7th May 2007

Speech Abstract: Enhancing Online and Community Support Models

On Tuesday, May 8th, I’m presenting a breakout with the above title at SSPA in San Diego.  I’ve put together an abstract of my talk below.  Knowing me, it will be interesting to compare what comes out of my mouth, with my in advance prepared content.  I have a hard time not free wheeling a bit on my content as I go:)

Here’s the abstract:

Where’s the first place you go for help, support and advice on all the products and services you use in your daily life? www.company.com?”  That’s probably not your first stop.  Most of us go to “our community.”  That is, the personal network we are connected with:  friends, family, neighbors, etc.  Why?  Our personal networks offer a lot of benefits.  They have diverse areas of expertise, they are trusted, they are accessible, and they generally “speak our language” – not linguistically, but like a user verses a sales person or support professional. 

The challenge with our “personal networks” is that they are finite.  They may not be deep enough on a topic or broad enough across new areas of interest.  Enter online or virtual communities.  The proliferation of online communities in recent years has democratized access to information, experiences and expertise on virtually every subject and in nearly every language in the world.  As a user, you now have a choice between your personal network, vast online communities (peer users), and your suppliers for help and support.  Each of these sources provides certain advantages (credibility, authority, camaraderie, indemnification/quality assurance, accessibility, timeliness, guaranteed answer, etc) and disadvantages (scope, trust, cost, etc.) 

Given this new dynamic, how are you defining your approach to online help and support to balance both traditional online support experiences and integrating communities into the assistance workflow?  Our objective is to deliver the best of both worlds.  This means migrating your customers from “trusting your content” to a model where customers “trust the experience” you deliver.  In other words, the content you will now deliver will be a superset of the content you author, so how will you assure your users that this user generated content is easy to use, easy to trust and easy to find?

At Microsoft, online communities offer the single largest opportunity to dramatically increase the breadth and depth of available content on our products and services.  While we are not in the “content business,” we are in the answer business from a customer support experience standpoint.  Integrating the value of the vast repository of user generated content and independent answerers is no simple task. 

As a starting point, let’s set a context for what we mean by communities.  The industry today is awash in community buzz words:  “virtual, online, web 2.0, social networking, peering, participative web, etc.”  For Microsoft, communities represent anywhere users go online to interact with one another to gain knowledge and/or expertise.  As you set the landscape for your communities a few key principles emerge:

  • Communities are User Driven.  The best communities have you as a participant, but not as the driver.
  • Communities are not just about forums or Question & Answer pairs.  While forums are a great starting point, user participation can come in many other ways:  Blogs, Wikis, podcasts, videocasts, content rating, tagging, RSS subscriptions, “user Gen-next?”  Content authoring and forum answering may be exceptionally valuable today, but other, lighter weight participation models may be equally important over time.
  • Communities are a combination of venues/destinations, relationships, tools and processes.  Without adequate planning across all these pillars, challenging roadblocks will emerge.
  • Our communities are not confined to destinations across www.Microsoft.com.

While there is an explosion in social networking technologies that enable many of these community models, there are also a set of industry and social trends driving this evolution.  Take developers for example, our experience is that developers dramatically prefer to self-solve issues versus calling for support.  This is a reflection of evolving preferred work-styles.  At the same time, those entering the workforce today are by-products of the “MySpace” generation – a generation of social and peer networkers.  In the years to come, it seems clear this will emerge as a dominate model for help and support.

The next issue to address is affirming the business purpose for investing in community work. This will define whether you check the community box or ingrain it into your long term online support strategy.  Online communities can benefit the support function, the marketing function and the product development function.  Establishing priority will drive one of the key challenges for communities:  landing the right near and longer term KPIs. 

At Microsoft, I would set the priorities as Support and Product insight with little direct investments in marketing via community.  This drives how we think about KPIs:  Reach, Success/answer rate, Satisfaction and cost. 

Integrating community and online can be described as a 3 step process.

1)      Understand the community demographics:  What communities already exist around your products?  Are they communities you host and/or 3rd party.  How big are they?  How are you going to approach the legal and policy issues to ensure you have a framework for risk management that doesn’t unrealistically constrain your support of community content?  If you haven’t already, when are you going to join the community?  Do you have a credible presence there already?  If not, that is a natural and necessary starting point.  Who are the influencers?  You need to identify them, thank them AND engage with them.

2)      Integrate community and support workflows:  This speaks to the preferred work style of our users.  Do the phone, the web and community feel like 3 distinct support options and workflows, or is it one integrated end to end experience?  The theme we are targeting here is “search-ability” – of support AND user generated content.  These initiatives include online workflow & search, online submission, rapid publishing, supported communities and expanded influencer recognition programs with a focus on service delivery mix-shift from phone, online reach, answer rate and satisfaction.

3)      Leveraging the Wisdom of the Crowds:  In the future state, the aspiration shifts from “search-ability” to “find-ability.”  At this point you’re not just looking at the sum of user generated content, but you are deploying specific strategies for filtering, rating and rendering that proactively presents that content to your users based on their profile and/or past support interactions.  A key indicator here will be progressively “stickier” community participation.

This road to online and community is not without its “potholes.”  Two film metaphors apply to this business, “Field of Dreams” and “Pay it Forward.”  Remember, “Field of Dreams” was just a movie – if you build a community, that doesn’t mean customers will come.  Furthermore, the legal construct can derail your plans and progress. So engage legal advice early and often in determining how you implement (not whether or not you should). 

I would also highlight that your communities are not YOUR communities; they belong to your customers.  You should be a purposeful and engaged neighbor in that community, but there is great danger in overpowering the community.  A topic that often comes up is controlling the community and I’d note that the effort spent to control a community and your ability to control it are inversely related.  And lastly, landing metrics is not easy.  The reporting and analytics in this space are still immature and require considerable planning and internal negotiations to gain alignment.

In summary, the 3 steps above take us from a support value proposition, to a Support, Enable and User Participative value proposition.  It’s important to acknowledge that your community likely already exists (if this is not the case, you may have a different problem.)  Earning the right to participate in that community as a credible peer is a key and non-trivial opportunity. 

PS:  If you’d like the slides that go with this, drop me an email:  and I’ll forward.

Sorry for the long post:)


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This entry was posted on Monday, May 7th, 2007 at 11:02 pm and is filed under Business Strategy, Events, Influencers, Interviews & Speeches, MVP, Microsoft, Social Media, web 2.0. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

There are currently 2 responses to “Speech Abstract: Enhancing Online and Community Support Models”

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  1. 1 On May 9th, 2007, Gustav S said:

    I think your idea is great special those about increasing the society wisdom, I am kind of oriented to that goal and I expect to be able to help as many as possible!

    Thank you for existing!

  2. 2 On November 16th, 2007, A guide for those that are new to this blog… : Community Group Therapy said:

    […] Enhancing Online and Community Support Models: Speech abstract […]

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