We talk a lot about how you can engage your customers via external communities. StrongMail's Spark Community is a good example of how to do this. Let's take a look.

Kristin Hersant, StrongMail's VP of Corporate Marketing took some time to discuss the work the email marketing and social media solution vendor has been doing to support and engage with their customers and employees.

Growth Means More Support

In line with the increasing talk of web engagement management (WEM) over the last couple of years, StrongMail has experienced tremendous growth for their email and social media solutions. They had a support portal for their customers, but it wasn't getting used. Instead most customers were calling the 1-800# for support.

In addition to this growing customer base, StrongMail also recognized that internal collaboration was siloed and the tools used to support collaboration were not what they could be (of course email was one of these).

They needed to do something, so the company purchased a Community platform that would help resolve both challenges.

Now let's put aside the actual technology used -- we'll get to that at the end -- let's look at what StrongMail did with the platform they implemented.

Spark -- Online Customer Community

Spark is StrongMail's Online Customer Community. Hersant says it has started as a closed community to encourage adoption in their customer base. They also wanted the community to be very support focused initially, so they integrated their Case logging framework.

Within Spark is the Knowledge Exchange which is made up of 4 stages:

  • Stage 1 -- Getting Started: documents and collaboration features with others just starting out
  • Stage 2 -- Using Your System: supports ongoing usage of the solutions
  • Stage 3 -- How You Can Grow: Guidance and strategies to grow business
  • Stage 4 -- Trends & Best Practices: Tips and Strategies for how users can grow personally

In any stage you can log a support ticket which is integrated with StrongMail's Salesforces.com service.

The customer community contains everything a customer needs to do their job and grow both their business and personal knowledge.

So how has it been received? According to a survey of their customer base, 93% of respondents find Spark helpful. 60% use the Knowledge Exchange while 40% use Support. A few more stats:

  • 57% of members go to Spark first to find answers to their questions
  • 41% of members go to Spark for assistance in troubleshooting an issue
  • 41% of members prefer to read solutions docs and user guides to find answers to their questions
  • Only 6% of members that visit Spark, go to file a support case ONLY
  • 50% of members indicated that their use of technical support has decreased as a result of using Spark to find answers

Overall, there is an 89% adoption rate for Spark, with 56% logging in on a regular basis. These numbers are fairly strong, and I wondered what StrongMail did and still does to drive engagement within the community. Hersant told me that the community is tightly integrated with all aspects of their business. From their own email newsletter (Sparkplug) to the StrongMail Maven which highlights active customers who are participating in the community, to taking the community offline for SparkUps (think Tweetups), StrongMail does a number things to drive engagement.

Hersant said that they have also fully integrated Spark into the Customer on-boarding process, including having the Community Manager participate in customer meetings.

StrongSpace -- Internal Collaboration

StrongMail did something very interesting here, and potentially very dangerous. They did a forced migration to a new collaboration platform and took away everything else including the conversion of some email distribution lists.

The move to this new platform took a couple of weeks, with full migration of content taking about 1-2 months. They also didn't invest a lot in branding, opting instead to use an out of the box skin.

According to Hersant it was amazingly well received. I suspect that part of this positive reception had a lot to do with the type of industry StrongMail is in. When you are a player in the WEM space, it shouldn't be too hard to convince your employees to play there as well. She did say it was hard for the Systems Engineers to give up their wiki, but with 100% adoption rate, they obviously did.

And the Platform of Choice Was...

I suspect a number of you already knew StrongMail is a Jive Software customer. When I asked why they selected Jive, Hersant said that they looked at a lot of analyst reports and Jive was a leader in many of them.

But they didn't go out and implement the entire Jive platform, they started with the base platform and are growing from there. Recently, StrongMail rolled out Jive's Ideation Module in Spark, replacing a feature request capability that had no collaboration or voting. And they are rolling out Mobile access via the iPhone to both their internal and external communities to test the waters there.

Hersant also spoke about Jive's Bridging capability that will allow StrongMail to connect the two communities together. So for example, employees could take a topic from Spark, collaborate on it in StrongSpace and push it back out to Spark. This, Hersant told me, was the next logical step for StrongMail.

Demonstrating the Value of a Community

I think StrongMail's Spark is a really great example of how to provide great service and value to customers while reducing support costs. Obviously not all customers will take the online community route to solve their problems, but from the stats many do and support other customers in the process.

Including the Community Manager in the customer onboarding process has also proven to be successful for StrongMail. It demonstrates the value they place on the community to support customers and is very likely a primary reason for high adoption rates.

The decision to do a forced migration to StrongSpace for internal collaboration seems a risky approach and it's not something any organization should do without considering the challenges carefully. Its success could have to do with both their industry and size, things to factor into your own decisions.

It was great to speak with Hersant. We spend a lot of time talking to vendors and evaluating products/platforms, but discussing actual implementations with organizations who are living and breathing Web Engagement and enterprise collaboration helps put much of the vendor talk into perspective.