The Web is Not a One-Way Street.
This post is a follow-up for a presentation I gave at the The Sydney Business Technology User’s Group in June, 2009 on Interwebz feedback channels for your customers and community. If you weren’t there you missed a golden opportunity to heckle. Maybe next time, eh?
These days the internet is steadily evolving into a medium for communities to connect and congregate. The notion of a static HTML brochure page has gone the way of Alta Vista. These days it’s all about interaction. Like the best camera is one that gets out of your way so you can take a photo, the best web is the one that facilitates communication and interaction without being intrusive, to the extent that it takes place outside of a browser in clients and on mobile devices.
Whether you have a personal blog with visitors, or a business with clients and prospective clients, or you are interacting with your peers, it’s the same thing in real terms. Communication and community build rapport, credibility, leads and are generally just warm-and-fuzzy nice. We’re social animals. Hey, none of this is new to you. Even monoliths like mainstream media have feedback channels. They always have via the letters-to-the-editor. The difference is that most letters don’t get published. That’s not very Web 2.0.
The trick is your participation in feedback channels. My biggest takeaway from 4 and a half years of university was this from psych 101: “It is that which comes from you that determines your quality of life, not that which comes to you.” To elaborate, your well-being and reputation (professional and otherwise) are determined by your actions far more so than by the actions of others towards you. This includes your participation in the communities relevant to you.
Allow me to use one of my cranky rants to illustrate. I was trying to find a mind-mapping solution and stumbled upon Gliffy. I couldn’t find any pricing for it and I wasn’t in a particularly good mood so I had a bit of a rant on Twitter about it:
So, who looks like a dill now? Yup, me (again). Therein lies you lesson (albeit at my expense), your contribution to the conversation is what identifies you in the community. Sure, a massive attack on you in a public forum will shake things around but you should realise you have a lot of control here – everybody is watching what you are saying and doing. Make it count.
Now to the cheat-sheet for my presentation…
Community is about empowering your clients, users, potential clients, even friends and family. Think about FaceBook and MySpace if you’re pondering the last couple of groups there.
There are various types of customer interaction. This is not an exhaustive list, just a starting point for conversation about conversation. Um, metaconversation anyone?
- Feedback for your product / service / something you said
- Request for more information
- a one-to-one conversation with a member of your community
- a conversation amongst many members of your community, led by you
- a conversation amongst many members of your community, not led by you
- annoying, pointless rants (usually from me)
Try to contain it to all but the last two. So how do you go about it?
Modes of Customer Interaction
- Nothing: won’t cut it in the 21st century. One way communication is dictatorial and not empowering. It is not the Cold War era anymore. Silence will get you ignored or raise suspicions about your intentions.
- email link from website: Spam bait and not open, conversational nor community-driven. Better than nothing but not by much. Never use a mailto: on your web page unless you really, really love sifting through spam. You can encode it if you like but it is still not much a of a communication channel.
- contact page: More spam-proof. Initiates a one-to-one email conversation. Still doesn’t benefit the community because it is a closed conversation.
- Surveys and Polls. This is more like a call for comments. It is still initiated by you and is still a closed-ish channel although revealing the survey results opens the channel somewhat. Obviously polls are more one-way than a survey that allows for written answers. They can initiate but can’ host discussions.
- PollDaddy is hosted, owned by WordPress. There are other hosted solutions. Most of them are free for simple surveys with a limited number of respondents. Poll Daddy allows conditional branching on free surveys but you can only have 10 questions so that’s kinda pointless. Survey Monkey is another similar one, as are Survey Gizmo, Hosted Survey, Stellar Survey, My Survey Lab, Fluid Surveys and Survey Factory . It is interesting to compare their pricing models. There are plenty around. If you find a decent, recent review of them could you please post a link in the comments?
- Lime Survey is probably the most popular open-source survey software. It is written in PHP and you host it on your own site. There is a new version on the way which is nicer to use.
- Some paid-for Survey software, also for LAMP are DW Survey and the somewhat expensive and interestingly named ChumpSoft
- You could create a form in Google Docs for a simple survey – free
- Here is a review of some survey tools available, and another review here. Here is a sort of search engine. The home site is also worth looking at if you’re in the mood for far-too much information.
- Comments, blog-style: More web 2.0. Conversational, open. You still initiate the conversation and choose the topic, at least initially. This is a generational leap ahead of the mailto: dinosaur. All blogging platforms support comments. It has been widely opined that a blog without comments is just a rant. Threaded comments add another dimension to the conversation. I like ‘em.
- Forums: Open, public or semi-public – there are various method of Access Control. Community members can initiate conversations. You can moderate forums but you should be careful not to stifle discussion.
- Bug reporting tools like Bugzilla, Mantis, Eventum form the MySQL team, BugNET, Bug Tracker .NET, FogBugz, Jira. These are far-more suited to technical crowd. Their interfaces are very technical & quite confrontational for the uninitiated. Your average user, already flustered because the app you wrote for them has crashed, will probably give up at this stage. Too hard!
- Hosted feedback forums are relatively new to the mainstream tubes. UserVoice is my favourite, perhaps because of their start-up story but also because of their widget that goes on your site. They don’t try to pwn your brand. Speaking of which, and here too, there’s also Get Satisfaction but it’s pricey. It is worth looking at if you have needs for a more intricate feedback channel but I don’t think it’s really meant for SMEs.
- Generic hosted forums like Whirlpool for Australian IT Linked-in, FaceBook, MySpace have professional groups you should look at participating in
- Instant messaging communities like Twitter, Friend Feed etc. FaceBook etc are rapidly evolving into this space too. Like it or not, this is the leading edge of evolution, as far as internet collaboration goes. Well, it was when I wrote it.
The above list is, more or less, in increasing order of public-ness and decreasing order of monolithic-ness. More significantly you can see a drift from the top of the list to the bottom of the list towards Social Media.
SEO on your support site is just as important as the rest of your site, as the 37Signals vs GetSatisfaction example shows. Here’s another example. For exampleinstance, you would expect a search for QuickBooks has encountered a problem and needs to close to return you all sorts of Quicken support goodness. It does but there’s a SEO red-herring in there – well, there was when I wrote this. Serves ‘me right, I say
Akismet is amazingly effective in controlling spam on blogs. It is easily integrated with WordPress and other blog platforms. Use it!. Seriously. Mollom is an alternative to Akismet for systems like Drupal. Dries invented Mollom so Drupal don’t really “do” Akismet
You can test to see if the Contacter (yes, I made that word up) is a human or a robot using various methods, the most popular of which are CAPTCHA and reCAPTCHA. They both tend to be pretty effective deterrents to both robots and humans alike.
Hosted solutions are a bit easier here because spam control is more-or-less their problem to solve.
Well, I hope that gives you food for thought. Please feel free to add your thoughts and observations.