Here are some key takeaways from the SXSWi presentation on Building Strong Online Communities.

Ken Fisher: Ars Technica
Alexis Ohanian: Mgr of Awesome, reddit.com
Drew Curtis: Fark.com
Erin Kotecki Vest: BlogHer Inc
  • Reddit: put up a wiki and told users to document their own rules of etiquette. Has worked really well, and different communities can develop their own standards.
  • BlogHer: If comments are inappropriate, they are immediately deleted. The poster is notified, and they have the opportunity to modify and report.
  • Reddit: This isn’t capital punishment we’re talking about, this is just deleting comments.
  • Ars Technica: Have a strict policy of keeping all content, not modifying or deleting. Their users feel that any deleting is censorship.
  • BlogHer: it is so rare that we delete content, it really isn’t an issue.
  • BlogHer: We had Michelle Obama blogging, Carly Fianora blogging, and there were tons of posts of people arguing their points back and forth – but in a very civilized way. It was the community guidelines that made this happen.
  • What are some of the things you’ve seen gone wrong
    • BlogHer: Not informing and involving the community in making changes to community
    • Fark: When you make changes, 20% of the users will complain loudly, and you have to discount that somewhat.
    • Reddit: The vast majority of users are the silent users, who don’t post anything, but account for the vast majority of page views. You can do surveys to talk to these people, but somewhat you have to trust your gut.
    • Ars Technica: Surveys are very useful, especially at helping to balance out the vocal minority.
  • Anonymous comments versus registered users:
    • Fark: No anonymous comments, if you can’t say something with your name attached, you shouldn’t get to post at all.
    • Reddit: Registered users increased the signal to noise ratio. It’s better to have two quality comments from registered users, than 14 comments from anonymous coward.
  • What’s next?
    • BlogHer: more social networking features.
    • Reddit: More involved in impactful change. Told story of the internet voting on whale name change – internet voted for “Mr. Splashy Pants”. Ended up stopping a whale hunting campaign from the amount of media attention.
  • What do you do with the passionate users?
    • BlogHer: “Hire them”: pay them to be your moderator (inward focused) or evangalist (outreaching)
    • Ars Technica: Give them special titles on the site. Give them some special capabilities.
    • Reddit: Talk to them. Send them an email and have a discussion about where everyone wants to go.
  • What do you think about moderating for quality?
    • Reddit: We have a really good commenting system so that the crap falls to the bottom. Just download our source code.
  • Reminding the community:
    • BlogHer: every once in a while we have the community manager go and remind the community of not only the rules, but why the rules benefit the community
  • What about big corporations: should they have forums?
    • Ars Technica: Absolutely they should, and they should be thick skinned, expect the criticism, don’t be afraid of it.
    • BlogHer: And they should also go to the existing community, then you can engage in it honestly, not as some PR flak.

Derek Powazek spoke on Designing for Wisdom of the Crowds at SXSW Interactive 2009. He graciously posted the full slides. It also turns out that Derek works for HP’s MagCloud, a magazine publishing site. Here are my takeaways from his talk.

