The perfect customer interaction support tool

“We want to build a community… how quickly can we implement a message board?”
– Far too many clients for the last 10 years

For nearly a decade I’ve been telling colleagues and clients that working with communities isn’t about the tools, it’s about the relationships. If you’re reading this blog, you’ve probably had someone you work with equate social activities with customers to a social network or a message board.

Of course, at some point, working with communities requires some sort of tool to help support the collaboration. For the last 7 years, I’ve searched high and low for Perfect Community Engagement Tool and have yet to find it. We’re talking about a form of Web collaboration, but not in the same way enterprise Web collaboration has been done: “Content” and/or “Document” management.

Connecting community members to company projects is a tricky process. For the members of a community, participation in such projects is a hobby activity, giving them a personal emotional satisfaction. You know… they’re having fun. It’s not “work”, and putting them in front of tools like the traditional Web collaboration options makes them think things like “Hey, I do this at work”. That’s about as far from “fun” as you can get.

I’ve searched, I’ve trialed, I’ve built, I’ve researched, I’ve demo, and I’ve reached out to my LinkedIn friends in my search for this illusive “perfect tool”. But after all this time and all that energy, I’ve yet to find anything that has made me scream out: “Fantastic! This is the perfect tool for connecting members of a company with small(ish) groups of customers in a way that really excites and encourages interaction!”

To deliver solutions for clients given the shortage of appropriate tools, I find myself acting on one of two options: custom built (built from scratch solutions) or custom collected (solutions that use several separate products quasi-bundled together). The custom collected projects has tended to be the most successful simply because they’re faster to implement and offer a pretty decent selection of options. For example:

  • Using open source products: WordPress (project blog), phpBB (project discussions), and Coppermine (project photo sharing + discussion)
  • Using Web services: Basecamp (project discussions) and Campfire (project group live chat)

Certainly these custom collected options can get you by. But where is The Perfect Community Engagement App ©? Surely I’m not the only community guy looking or something like this. Maybe something already exists? (If so, please drop me a note and let me know)

For the app to be “perfect” for my needs, it would need to have the following traits:

Web based
No software packages – no matter how cool the software is and no matter how robust the code, it still requires a huge level of tech support. I don’t like doing tech support.

Highly secure
While YahooGroups has a great set of features, I was always terribly concerned about using it for private, top secret client programs. Sure, there’s probably not much likelihood that data stored there would leak out. But who’s to say that a random Yahoo engineer wouldn’t get into the database one night and start searching just for giggles? Or the site gets hacked since they’re a huge target to hackers. Stranger things have happened. After all, I get spammed through groups that are marked as private, invite-only by random spammers. The warm fuzzy feeling of security isn’t coming in very clear there.

This perfect tool would allow me to contractually obligate the service provider to a certain level of data protection, specific backup methods, and employee data access. Additionally, the perfect tool would have robust user access process more akin to online banking access.

Exciting, fun experience
Like I mentioned earlier, community members don’t want to feel “put to work”. That leads to a sense of being used; certainly not the way to start off the (or maintain) the relationship. This perfect tool needs to be designed visually to be more akin to a public site, not a confusing, dull intranet-style site. Just because this tool is for mainly private use doesn’t mean it needs to be ugly.

Allows for guest participation
If this project is at all successful, others in the company are going to want to take a peek in. I might not always want them to have full access, or even conversational abilities. Giving me the ability to easily invite them (and perhaps auto-create accounts for them) and let them view without leaving fingerprints.

That said, there will certainly be times when I’d want to turn on conversational abilities to those various employees. I’d also like to have the ability to set preferences for how quickly those bits of conversation appear on the site (immediately, post-moderation, etc.), and where in the discussions they can participate.

Easy, quickly scalable billing model
One of my biggest beefs with similar web tools is that the billing plans don’t really work with real world situations. The billing model should address the following:

  • Unlimited number of company employees – don’t charge me for the people who pay your bills and potentially support the growth of projects that use your tools. The more employees I can have participate, the more community projects will be launched. Counting them as users that I have to pay for works against us both.
  • User = single registered account – no joke, one company charged me based on unique IP address. I didn’t realize this until I got a fat bill and discovered that most of the community members logged on from at least 2 IPs each day (home and work). Some were logging in from 3 or 4 computers. Don’t punish me for having throughly engaged users.
  • Realistic price/group breaks – 37signals does a great job of this; pricing groups should be a decent amount of users for each level and price. With tools like this, the difference between 100 users and 200 users is minor, so why not delight me with a larger cap? I’d rather spend more money that I only have to think about once in the course of a project, rather than constantly having to monitor my user base growth.
  • Pricing is easy to budget – In some ways, many corporate users don’t care as much about the actual price as they do the ability to safely budget as the project scales. They have a fixed amount of money to spend and need to know, very specifically, how much it will cost to add a new project or additional users. Clearspace charges a flat fee per user, which is a great way to do it. I can set aside an amount of money that makes sense to my project, and know that until I reach that point, there is nothing to worry about.

Results are eventually shared publicly in whole or in part
At some point, even the most top secret projects are likely going to lead to some sort of public announcement. Making it easy to move content (in some form) from the top secret area to a public area would help ensure that those community members not include in the project can see the results of what was done behind closed doors.

Multiple access points
Some people like RSS. Some like email. Some like the Web. Some like all three. The perfect app would respect posting & reading via as many methods as possible. One of the greatest features about the YahooGroups, for instance, is that you can post to their messages boards via email or via the Web interface. Make it easy for the community members to follow along and participate, whatever “easy” means to each of them.

Multiple admins
As the consultant on these kinds of projects, I need access to the admin functions. At least one of my client contacts (often more) needs access to those same functions. We each need to have full, but separate admin access to ensure that we’re able to make any change necessary without stepping on each other’s toes.

Team-based permissions
Once a community member (or heck, even a company employee) has gained access to the system, I need to be able to organize them into sub-groups. (Think of it as a Special Interest Group, like most associations have) I may pull aside 5 community members for a special short-term discussion group. Or I may organize the entire group into smaller teams for more effective communication and interaction. This doesn’t negate the need for an “all hands” area, it just means that there needs to be methods of private sub-groupings.

Lightweight Social Networking
I say “lightweight” simply because I don’t want or need a full blown social networking application that rivals MySpace. I simply need something a bit more in-depth than a single personal profile page. This networking should allow me to:

  • View personal information about the fellow members, including subject-related interests and links to their profiles elsewhere on the Web
  • List of content submitted on the project site
  • Ability to add other users as a “fan” (similar to how Huffington Post handles this)

Awards system (automated and manual)
Participants should be recognized for their efforts. Sometimes that’s as simple as changing their title or score based on the sheer volume of postings/participation. Building a fun, smart method of calculating and displaying this score is a must. In addition, admins should have the ability to grant manual awards of some sort.

What do you think? What’s your wishlist for The Perfect Community Engagement App © look like?