The Web as a Customer Service Medium

Browncoats

Documents may inhabit the Internet, but communities have taken over the ruling reins

I've spent my entire career as a Web developer, Web editor, and writer. And consistently over the last 17 years, I have found that when publishers and media professionals talk about the Web, they tend to assume that it is, at its core, a publishing medium. After all, that conclusion makes sense: The Web was created to transmit and link documents together. From its humble roots as a service for sharing physics research papers, it has grown into a linked database of newspaper articles, video assets, games, and billions of other media objects. At the center of the Web is the concept of the document - the blog post, the TV show, the YouTube clip. The document is the important thing, and everything else - like the comments on a video, or the Facebook "likes" for a news article - is there to support the document.

I've come to see things the other way around. Yes, the Web began as a publishing medium, and it has a document-centric view of the world. But when people read The New York Times on the Web, or watch a program on Hulu, each of these properties is not actually native to the new digital environment; rather, the nytimes.com is emulating a newspaper and Hulu is emulating a TV, down to the ad spots. They are not truly born digital. This is not their fault, of course. Both are excellent products with dedicated, intelligent staffs who ship reliable product. And the Web is so flexible that it can emulate any medium: Newspaper people see the Web as a giant newspaper; TV people see the future of TV; book publishing people see a potential book. What's harder for people in these industries to see is that maybe the Web is not necessarily the medium they expect it to be. It may not be a publishing medium at all. I believe, in fact, that the Web is actually something very new: a customer service medium.

What does it mean to be a customer service medium? It means that customer service itself is the reason people come to the Web - that customer service is the main, dominant, driving experience that has caused the blossoming of Internet services, especially Web 2.0 ones. It means that the documents - the media - are there to prop up the comments, not the other way around. It means that the community, the conversation, and the quality of service are the Web's key elements, more important even than the media that most people think of.

Here's a thought experiment: Imagine you release a TV program to the Web every week, and there is a forum where people can discuss that program. The program has been running for a few months and the forum is very active. Now imagine that the program is cancelled and stops production. What happens to the forum? Does it survive without the show?

Sometimes it does. Take, for instance, the fans of Joss Whedon's show Firefly, which premiered on Fox in 2002, but was cancelled after just a few months. The community around Firefly is large and enthusiastic; members call themselves the Browncoats, after the costume of characters on the show. They meet in person; they discuss the show; they consume all manner of connected media. It might seem ridiculous at first glance - but their community is vibrant, and browsing through browncoats.com shows that while fans might, as is the nature of fans everywhere, tend to take things too seriously, the community is, in general,

positive and enthusiastic and united in their affection for the show. It was this fan enthusiasm, in fact, that allowed the producers to justify a theatrical film extension of Firefly, called Serenity, which was released in 2005.

The Web abounds with stories like this - people who come together around an abandoned  product, service or media event and take it upon themselves to preserve their communities online. Nearly 20 years after Commodore Computer ceased operations, for instance, people still come together online every day to share memories of their favorite Commodore moments - software, hardware or history. Thousands of people remain invested in a brand that is long gone.

At a certain point I think we would do well to ask ourselves: What is the real product? In the case above, is it the retired media brand, the long-gone computer computer company? Or is it the community each left behind?

It can be hard to think about your product or message not being the center of attention. That's not what clients pay for. It's not why actors audition. But the truth remains: What people do on the Web is talk. They build relationships that are bigger than the thing that got the relationships started. Yes, as a society, we like documents and we like products. Documents and products can be associated with revenue models and marketing plans. But when it comes to the Web, we should question our traditional assumptions. Building communities around Firefly or old computers is one thing - the brands these communities love, for the most part, are moribund. For living brands, however, the opportunities are amazing. Because communities can form around your message. How big or how small depends upon the message. Now, though, the responsibility is on brands to partner with those communities. Joss Whedon, who created Firefly, is expert at drawing his fans into his work without bowing to their every whim. He channels that energy to promote other events and media products that he creates. Commodore nostalgists have been promised a new personal computer that looks exactly like a Commodore 64, the most popular computer platform of the early 1980s.

Note that Whedon and the new Commodore are providing service directly to the communities, giving their members opportunities to gather and share experiences.

Metafilter.com is one of the world's greatest Web sites - an oft-repeated example of a vibrant, involved user community that creates wonderful content collaboratively. Metafilter founder Matt Haughey told an interviewer why he feels the site is a success: "I'd like to think it's intense moderation and customer service." Talk to any community leader and you'll find much the same story: Success comes from deep involvement and connection with the community, constant contact with members, and mutual respect. Whether your community is on Twitter or Facebook, in the comment boards on your Web site or the comments section of your blog, the need for customer service is the same.

But what does "customer service" mean in this context? Traditional customer service is relatively straightforward: People with concerns contact an organization and receive advice on how to resolve their problems with a product or service. But in a social media world, where Twitter can erupt into a mockery of your message in a matter of minutes, customer service requires a different sort of model. So instead of waiting for people to reach out to you, you need to go to the community ahead of time.

Wherever people talk about your product or message, you need to become a participant - not a passive participant, and not a shill, but an engaged, honest advocate. Then watch how people interact. Listen to their questions and respond promptly. Make sure they feel heard - after all, the fundamental question on the Web is "Why wasn't I consulted?" Consult everyone you can. Give them the tools they need to communicate your offering - not simply to understand it, but to communicate it to others. And keep an eye on trolls and people who would sow distress.

If the Web is a customer service medium driven by community - more than it is a document-driven platform - then the model for marketing changes from "tell everyone about your product and staff a call center to answer questions" to "support a community and educate its members about your message, so that they feel consulted and can educate each other."

The focus changes from broadcasting to listening. Rather than trying to be the document that is the center of attention, you've allowed attention to shift to the listeners, watchers, users, and fans. And you're giving them what they need to be engaged, involved participants. In short, the Web allows for preemptive customer service. One only needs to look at how Twitter can drive Web traffic to understand the power of educating a community in an engaging way, so that they can take a message, share it, and make it their own.

When you see how groups of people online can rally behind a message - such as by sharing or liking it - you  see how critical messaging can be.  And you see how much it can pay off to provide a deep level of preemptive customer service by asking rather than waiting to be asked.

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