Wisdom of the Crowds began with Francis Galton. He observed a contest in which people had to guess the weight of a cow. Their individual guesses were off, but the average guess was 1209 pounds, and the actual weight was 1198, less than 1% off.
The question is how to apply wisdom of the crowds to create better community online. When you see web forums, you see lots of stupidity. But when you looked at the most emailed stories on a news site, what the crowd is telling you are the most interesting stories, the crowd is doing an effective job picking stories.
Elements of wise crowds are:
  • Diversity
  • Independence (avoid group think)
  • Decentralization
  • Aggregation
Elements of bringing Wisdom of Crowds online are:
  • Small simple tasks
  • Large Diverse Group
  • Design for Selfishness
  • Result Aggregation
Small simple tasks:
  • One way that things can fall apart is by making it too complicated. A black comment form invites chaos. What you want is something with a specific output value, like a rating from 1 to 10, or a thumbs up/thumbs down. 
  • Good examples of this include the T-shirt design site Threadless, and HotOrNot. (don’t visit the latter link from work.) 
  • But a bad example of this is the initial launch of Wired Magazine’s Assignment Zero. They asked people to write news stories. People were interested in the idea, but when it came time to write an article, they were like “woah, this is a lot of work”. So they changed the process mid-stream by smallying the tasks: First, ask the users who we should interview. Second, ask the users who would sign up to interview those people? Third, who would sign up to take the interview notes and write articles? Fourth, they hired editors to turn raw articles into magazine quality articles.
Large Diverse Groups
  • Bad example #1: Groupthink at NASA led to a conclusion that it was safe to launch because everyone else thought it was safe to launch. It was inconceivable to think that it wasn’t safe to launch.
  • Bad example #2: Chevy Tahoe solicited input for advertisements. The only people motivated enough to contribute were environmentalists who submitted counter-advertising. Actual Tahoe fans were motived enough.
  • Want to encourage diverse groups to participate.
Design for Selfishness
  • Large groups of people aren’t going to contribute if they get nothing out of it. Is it worth my time? What do I get out of it?
  • Threadless: get $2,500 if you submit a winning design.
  • Google PageRank: people create web site links for their own reasons, not to help Google to build a billion dollar business, but Google Pagerank is ultimately dependent on those links.
  • Flickr Tags: people don’t tag photos to help flickr, they tag to organize photos. Flickr builds on top of that so that not only can they serve up photos by tags, but they can divide into clusters that so the tag of “apple” can be identified as meaning either computers, fruit, or NYC.
Result Aggregation
  • Favrd: gets favorited tweets from twitter, aggregates them so you can see what the most favorite tweets of the previous day is.
Heisenberg Problem
  • Once we create a leaderboard,it creates a new motivation: people will try to get onto the leaderboard, regardless fo contributing in a positive way. It creates an incentive for bad behavior.
  • Example: Flickr used to show absolute ranking of interesting photos, which caused people to spam their photo into many groups. The correction was to show a random selection of interesting photos. Now there is less motivation for someone to complete/spam/game the system to get into the #1 slot, because now there is no #1 slot. (Gaming the system was a recurring discussion theme all week.)
  • Also, show results only after voting is complete. Threadless shows voting results for T-shirt designs only when the week is done and all votes are in, not at all during the week.
Popularity does not have to rule
  • Amazon.com reviews for Battlestar Galatica show most helpful favorable review and most helpful critical review. The combination of the two is more informative than just showing you the single most helpful review, because that would be unbalanced. And a histogram of reviews shows you quantitative and visually how many reviews fall into 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5 stars. That gives you a good picture, again more helpful than just reading the most positive or negative or popular review.
Implicit versus Explicit Feedback
  • Explicit feedback is voting and rating. You are asking the audience to make an intentional decision. Threadless, Digg, Hot or Not, Zen, Amazon. The goal here is never to ask people to do more thinking than is necessary. If thumbs up/thumbs down will work, that’s enough. If 1 to 5 rating will work, don’t do a 1 to 10 rating.
  • Implicit feedback is pageviews, searches, velocity, interestingness, clickstream data. You can get more useful, better data when you don’t ask people a direction question.
(Personal aside: My passion is all around the implicit data…)
Design Matters: How you ask questions changes the answers you get
  • Two versions of Kvetch: the early dark version, and the latter white version.
  • The 1997 version was all dark and black. And the comments were dark, as in “I want to kill my teacher”. But the intention of the site was supposed to be funny, so what was happening?
  • The latter version of the site was white, with an open airy design. Same text. The submitted comments became funny and lighthearted.
  • Red versus blue: In a psychological test, they changed only one thing, the color of the border surrounding information. The blue group did better on tests of creative work, the red group did better on tests of recall. Not just a little better, but hugely better. We associate red with ranger and mistakes. People try to avoid mistakes. Red creates a fear response, people don’t want to mess up, so they pay attention to detail. Blue is cooler, more relaxes, and people connect to emotional content much better.
Seeing Things
  • Our brains work to create  a story in our head based on inputs. If some of those inputs are missing, the brain works twice as hard to create a story that makes sense.
  • Fighter pilots: when they undergo G-forces that starve the brain of oxygen, they undergo vivid hallucinations that comprises a tiny part of reality, but most made up.
  • In online situations, we lack most of the data we would have in the real world: facial expressions, sounds, etc, and all that is left is lines of text on the screen. So our brains work really hard to make up a story. People make up a story when they are deprived of the data.
  • They did a study: two groups of people. The “in-control” group goes into a room and answers questions and are told they are always right. The “out of control” group goes into a room and answers questions, and are told they are always wrong. Then they present a chaos picture, such as static or random clouds. When presented with the picture, the in-control group said there was nothing. The out-of-control group saw all sorts of things that weren’t there.
  • Then they did a followup. They had the out-of-control group tell them a story about their morning or something they were passionate about. Then shows the chaos pictures to those people, and the people said there was nothing there.

