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.


james said...

hey rick, thought you might be interested in this post from Word of Mouth Marketing on generating community around a site. check it out

Rick Borry said...

James sent me an interesting post about the changing product evaluation practices in the IT sector.

Basically, the report finds that technology evaluators spend more time reading about products on community web sites of their peers than they do reading vendor-supplied marketing material. I have thought of the online community mainly in the context of customer service, but this points towards its value in sales and marketing activities.

It makes sense, because the experiences of your peers are more likely to be similar to yours than the marketing spin coming from the vendors. Beware, however, that the most vocal users are the dissatisfied ones. A company may have 90 perfectly happy users and only 10 unhappy ones, but I suspect most of those 10 unhappy users will vent on an online community if they can, while only a few happy clients will take the time to express their experience.

Here’s the link:

Rick Borry said...

Mary wrote a question about online community applications for the event's attendees:

"Rick....what is the tool inside reg systems that allow folks to communicate with one another after actually registering."

I only know of 2 social networking applications for events:

Intronetworks ( has one that I believe is the same thing marketed by WingateWeb as "EventLink".

Stephen Nold tells me that A2Z Inc ( launched a product at MPI in Montreal but I haven't experienced it.

Anonymous said...

I really took to heart the last paragraph of what you wrote here. We are meant to be invisible, and others don't care about our work unless it isn't working properly, JUST like the electric company or the gas or water company.

Working in the utility industry can be frustrating, but when someone you respect lets you know they appreciated your work THAT is the fulfilling moment.

I used to work in professional theatre as a Road Manager for Broadway musicals on tour around the US and Canada. At a stop in New Hampshire we had the luxury (for our kind of tour) of being in the same place for two nights so after the show the first night the entire cast and crew (about 20) went to a restaurant together. During dinner people stopped by who had seen the show and were complimenting the actors and actresses, telling them how much they enjoyed the show.

After they left one of the actors asked me if it bothered me that people didn't say anything to me. My response was simple: "If I weren't doing my job well, you wouldn't be here and be in the good state of mind required to put on a good show. I get the exact same personal thrill from what they say to you that you get from them."

It's what we do in supporting roles that are so important. And we CAN do it because we don't need the personal acclimation to know we've done a good job. We feel it, just like you did on the plane knowing that someone used your tool without knowing.

Anonymous said...

Creating community is way more than cute Mypace music sharing and commenting. I recently read an article from Corporate EVENT magazine an how the tricks of online social networking tools can be used before/during/after events to grow attendance and participation. If the functionality could be developed within an online registration software to let registrants set up their own public profiles and interact with each other during the online registration process, the value of that in the marketplace would be incredible!

Here is the article: