Friday, January 04, 2008

Wow, we created a community - now what?

Our online registration and event management software is a behind-the-scenes tool. Millions of people register for events and receive email invitations and confirmations without knowing what application did the grunt work - they only know the name of the event they want to attend.

Several months ago, I sat next to someone on the airplane and through casual conversation discovered that he was flying to an event sponsored by one of our customers, and yes, he had registered online through Certain Registration. He pulled out his printed confirmation page and I recognized our handiwork - I know this is small stuff for most, but for me it was a prideful moment nine years in the making.

Then I realized - wow, we make a product that affects people's lives slightly, a product that they don't know they are using, one that they take for granted and only care about when it doesn't work. It seems that I now work for a modern utility company.

Supporting the people behind the curtain

Wizard of Oz (1939)Professional meeting planners will understand that feeling. They do the work behind wonderful, educational, and entertaining events but often cannot share their attendees' enjoyment because they are mired in the daily slog of details required to bring hundreds or thousands of people together for a short time. We want our application to make the lives of these people a little bit easier every day.

As our user base has grown, we find ourselves associated with a group of people who depend on our application every day in order to do their job. Their ability to use the software and figure out how to achieve their immediate task will determine their productivity for that day - and thus their earning potential and how soon they can get home each evening. We try to make our application "easy-to-use", and when it isn't intuitive we have Help files, and when those don't answer the question we add solutions to our knowledge base. Still, sometimes you just want to talk to other people who have done the same thing that you are doing now.

"Web 2.0" - Social Networking and Communities

I was at ground zero of Web 1.0 (San Francisco 1994-99), but lately I'm feeling a bit old-fashioned. I put up a page on Myspace at my youngest sister's request, but I don't use it. Most of the people who want to be my "friends" are trying to sell me stuff I don't need or show me stuff I don't want to see. I also have a Facebook page but don't poke me and I promise not to waste your time there either. I don't care what music you are listening to today, but if you have set up an online registration form using SAML-based single-sign on standards then you have just become my BFF (best friend forever, or at least while I'm working on this project).

So the online community I want to be in consists of my co-workers and clients who actively use Certain Registration. We rarely meet in person, but we want to talk to and learn from each other, and we need to know how to do something new, what features are coming out next, and what bugs have been exposed / how they can be avoided / when they will be fixed.

Several of us at Certain have been looking at some online community applications to support these conversations, and my favorite by far is Community Server. Their application allows you to set up forums, blogs, and downloads for your registered users. The great thing about the application is its flexibility - you can put photos, files, and even Web videos into the "Downloads" area to make it a truly on-demand interactive training resource. Blogs can be used for quick announcements, release announcements, scheduled downtime, etc. in addition to articles (such as this one). Forums allow users to post questions and look for answers from anyone in the community (instead of relying solely on our help desk during its normal business hours).

I'm looking forward to having a tool like this to help bring together our global community. But please let me know if you have another community-based application that you like better.