While at SXSW, I picked up a copy of What Would Google Do?, the new book by Jeff Jarvis. As I usually do, I opened to a random page inside, and started reading. I laughed out loud at something on the part, and I heard someone say “I love when someone does that.” I looked up, and saw Jeff Jarvis.

We got to talking, and he asked what I did. I told him about my role at HP, and how I’m trying to expand everyone’s mindset that for customer support, we have got to look past just social media and into the realm of implicit feedback. We chatted some more, and I ended up buying the book.
Only later did I realize that it was Jeff Jervis who caused “Dell hell” by posting on his blog about Dell’s poor customer service, and which totally turned Dell around and got them heavily involved in social media. Of course I knew all about Dell’s history, I had just forgotten the name of that one key individual who started it all: Jeff Jarvis.
I highly recommend his book. I’ve got enough annotations and folded pages for few dozen blog posts. I will mention one right now. Jeff Jarvis has finally explained the term platform in the context of Web 2.0 in a way that it become very concrete for me. He writes:

Google has many platforms: Blogger for publishing content, Google Docs and Google Calendar for office collaboration, YouTube for videos, Picasa for photos, Google Analytics to track sites traffic, Google Groups for communities, AdSense for revenue. Google Maps is so good that Google could have put it on the web at maps.google.com and told us to come there to use it, and we would have. But Google also opened its maps so sites can embed them. A hotel can post a Google Map with directions. Suburbanites can embed maps on their blogs to point shoppers to garage sales. Google uses maps to enhance its own search and to serve relevant local ads; it is fast becoming the new Yellow Pages.”

Contrast this to a site like Yahoo: Yahoo creates and aggregates content to create a destination. Google doesn’t create content, it creates a platform for others to create, share, link, and network their own content. Jarvis writes, “A platform enables. It helps others build value. Any company can be a platform…. Platforms help users create products, businesses, communities and networks of their own.”

