This is the third and final part in a mini series of posts on using a community forum to exchange ideas with your users.
Part I: Why and when should I start my own community forum? Part II: Setting up your forum: Top tips for using Get Satisfaction Part III: Making the most of user feedback
In the first part, we looked at the right time and right way to get started with a community forum. As we picked Get Satisfaction as our platform of choice, I then outlined a few top tips for it. Today, we're looking at what happens once you've successfully created a place for conversation and the users begin to trickle in.
If you thought that once the community existed, you could kick back and relax, think again! Now comes the best part: Finally interacting with your users. You'll meet the most wonderful people, as well as the occasional user who seems to relish being your daily pain in the backside.
So how can you deal with vast amounts of feedback, good and bad, yet retain your sanity?
Once your forum is open for participation, ensure areas are signposted. For example, features are fun things to add in the future, bugs are critical issues that must be resolved and need to be addressed first. Draw a clear line between the two to ensure bugs don't disappear under mountains of feature requests.
You may also have an FAQ area which you want to encourage users to read before asking a question so point them in that direction first.
Outside of the forum, put clear links in the product itself, alongside your contact details on the web and in emails to users who still use old channels. Stick to your guns and invite users who email feature requests to go share them in the forum.
Personally, I'm still struggling with this aspect of dealing with feedback; I want to drop what I'm doing to respond immediately to every user who gets in touch. As a result, productivity in other areas (like writing this blog post) inevitably suffer from my "ooh, shiny new email!" syndrome.
This is particularly important when the same person or small team handles development and support. Between Twitter, emails, website stats and forum, it's easy to get distracted. Lunchtime rolls around and the developer might find that they still haven't made any genuine progress.
Experienced customer care people know that for most small products or services, responding in batches twice a day is probably the most efficient way to deal with feedback/questions. Use an internal wiki or FAQ to keep answers to commonly asked questions, consider a tool like TextExpander to cut down on typing time and make peace with your forum, inbox and Twitter stream twice a day.
Of course, if you're responsible for your site's uptime and availability, pay close attention at all times. Generally, however, users can wait a few hours to get a response to their burning questions. Meanwhile, you'll be able to get on uninterrupted with moving your product forward with focused development time.
Don't get overwhelmed
In Rework, 37Signals suggests not to write down user suggestions, saying that the most common requests will crop up often enough that you won't be able to forget them. On this point, I disagree; sometimes a single brilliant user will make a valuable suggestion, while 10 users may make the same request for a feature that you won't implement for a very valid reason. Be ruthless when choosing the features you DO implement.
As a good friend once said about web design clients, "Don't ask them what features they want, ask them what the objective for their website is". This applies to software features as well. They might ask for a very fancy widget to do some very niche action, when in reality there may be a better, more widely applicable solution.
For example, when we first launched Alfred, we included a variety of default searches for the web, including Google, Twitter, Amazon, IMDB and so on. We started getting requests to add tons of other niche sites but instead of trying to satisfy every request directly, we created a custom search system. This gave users the flexibility to add very creative and useful custom searches of their own.
Typical users, atypical care
Most users you'll encounter will be inquisitive and interested in your product. Yet, sometimes their tone might rub you the wrong way. English is a second language to many web users. As a result, friendly suggestions can come through as bossy marching orders! Don't snap back or get defensive. Get your zen on and, only then, respond.
Here are a few of the user types you're likely to encounter:
- The super keen user: This user can be your best friend by helping other users and answering questions. A double-edged sword, he can also be the most eager user, almost impatient while waiting for the next features. Your product matters a lot to this user, so take care of him well.
- The passer-by: A commonly seen casual user, he's happy to see progress but probably won't be up to date on the latest. A little nudge towards your latest blog post usually fills him in on the details.
- The user with misplaced enthusiasm: This user's heart is in the right place and might try to help others. Unfortunately, when the blind is leading the blind, it's easy for both to fall off a cliff. Keep a close eye on both users and shimmy them in the right direction without hurting any feelings.
- The troll: Larger than life, the troll is surprisingly easy to take with a grain of salt. Trolls are the pantomime of the web: A little bit can be funny, a lot of it will get annoying! Nip it in the bud with a clear message encouraging a more appropriate behaviour.
- The jaded user: This user has seen it all before and obviously knows better than you do. Probably the most likely to make your blood pressure rise, it's best to take a breather before responding.
Beware of becoming permanently frustrated and automatically angry towards users. It saddens me when I hear business owners talk about how "thick and useless" their users are. Granted, the majority of those who get in touch are looking for help, but they mean well (usually).
What it all boils down to is this: You are dealing with human beings who have questions, ideas, moments of distraction and great passion. Talk to them like people and avoid churning out machine-like answers.
Have a bit of fun
Don't underestimate this final point.
It's easy to take life very seriously when working hard towards building a great product. Sometimes, it's important to let your hair down and enjoy the ride. Our users help us keep a sense of humour by posting some great, laugh-out-loud tweets that make us smile and remind us why we're doing this.
Laugh every day, love what you do and your community will feel like home.
Still a little bit overwhelmed at the thought of launching your own community? Want a hand in unearthing the best way to work with your audience? I can help. Pepsmedia is a social media and digital marketing agency I co-founded. Contact me if you'd like to work together on building up your own community channels.
[Photo credit: Sierra Romeo on Flickr]