Margot Weiss is Vice President of Editorial and Expert Relations at About.com. In this Q&A, she shares how an internal staff of 250 employees supports a distributed community of close to a thousand independent contractor Experts on a tailored Communifire platform they call ExpertHQ.
Tim: Tell me about About.com. Most of us have used your site, but what makes it tick behind the scenes?
Margot: About.com works with nearly 1,000 independent contractors from all over the world—expert writers who answer questions, teach, solve problems, and inspire millions of people. Occasionally, we meet some of these Experts face to face at live events. But our day-to-day interactions happen online.
Tim: Why is community important to About.com?
Margot: Having a strong community of engaged writers who support each other by sharing best practices, and who push us to make improvements that are good for them and good for their readers, makes our company stronger. About.com Experts are located all over the world, and as they come on board, we want them to feel part of something bigger -- having an online community where they can interact with each other and with staff allows us to do that.
Tim: What were some of the challenges you faced in managing your Expert community?
Margot: Since 1996, we have communicated with our writers through a mix of tools and systems—an internal discussion board, blogs, newsletters, ticketing systems, and listservs. There were lots of places to look for information and lots of ways to communicate. Everyone needed access to information, answers to questions, and opportunities to share best practices. Having multiple systems wasn’t efficient. Too much information was lost in email and needed to be recreated from scratch each time. So, we set out to find something new.
Tim: What were you looking for in a new communications platform?
Margot: We wanted to replace the old tools with a single, central place to manage communications and information for our community of Experts. Our wish list and goals for the new platform included:
Tim: How did you go about researching and finding a new system?
Margot: We evaluated many platforms. Some focused only on ticketing, but didn’t give us the ability to create documentation. Others had knowledge management, but no forums. We wanted something that was all-in-one.
Tim: Why did you land on Communifire? What makes it a good match for About.com?
Margot: First, it looks nice and is fairly intuitive to use. Second, it has the ability to house both documentation and live discussions, so that Experts and staff can interact, asking and answering questions, and sharing best practices. And we are not limited to text documents; we can also upload images and videos. Finally, it also gave us the ticketing system that we needed, so we could bring everything together onto one platform. Very exciting!
Tim: Tell me about the process in launching your new community. How long did it take? What steps did you follow?
Margot: Our branded version of Communifire is called ExpertHQ. This is our home base—a virtual headquarters for nearly 1,000 writers. And, we rolled the whole thing out in less than two months.
First, we did our very best to create an engaging user experience, but also one that was easy to navigate. Before inviting Experts into the space, we worked with Axero to tailor the features and user interface to our needs. Communifire comes with more options than we needed (which is better than the other way around!) but we wanted to start very simply and add more features gradually as we became more familiar with the platform.
Then, we set up two types of spaces. Every one of the Experts is in the “All Experts” space, along with all staff members. This is where most of our documentation lives, as well as Support Tickets. We also have channel-level spaces for Experts who share a topic. For example, all the food Experts have a food space where they communicate and share best practices specific to their needs. We have a social space for discussing social networking questions, too.
Each space is independently permissioned. We set up roles and permissions both at the top-level community and at the space level. Staff can participate in and view all spaces, while Experts only see their own space and two to three others.
Tim: How did you set expectations and establish standards for user behavior?
Margot: Our previous forum boards had no terms of service and sometimes people were so direct that community members felt misunderstood and became reluctant to interact. With a new destination for the About.com community, we thought it was a good time to write up a terms of service to make expectations clear. Now community members have the ability to flag content as abusive so that staff can quickly review the situation and take action. Flagging is anonymous, so there’s no fear of retaliation. Setting expectations at the outset was good for everyone and should help the community feel like an open, inviting place..
Tim: How are you using the social aspects of Communifire?
Margot: We actually shut off many social components to keep workflows and internal processes consistent. Our challenge with organizational knowledge is that there isn’t an objective “right answer” for every question. For example, how do you do SEO? There are many different answers, and we want people to share best practices while we highlight advice from trusted experts. We also don’t want to end up with repetitive information in many places. It needs to be consistent and tight.
To accomplish this goal, we turned off some of Communifire’s social features, such as wall posts and commenting in some areas. The support team at Axero worked with us to keep things simple. We did keep the “Like” button -- that was high on the list of wants for Experts!
Tim: What kind of results have you seen so far?
Margot: Right away, a ton of new users took off and started posting quite a bit. I was really happy with our launch. People adopted it, played with it, and had a good time.
Tim: Has it helped to make About.com more efficient?
Margot: We’ve seen a big reduction in questions from new Experts. All the documents they need are now in one place and are easy to reference. We don’t have to send people to multiple systems or piece together answers from scratch.
Tim: Has it helped improve Support?
Margot: Absolutely. It helps us to pinpoint and troubleshoot problems faster. For example, one Expert might post, “This recipe template keeps disappearing in the CMS. Anyone else?” Five others might write in and say, “Me, too!” Now we know it’s a system problem, and not an isolated incident, so it’s much easier to corroborate errors. Previously, the discussion forums were completely separate from the ticketing system, people with problems felt isolated from each other. Now it’s all in one place.
Tim: What are your plans for the future?
Margot: We need to focus on improving the organization of our documentation to make it easier for Experts to find what they are looking for.
Tim: What’s your advice to any other company looking to build a community within their organization?
Margot: First, spend some time thinking through how you want your users to experience the site. Also, it’s OK to lock it down with permissions and turn off a few of the features. Start with a version you’re comfortable with, leaving room for experimentation and more social features later on. Less is more in the beginning.
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Tim is a co-founder and president of Axero and the author of his forthcoming book, Who the Hell Wants to Work for You? Break Down the Invisible Barriers to Employee Engagement. He's spilt insightful ink on the pages of Fortune, Forbes, TIME, Inc Magazine, Entrepreneur.com, CNBC, Today, and other top publications.
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