Last year HP had the unfortunate honor of winning this “worst of the worst social media campaigns” when we paid a mother to have her children destroy competitor’s cameras in an online video. So I was keenly interested to see if HP had learned from this lesson, and see what other companies had done. 
There are four panelists, each brings three nominations of a bad social media campaign. Voting is done in three rounds. Here are the three rounds and the candidates for each round. 
Round 1: Everybody’s doing it.
  • Self described social media gurus/experts: You are going against the community. The experts are who the community says they are.
  • Viraltweets.com twitter software: Software for spamming twitter…
  • Metro Ford of Schenectady: sent out a press release bragging about their involvement in social media, when in fact they don’t do any.
  • Constellation Energy: has a restrictive multi-page policy for linking “You can’t link to any of our web pages, except our home page”
Winner Round One: Self described social media gurus/experts.
Round 2: Revenge of Blogosphere
  • Hasbro/Mattel vs. Scrabulous: forced Scrabulous off Facebook, replaced it with a bad, failing, application.
  • Skittles Twitter Compaign: Skittles homepage links to skittles search on twitter. People started taking advantage of this and putting skittles into non-related posts.
  • KFC Nation:
    • Has a game to “kill the chicken”
    • Has a link to the KFC Blog: Post is from employee who was fired from KFC. Blog post is from employee who was harassed by manager, then fired.
  • “Joe the Plumber” sign from John McCain’s campaign…
    • Unmoderated comments on his products site.
    • You could submit your own Joe The Plumber sign… with the result of one that was “I am so horny for the nude body of McCain”
    • Lesson: don’t give too much creative expression
Winner round two: KFC Nation
Round 3: revenge of the blogosphere
  • Belkin: Submitted Amazon Mechanical Turk and paid people 65 cents to positively review products on Amazon and New Egg: “Give it a 100% rating, write as though you own the product and are using it, after you submit your review, rate all negative reviews as not useful”
  • The Whopper Sacrifice: Unsocial network behavior…a facebook app that removes friends from your profile: offer was to ditch a friend, get a whopper free. (Referred by ad agencies as a very successful campaign. Burger King was very happy with result: cheap and got a lot of attention.)
  • Motorola Krave on gadget blogs: Asked employees to go post on gadget blogs. Employees identified themselves as Motorola employees, but the posts themselves still just sounded like advertisements, not worthwhile contributions.
  • Rebuild The Party: Republican party social media campaign…solicited suggestions for how to improve the party. “Truck Nutz for all: Give all Red Blooded Americans a pair of Truck Nuts for the F150s.” was the top suggested idea.
  • Pizza Hut: Paid filmmakers $25K to post on YouTube. The video shows two guys who order Pizza Hut delivered to a local pizza store.
Winner: Belkin
Final Round
  • Social Media Gurus
  • KFC
  • Belkin (winner of final round, worst of the worst)
Belkin wins worst of the worst social media campaigns.
There was considerable discussion about what makes a bad social media campaign before the final round voting. There was pretty strong agreement that some of the candidates had made errors of omission (neglecting moderation) or ignorance, and while those didn’t create a positive image for the company, it was mostly perceived as humorous by the audience. What was actually regarded as negative was when an organization would try to “game the system”. Manipulating the system destroys the trust relationships that are crucially important. Omission and ignorance might make a company look foolish, but Belkin tried to game the system, hurting everyone else, and creating some anger at them. 
Not only did Belkin undermine the credibility of the product reviews they paid for, they undermined the credibility of the authentic product reviews submitted by actually customers, and permanantly affects the believability of anything Belkin does in the future.
When HP won “worst of the worst” in 2008, it was also for gaming the system, when Cisco won for spamming Wikipedia with their phrase “the human network”, it was also gaming the system. In other words, trying to manipulate how the system works is the most grevious crime that a company can commit in the social media space.
You can stay abreast of future Suxorz activity via the Suxorz Facebook group

As reported by VentureBeat, HP announced an almost unbelievable blogger campaign, in which they boosted PC sales 10% by giving away just 31 PCs to key bloggers:

HP, one of the country’s biggest computer companies, is boasting that it boosted its PC sales by 10 percent in May after it leveraged the blogging community to promote the launch of one of its computer systems.

All HP did was give away 31 new HDX Dragon computer systems to 31 influential members of the PC blogging community, so that the blogs could give them away in a competition among their readers. The bloggers went nuts. They made videos of the systems, wrote up engaging posts and cross-linked to each other — all of their own accord. The publicity this created spurred an increase in sales, according to Ballantyne. Since the bloggers were credible to their readers, and they were talking about the HP systems on their sites, the readers went out and bought systems even if they didn’t win one in the competitions.

The results?

[D]uring the blogger competitions, sales of the Dragon system shot up by 85 percent compared to the average monthly sales of the three months before hand. More impressively, overall HP PC sales grew 10 percent higher in the U.S. than the company had forecast, as HP PC systems overall got more publicity from the Dragon campaign. Visits to HP.com increased by 15 percent.

In an article on Web 2.0 adoption, Ann All cites a few pieces of evidence that Web 2.0 adoption is slowing or even falling into disfavor:

In my post about a slowdown in IT hiring, I cited an InfoWorld item that quotes M. Victor Janulaitis, CEO at IT staffing research company Janco Associates, as saying that the sluggish economy has halted Web 2.0 investments. Demand for Web 2.0 technologies has “atrophied,” says Janulaitis, after “a slight increase in demand” earlier this year.
Indeed, Web 2.0 deployments likely fall under the discretionary spending column at most companies, and thus are prone to elimination as tech execs look to cut IT spending. As a Goldman Sachs analyst put it, execs are “searching for solutions with a high and fast ROI,” a criteria mostly lacking in Web 2.0 technologies.

