesting. By following topics and people, as well as posting Q&A content in a newsfeed the Q&A community drives the participation and quality dimension.

Facebook Questions

This recent service from Facebook has not disrupted the market because it is poorly surfaced and to my knowledge not even available to all users. It’s unclear what Facebook’s commitment is to Questions but the ability to drive their own organic search at the expense of 3rd party search engines is interesting to consider.

Questions is also not integrated with Official Pages and that hinders brand companies ability to get behind this initiative in parallel with their Fan management and online advertising initiatives.

LinkedIn Answers

LinkedIn has been building Answers since 2006 and the service was conceived to focus on business intelligence rather than general purpose Q&A. The quality of content on Answers is impressive and the categorization options they present as part of the posting process clearly indicate a bias to specific categories of business topics.

LinkedIn does offer category (topic) sponsorships to advertisers.

Quora

This is perhaps the most watched Q&A community and for good reason, the quality of content is very high and the network behaviors for following of people and topics as well as sharing of content to Facebook and Twitter are pronounced.

The user experience of Quora reflects a strong understanding of how people use networks and the social signaling that drives participation. I’m not aware of their revenue focused initiatives but it’s not hard to imagine what they are.

It’s interesting to note that Quora may be entering the phase where they are legitimately mainstream… as indicated by the degree which Silicon Valley pundits turn on them. I have a few complaints about Quora, like the hyper aggressive manner by which they connect via follow topics and people to me, but in general I’m a fan of this service because I discover great content on it.

Sponge

This is a white label Q&A community that represents a specialized form of customer community. From a product standpoint Sponge is most like Get Satisfaction but that also means their challenges in building community are well defined. Sponge will attempt to position themselves as “Quora for the enterprise” is my bet.

Opzi

Like Sponge, Opzi is a white label Q&A community for business customers… another “Quora for the enterprise”. Their challenges and threat status are identical to that of Sponge.

Market Opportunity

This is a real market opportunity, that much is clear, because of the way it forks search behaviors, enables co-creation of content, and has well understood revenue models that can be played. The explosion of companies in this space also foretells a future collapse as consolidation shrinks down the viable options and forces other companies to become highly niched in their delivery. This isn’t a bad thing, it’s a focusing phase that all successful categories go through but in this case I would speculate that we are at least 18 months out before that begins to happen.

Media Goes Social

Hutch Carpenter has a good writeup on the new site that BusinessWeek is hosting, Business Exchange. Frankly I’m surprised that it’s taken media sites this long to realize that allowing comments is not the same as community. While BusinessWeek’s efforts are still beta, I hope they succeed.

Having said that, I still don’t understand why FriendFeed and the other meta-social networking sites are not offering white label versions to media that bring a turnkey social network to the mix. The idea that a few dozen media sites will be able to build their own communities is feasible but the cost and time required to be successful will be daunting. Better yet would be for a consortium of media companies to get together and offer a shared community service.

More on this topic (What's this?) Read more on Beta at Wikinvest

Community Managers and Managing Communities

I wonder how most organizations are handling the role of community manager. I’m curious where a community manager reports. Marketing? HR? Customer service? I wonder how organizations are justifying the cost, and what they believe the role entails for level of effort. How are companies using the role in either direction?

[From On Managing A Community | chrisbrogan.com]

NewsGator has a new community manager. I hired Josh Larson a few weeks ago to take on this newly formed role. The truth is that we were all doing some measure of community management before Josh came on board, we just were not focused on it and a lot of stuff fell through the cracks.

As you can imagine given my background in corporate blogging, this is an area that interests me greatly, but it’s not just about blogging on behalf of a company. I think that is where a lot of companies go wrong on this front, they think that just getting someone to “go blog it out” is enough when in fact community management is like marketing like customer support is to engineering. All are critical functions but community management is about advocacy more than promotion, just like customer support.

This is also why Josh reports to me instead of to our marketing group. I want this role to represent marketplace advocacy and I thought that ultimately I am responsible for that so it makes sense for the role to report to me. I also happen to care alot about the tactics by which we manage community, an outgrowth of my now many years of experience in corporate social media.

Our community manager has several distinct but interconnected roles. The first is easy, establish and grow a meaningful blog presence through which we expose and highlight our activities AND connect directly with influencers, power users, early adopters, customers, and many other groups of individuals who are relevant to our market space.

A blog is just a tool, which means that we will use many tools at our disposal to reach out and with an authentic voice talk about what we are doing and listen about what we could be doing. What we are doing with Twitter is another example of how we are taking advantage of social media tools to connect to our marketplace.

Communities are about networks and as such the community manager is responsible for building out and maintaining networks related to the above groups, and like a pilot who’s hands are on many levers apply leverage to various constituencies as determined by what our objectives are. The important aspect of this is that for a network to remain vibrant and active, we have to give back as much as we take.

There are probably a dozen other responsibilities that fallen within the scope of community manager but in the final equation it comes down to the commitment of the company to support that person in his/her role. I think we have a well earned track record at working with our community and not just talking to it, which hopefully means we are prepared to amp up those efforts with a person who is dedicated to the task.

Like all things that are on the forward edge there is an element of learning as we go, but this type of role is not so new as to suggest it’s all experimentation. We, as an industry, know from recent experience that the marketplace is demanding a richer interaction with companies so I think we’re on the forward edge of mainstream as opposed to on the bleeding edge.