The adage concerning online customer communities has it that you should not give monetary rewards or gifts to members, as this is an impediment to to the ‘health’ of the community and keeping it vibrant. Participants would be motivated only by their gains, and this can discourage members who are there for the ‘social’ aspect of exchanging with likeminded individual, social recognition, and finding peer support.
We stand incredulous before the so-called ‘super-users’ who are the backbone of these communities. They selflessly spend countless hours helping their peers and keep the momentum going. For example, KachiWachi, Distinguished Logi Legend and Webcam Guru on Logitech’s Support Forums has posted nearly 45,000 messages in almost five years – that’s around 900 per month!
Usually online communities platforms rely on reputation systems that award badges, points, and the like that play in on Social Gaming ideas to get people to participate for status and peer recognition. Sometimes priviledges are given such as access to VIP areas of the forum as with Aprilia motorcycles, or even exclusive site visits as to some of the planespotters with Air France.
What motivates these individuals to give so much of their time? Some would go as far as to ask “Don’t they have a life?“. Can we emulate the conditions in our own customer base so as to provide fertile ground to encourage such behaviour? Is it the new nature or nurture debate in new Web 2.0 clothes? And – when will there be a backlash against those companies making millions and billions on the backs of the ‘unpaid armies’? Remember – free implies that it’s voluntary, and just like customer, they can just pack up and leave.
I really started thinking about this following a panel discussion at the Social Media Week Paris seminar on social CRM and community Good Practices with Thomas Le Gac (Orange France), Marina Tymen (Air France), Stanislas Magniant (Publicis Net Intelligenz) and myself. In this discussion, I exposed the case of Giffgaff, a niche UK mobile virtual network operator (part of Telefonica/O2), as it has made me reconsider the (de)merits of giving incentives to customer to participate in the company’s community. Initially I was dead set against incentives, but now I think that- depending on the circumstances and the objectives that we are trying to maintain- it can make sense to incorporate incentives in the overall value proposition.
Giffgaff is scottish for ‘mutual giving’. The company sells pre-paid SIMs and keeps costs down by having a lean organisation (16 staff), outsourcing support to its customer community, and it hardly does any advertising to make itself known. By doing so, they are for example able to provide ‘goodybags’ of 250 UK minutes, unlimited texts and internet for only £10 per month ($16/€12 inc. VAT). It is built on a SaaS platform provided by Lithium Technologies that has a forum as its base, and integrates seamlessly with Facebook and Twitter if people prefer to access it that way.
From the onset, it was made clear to customers that they could extend the value they got out of the platform provided Operator by helping other members and ‘recruiting’ their friends. For example, accepted answers get members 50 points and onboarding is rewarded by 500 point (equal to £5). Furthermore, ideas to improve the Giffgaff offer are rewarded with points as well – with the advantage for the business being the ability to innovate based directly on the needs and desires of its community. Points can be redeemed for call minutes or cash, or can be donated to good causes. As a result, around 40% of the customer base gets such incentives.
Giffgaff’s results are quite impressive. It has one of the highest engagement ratios I’ve ever heard of: Jacob Nielsen‘s 90-9-1 principle concerning audience participation is blown out of the water with a ratio of 1-25-74! It’s top 10 super-users average 9.5 hours per day of peer support. Average response time is around 3 minutes, with 100% of the questions being answered within the hour. I spend more call time on hold just to get to a CSR!
Its customers promote the brand outside the platform as well, on personal blogs and Twitter, making Youtube videos, and defend it on external sites. Key here was to provide personalized links that could be distributed by members, so that referrals could be attributed correctly – an idea sourced from the community itself.
Involving Customers in Running Your Business
I think the key to Giffgaff’s success lies in ceding control traditionally held by organisation to its customers and involving them deeply with regards to innovation, branding, PR, and determining its service offering. The incentives concord with the objective of providing better and cheaper service to its members, and and motivates more active participation, as now they are “playing for keeps”. Management’s role is to provide the platform that brings together the ingredients, but also to ensure that the business remains viable and sustainable – and that includes making decisions that may be unpopular with the community if not exposed in a transparent and authentic manner.
Based on the case outlined above, incentives can be instrumental in increasing and improving community participation, but it would be dangerous to generalize, and as Thomas Le Gac pointed out during the panel discussion – illegal in some countries. Not all communities would or even could benefit from adding an incentive programme, it will for a large part depend on the business model on which it is built.But it will be interesting to observe whether online customer communities will evolve as there are ever more companies out there who will all be vying for attention from customers in the hope of attracting super-users to motivate other members. At what time will voluntary (free) contributions tip over into incentivised participation.
I’m looking forward to reading your opinions on this. Please comment!