Ann also writes:

But check out the Robert Half numbers of CIOs taking a pass on technologies: tagging software (67 percent), blogs (72 percent),wikis (74 percent) and virtual worlds (84 percent). ZDNet’s Dignan expresses surprise at the lack of love for wikis and speculates that maybe they are popular among in-the-trenches types such as software developers and project managers but not among CIOs.

I think that Ann and the sources she quotes are missing the elephant in the room: employees are adopting these technologies whether the CIO wants them to or not. Professional blogs and professional social networking tools are still on the rise, and don’t depend on internal IT resources. Likewise, wikis and community tools are available from hosted providers, usually for free. All it takes is one enterprising person from marketing to start a customer community, or an enterprising developer to start a wiki. 

When social media tools are hosted internally, I’ve witnessed over and over that they start as skunk works projects, below the radar of official IT. So the CIO may not endorse Web 2.0 tools, but company employees will adopting them both inside and outside the company firewall. In fact, the biggest risk that a CIO may cause by not adopting Web 2.0 technology in an appropriate and timely fashion is the exodus of implicit and explicit company confidential information outside the firewall.
And regardless of what the company may officially do, and what employees may unofficially do, of course a company’s customers can and will adopt Web 2.0 technology on their own.

It’s always nice to find others focusing on the service and support aspect of Web 2.0. In this case, John Perez has a nice blog focusing on Support 2.0, including many useful links to research from the SSPA, Universal McCann, and others.

John has even provided the IBM guidelines on blogging, which is tremendously helpful to any organization looking to foster engagement of their employees in social media. 

I believe than some companies tend to have a mismatch for each of their support channels between the needs of the customers who prefer that channel, and the support actually delivered by that channel.

For example, some companies:

  • Provide the only the most basic, frequently asked questions via their website (the eSupport Channel)
  • Use the least skilled support agents for live chat support
  • Use the most skilled support agents for phone support

Why do companies make these choices? Well, online support content can get messy for complex issues, and it’s tough for a company with limited internal to generate all the long tail support content they would need to tackle every issue that customers face.

And when it comes to chat versus phone, companies can sometimes get away with less-well paid agents for chat support because the company does not have to pay a premium for good verbal English skills (written English skills are less demanding). Of course, those good verbal English skills may frequently correlate with higher overall agent effectiveness and communication skills. So in effect, the chat agents may be less effective than the phone agents. Of course, companies can validate this for themselves: how does your resolution rate compare between chat and phone?

So why is all of this problematic? Look at the profile for two segments of customers:

Techie customers:

  • Solve basic issues themselves using simple troubleshooting skills they innately possess
  • Need online support for advanced issues
  • Strongly prefer email or chat support if they must get human assistance

Non-technical customers:

  • Need help solving basic issues
  • Strongly prefer calling if when they must contact the company
  • Avoid online self-support and online chat/email support

What we end up with is a mismatch between the customer needs and the support channels:

Technie customers:

  • Need advanced help online, but can’t find it there.
  • They end up with the perception that companies never have the help they need. (because they don’t need the help that companies provide online.)
  • When they result to human support (chat/email), they get bad assistance which confirms the fact that companies are clueless.

Non-techie customers

  • Need the most basic help and end up with the most knowledgeable and expensive agents who end up spending hours working one on one to walk a customer through the process of installing software from a CDROM.

There are some simplifications here. But at the root of it all, there is definitely a mismatch. Because of this mismatch, companies over-invest in support for customers who need more basic help (wasting resources), while under-investing in support for customers who need more advanced help (leaving dissatisfied customers).

Previously I posted about the rise of support activism and negative word of mouth. There are a several things a company can do to mitigate the risks of support activism and negative word of mouth.

