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What Sells Online? MSNBC has the secret.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Great article on MSNBC.com yesterday (Thursday) about how, in the current economy, companies are rediscovering the benefits of the email newsletter. Here's the sub-heading:

"They're not the newest fad, but these daily digests sent via e-mail can generate some much needed ad revenue when there's not much of it to go around."

You betcha! And, by the way, why does it work? Keep reading the article and below the fold they get to the crux: Engagement. Here's another great paragraph, my emphasis added:

"It may sound odd that space on a low-tech newsletter could be so desirable in an age of mass-market blogs, when young people increasingly rely on instant messaging, texts, and such sites as Twitter and Facebook instead of e-mail. But remember that signing up for and opening an e-mail newsletter is a much bigger commitment than passively clicking on a link that takes you to a blog post. Publishers can see how many people open an e-mail, how long they read it, and how many friends they forward it to. Advertisers eat up that kind of engagement, because it's different, tangible, and more likely to result in an action such as making a purchase."

Now, what's the easiest way to automatically generate a fully branded, customizable daily email newsletter from your site? FeedBlitz of course!

Read the full article here. HT: Tom Evslin for the link.

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Support Forums: Just Say No

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Many companies use customer support forums as community driven resources to help people find the detailed knowledge they need to solve their problem. Many of these companies will tell you what a great resource these forums are. Perhaps that's a little true.

Of course what is absolutely true is what's left unsaid: "... and if you use the forums then you won't be coming to us for support." Which is fair enough, to a degree - if you can help someone without having to go through the tedious and relatively expensive process of a support call / email, everyone usually ends up ahead. FeedBlitz has a Knowledge Base which is there for exactly this purpose.

But it's a thin line between enabling a community resource and coming to rely on it as your support function. That line is far, far too easy to unwittingly cross. And I think, at some point, most do.

Two examples from my own personal experience this last week.

I'm evaluating some commercial software. I have a problem which none of the solutions on the forum solved. So I wrote to them asking for support, and the response? I was told to post my request on the forums. Excuse me? You want my money but won't give me any pre-sales support? If that's the way I'm treated before they have my money, what's it going to be like afterwards? That's not unwittingly crossing the line. That's a fully-fledged decision. Yuck. I'm not buying.

Then a free service I used caused me some grief this week. There's no support function there at all (yes I know it's free but these guys have zillions of customers and plenty of money). The forums are the only way to get attention - and they didn't help. In fact, I only got my issue solved because of people I know in the organization concerned. If I were a more casual, less-connected user I'd have been SOL.

So I think support forums are a Bad Thing. They make companies lazy. They separate companies from their most valuable market resource: highly specific, expert customer feedback. And I think that the value of a forum, to both expert and novice alike, is probably overestimated by the companies that run them.

There will, then, be no forums at FeedBlitz for the foreseeable future (please remind me of this if I ever seem to change my mind). FeedBlitz users get help from FeedBlitz support, often from me, because if something's going wrong, either suddenly or systematically, then you bet we want to know about it ASAP. Where we discover systematic issues that cause recurring support issues we do our best to improve the product to solve the problem. Like everyone else, I'd really prefer it that you could use our service without calling support. That's how we can scale and that's how it works for the vast majority of our users for most of the time. But if you do need to contact us, then please do. Go ahead. I want you to. That's what support is for, and it's one of the most important ways we learn about our customers and our prospects.
  • If there's a crisis we want to know so we can fix it.
  • If there's an issue that causes many people the same problem over time, we want to know so we can fix it.
  • If there's a latent opportunity, we want to know so we can exploit it.
Being directly connected via support helps us scale and keeps costs down because we end up spending much less time on support calls than comparable services. The less time (and the less money) we have to spend on support means we have more of both to spend on building a better service. It's why Craig Newmark at Craig's List apparently often mans the phones - he wants to know what's happening on the front lines. Me too. This is a key part of building the next generation, lean and mean businesses that Fred Wilson discusses from a valuation perspective here.

So here's a radical thought for early stage companies trying to grow revenues and cut costs: Embrace support. Aim to control costs and increase market connectedness by reducing call volume, not headcount costs. Don't outsource to a forum (because, be honest, that's what you're actually doing). Don't outsource to people on a different continent simply because their hourly pay scales are lower. Choose to stay connected and fix the root cause of any issues that appear. You'll get better, faster and lower your costs more quickly if you do this right.

If you're more established and feeling disconnected from your customers and what they experience, and you're wondering how to get that back, don't simply assign someone to monitor your support forum.

Delete it.

You'll probably be glad you did.



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