Expect Rapid Evolution of the Branded Support Community

Companies With Support Communities Not Ready For Changes To Come
For over a decade, with simple BBS systems to community platforms, support communities haven’t undergone much innovation.  Often a silo and tucked away in a website, these communities are going to take center stage.  With social technologies appearing on every webpage, and more existing systems starting to connect, expect to see interesting use cases evolve.   Support focused communities will evolve to touch marketing, sales, channel partners,  CRM systems, and even become a thriving platform in the next few years.  Let’s explore the rapid changes coming together.

A Support Community, Defined.
Take a look at Microsoft’s media centric Channel 9, VMware communities, or even AAA’s travel tips. These branded communities are offered by companies and encourage members to self-support each other, or the company will support them directly. The members are often customers, developers, or implementation partners. It’s not limited to them alone, prospects of a company may peer in to see how vibrant –or angry–the community is. There are over 100 technology vendors offer these commodity features.

The Opportunity: The Support Community No Longer A Cost Center
New forms of monetization for the brand are going to emerge. Support communities won’t just be a cost-center, we should expect to see new forms of value that meet the needs of the community members themselves, the brand, and the partners. To kick start the discussion here’s a few ideas of where I think the support community could evolve to:

  1. Become a thriving marketplace of buyers and sellers. Not just through discussions, but through automated matching of buyers and sellers using reputation systems, and needs analysis tools.  See how the concept of VRM is slowly taking hold.
  2. New forms of value from third parties will spur innovation. System integrators, consultants, and other vendors who have services to offer community members will want to offer training, webinars, or other campaigns.  Branded communities can monetize this as an intermediary.
  3. Formalized advocacy programs will take hold beyond the organic evangelist. Some communities will offer features and programs that encourage members to join an unpaid army and reach out to prospects –and ready them to arms when the brand is under attack.
  4. Communities members will ideate and start build new products with R&D. In some cases, they may help the brand define new products and be very involved in the R&D process.
  5. Developer platform will let community create their own experience. Taking a nod from Facebook, MySpace and Twitter, someday, support communities will offer platforms that will enable the members to create new applications, tools, and even products within the context of the community.
  6. Connecting to CRM systems to offer better service. Community platforms will connect to CRM systems identify upsell, crosssell, and underserved accounts, increasing the efficiency of support.
  7. Connections to other systems yield new experiences. Support communities will no longer be a silo but will connect to brand monitoring tools. ERP systems, business intelligence systems, web analytics, and social analytics tools.
  8. The walls of support communities crumble as they connect to the public web. There are support communities in existence all around the web (see Get Satisfaction, UserVoice or even a customer created community). Expect to see branded communities tie to these off-domain systems.
  9. Leave a comment below with your idea.  The opportunities are abound.

A Key Constraint: Members first, Company Second
Despite the many opportunities for innovation of communities, first and foremost, the sanctity of the community members must not be broken.  Companies have learned, often the hard way, that the members are in charge, so this needs to be a win for them first, the company second.

Join The Discussion and Upcoming Roundtable
I plan to hold a no-fee “Community Innovation” roundtable in Q1, to ideate the evolution of the branded community beyond support. Should you be interested in attending, I look forward to hearing from you in the following web form. I’ll be extending an invite to some key thought leaders in this space, to really spur the thinking from the top minds.