Improve the Product Quality

In the past, all those inconveniences that didn’t actually raise warranty costs (because they didn’t result in a support call), even if they affected the user experience, got ignored by companies. That has to change. Not only does product quality simply need to improve across the board, but the prioritization criteria of customer issues has to change as well. What is most important to fix is what your customers say is most important to fix. And that is not necessarily the same as what causes your customers to call.
Here’s an example from the old days of VHS players: If a customer’s VHS player couldn’t play tapes, that would generate a support phone call or a product return. But if a customer’s VHS player was too hard to program and sat blinking 12:00 all day, they might not call support or return it. They might just live with blinking lights flashing at them all day long, creating a lingering dissatisfier.
People view support calls as an absolute last resort. And since the correct time and the ability to record programs on a timer isn’t crucial, they’ll live without those capabilities. They’ll live without them, but they’ll always be pissed: “I bought product X, and it just doesn’t work.”
Similarly, what is most satisfying about a product may not be what is most important about it. It is most important that my car start when I need to use it, but the six speed manual transmission is what is most satisfying about it. (These are the kind of subtle nuances you’ll learn about reading automotive forums on the web, but which are hard to uncover in traditional customer research.)

Address Support Issues Where They Arise

If a product issue shows up on a blog, in most cases, the best approach is to post a comment on that blog as a response, explaining how to address the issue. You will instantly convert the negative customer experience into an overwhelmingly positive support experience: “Wow, the company found my blog and cared enough about me to post a response for how to fix the problem.” They will tell that story to everyone they talk to that day or week, and any time your company comes up in conversation, they’ll relate that story. You’ll be the company that cares enough to go out and find problems. Here’s a secret: this is what is already happening in the open source movement, and it’s a major reason why open source users and developers are so passionate about open source. The developers and maintainers of a project are not just suppliers of technology, but participants in the community that surrounds them. So they are active on blogs, and discussion forums, and in wikis. And when they see someone having a problem, they step in.

Addressing Issues Where They Arise To Defuse Viral Explosions

The second thing that happens when you address support issues where they arise is that you instantly defuse the viral explosion of the original negative experience: before the original complaint can make it around the blogosphere, your very visible assistance and resolution of the problem, right there alongside the original post, will completely change the nature of what is being shared. It’s no long a bit of sensationalism or inflammatory material, instead it is just a problem and a resolution. It’s not very sexy, and it won’t get shared nearly as widely as the negative-only experience would have.

Alternatives to addressing it this way are far less effective

The alternative methods to address a bad experience shared via the blogosphere are far less effective. A customer shares a bad experience, and the company takes one of these alternative actions:

  1. Contacts the customer directly via email to share a resolution to the problem.
  2. Carefully considers the problem, consults the Legal department, PR department, crafts a response, runs the response by Legal and PR, and then posts the response, but only after 2,000 people have seen and linked to the original issue.
  3. Takes the posting of the issue as a call to action to get the issue resolved in the product, or to get better documentation on the companies web site.

All of these alternatives are better than no action at all, but they miss the biggest opportunities: to give support in a visible way that helps not just the original people who had the issue, but also everyone else who was searching for an answer to the same problem and saw the the issue after it was posted, and to defuse any negative viral explosion that occurs from the original posting. It’s like fighting a forest fire: a bucket of water applied early on in exactly the right place can put out a smoldering campfire. The same bucket of water will have no material effect when the fire is an acre in size or when it isn’t put right on the fire.

But if posting on the blog isn’t an option because the legal department or PR department have previously rules against that kind of activity, the next best course of action is usually to email the customer directly, because this can be done the quickest. The customer may post about it the positive experience, which is a bonus.
Posting on small blogs vs. posting on product review sites
All of this holds true for product review sites as well as blogs, with one crucial difference. When a big company takes the time to post on a small blog, most people will interpret the action as really caring about the customer. When a big company posts on a product review site used by millions of people, most of those people will interpret the action as self-serving: the company is just there to defend themselves. In Web 2.0 research, people reported that one of the reasons they distrust company websites is because the information is biased: the company only ever describes their own products in glowing terms (as opposed to the more neutral treatment they would get by someone without a vested interest on a product review site, discussion forum, Wikipedia, etc.). This means that small, authentic companies can probably post on a product review site and get taken at face value, but a big corporation needs to really build credibility in the social media space before their post on a product review site will be acceptable.

I’d like to hear your thoughts on this topic.