What (Or Who) Is Driving Your Community Discussion Arenas?


Jeff Atwood, co-founder of Q&A website Stack Overflow, talks this week about the care and feeding of community-led forums that spring up around a product or service. He calls them “the dark matter of the web, the B-movies of the Internet” but acknowledges the discussions they perpetuate aren’t without value.

Atwood maintains the quality of community management software that corrals these conversations is so abysmal that business are often forced to cobble together solutions from their existing customer support software. The problem, he says,  is that “customer support isn’t the same as community.”

There’s a kernel of truth in that statement, but when you have users who want to help then it’s important to let them — and not just to stroke their ego in the hope of building consumer loyalty. Part of the reasoning behind opening up documentation to the community is the idea that the community is smarter than the company. Don’t be afraid to mine golden input from people who are knee-deep in your product because, after all, this kind of collaboration has a pretty well-proven track record.

While crowdsourcing may be the goal, forums aren’t the way to get there. As Atwood perceptively points out, community-provided support can become a quagmire of obscurity that makes it difficult to find relevant answers quickly:

“At Stack Exchange, one of the tricky things we learned about Q&A is that if your goal is to have an excellent signal to noise ratio, you must suppress discussion. Stack Exchange only supports the absolute minimum amount of discussion necessary to produce great questions and great answers….Spare us the long-winded diatribe, just answer the damn question already.”

Agreed. But, now, let’s be honest. The only thing more infuriating than having to wade through a metric ton of irrelevant chatter to find an answer is finding out the answer you finally come up with is wrong.

This is why authoritative content is your friend. Actually, authoritative content is your best friend. You should really think about marrying authoritative content. Historically, forums were a necessary evil born from a lack of good tech options for providing online user documentation. That’s not an excuse anymore. Now you can, and must, get the right answers to your customers exactly when they need them, and get it right the first time.

If there’s a lot of chatter and discussion surrounding your documentation then, guess what? You’re not providing a quality help experience. Forums, discussion groups, support tickets, help desks — those should be last ditch options for your users, not a first line of defense.

I think we can all pretty much agree with Atwood that forums are the dark matter of the web. Do you really want that to reflect your brand? Doubtful, especially when all the tools (software solutions) and resources (help agents, developers, consumers) for better help options are right at your fingertips.

In case you’re tempted to ignore the notion that users might someday turn to each other for troubleshooting tips or anecdata, we have some news for you. They’re already doing it. Let’s kick around some statistics from a survey conducted last year:

  • Over half (57%) of consumers head directly online when they have a problem with a brand or product.
  • That figure rises to 71% among 16-25 year old consumers and 65% among 25-34 year olds. The problems and questions of frustrated consumers are being gathered and published all across the web.
  • 33% of consumers use on-line forums and chat rooms while 25% have turned to on-line video tutorials (i.e. YouTube), and nearly 20% say they turn to query websites such as Facebook Questions, Yahoo Answers, etc. 11% say they turn to popular related blogs.

Is your first reaction, “Hey, great! Let users help users, that’s one less thing we have to worry about. Now we can focus on putting together a 350-page how-to manual for our site instead”?

Oh, that’s probably not a good plan.

The trick to finding a good balance between encouraging community participation and ignoring it altogether lies in using tools that continually harness the good bits of crowdsourcing. You want a solution that allows users to offer assistance while still retaining control over the moderation process so the signal to noise ratio Atwood refers to doesn’t get out of hand. Authoritative content is what keeps users from a having bad help experience and ultimately abandoning your product. Even kittens like it.

Get out on the playing field with your customers and be ready to referee when necessary. Give them the answers they want, the first time they go looking. Today’s consumers want to be engaged throughout the lifetime of their association with your product, not just until they’ve made their buying decision. Customer support may not be exactly the same as community, but that’s sure where it begins.

Image: Jack Amick