Fans as Conversation Managers

Home Fans as Conversation Managers

The number of online conversations about brands keeps growing. An increasing number of brands have the intention to manage these conversations. We perceive an increase in the number of job vacancies of companies looking for Conversation and / or Community Managers. And the number of service providers offering Community Management to companies also keeps growing.

In spite of the good intentions, I think that some brands could get into trouble where conversation management is concerned. At a given moment it will be impossible for a company to hire a sufficient number of Conversation Managers to handle the stream of consumer conversations. And this is a challenge especially for the bigger brands. Before you know it, the consumer conversations are in the corner of the call centres. Companies will search for a way to deal more effectively with online conversations and before you know it there is ‘conversation avoidance’ software as there already is ‘call avoidance’ software.

I don’t think the solution lies in hiring an increasing number of Conversation Managers. I think the solution is more embedded in the consumer. The smartest way to make conversation management scalable is by outsourcing it to a large extent to the customers.

In the past years several companies have already played this card. In this article I will describe some cases with some conclusions on how to best handle this evolution.

Cases: The fan as Conversation Manager

Case 1: GiffGaff

GiffGaff is a telecom market player. They are a relatively small network and take pride out of the fact that the company works via its members (not customers, but members!). The customer service is 100% online, they have no call centre. Their customer forum receives more than 100.000 questions a year. All these questions are answered by other community members. GiffGaff does not need to participate in the service conversation. In total there are some 1 million answers to the 100.000 questions. On average a customer question is answered within 3 minutes. I don’t think any other customer service is more rapid and more effective. The most active community members are rewarded by the company, first with virtual ‘kudos’, but when the activity level rises there are rewards. After a while these rewards can be swapped for mobile services or even for money. The most active member of the community makes about £13,000 a year this way. And the beauty is that this money allows a young man to pay his studies.

The active community members are also involved in co-creation projects which go beyond customer service. These people help to shape the entire GiffGaff company for the future. In this case you can really talk about collaborators who are not on the payroll.

Case 2:

On average offers 100,000 second-hand ads a year. The site has some 600,000 visitors a day. The ads obviously get a lot of reactions, which are mainly answered by their own fan community. They have some 200 fans who give an answer to a post and who check whether an ad fits with the criteria. If the fans don’t know the answer, the question is sent to the ‘real’ helpdesk which will send a reply to the visitor within a few hours.

The main incentive for these fans is a better functioning of the website. They personally use it every day, which means they can enjoy the advantage of their efforts. The fans think it is super that they have that kind of influence on the site’s future. The fans and the site stay in touch via a forum where questions and tips are exchanged, and that is also where site and fans talk about what can be improved. also has a community manager who is responsible for the contact with the fans. Every week the fans receive a short mail with the site’s plans and on what is happening behind the scenes.

The company was already using the fans’ input in the pre-social media era. was the first ad site in the Benelux and they had to figure it all out themselves. All categories and sections were introduced in collaboration with their visitors. Very active visitors spontaneously volunteered to help. Apart from the spontaneous help, they also keep a close eye on customer care. If someone is sending dozens of mails full of good arguments, they will check whether that person is also interested in helping in the improvement of the site.

Case 3: Sephora

Sephora is a global retailer in cosmetics. Every year the company gets a lot of questions on beauty products and the latest trends in their category. In order to reply to all these mails, they would have to hire an army of experts. So they decided to handle things differently and to get the consumers to talk to each other. In the end the consumers do not really want to talk to Sephora, they are simply looking for some good beauty advice. That is where a ‘Beauty talk’ community was set up. And the hypotheses came true rather rapidly: the Sephora clients spontaneously started helping each other out and Sephora facilitated these conversations. After a while it became clear that the community was mainly used by Sephora’s super-fans. When the company checked these customers’ purchases, it appeared that the most active community members spent up to 10 times as much at Sephora as less active members. In other words: the site was not only a place for consumers to help each other, it was also a way of further connecting the most loyal customers with the brand.

Case 4: & NIBC Direct

The site is a neutral site in the financial sector. Visitors can get advice on tariffs of several Belgian banks. The site has a forum where consumers exchange thoughts on financial matters. Furthermore the forum also gives the option to ask questions to all Belgian banks. It is worth mentioning that two banks get a lot of questions and reactions, i.e. and NIBC direct, even though these are both quite a bit smaller than the main banks. The reason is very simple: Rabobank and NIBC direct are active on the forum, the other banks slightly less. The result is that slowly but gradually a community is taking shape and that many clients of these banks are starting to help other clients spontaneously. The community is taking over part of the Conversation Management. There is no major strategy or activation programme behind this evolution, it just happens. Undoubtedly this holds a lot of opportunity for both banks, to take this group of loyal people even one step further.

Case 5: T-mobile

Many large telecom companies in the Netherlands have already started involving fans in the Conversation Management. I mention T-mobile in this article, but others (e.g. UPC) are also evolving in this direction. Via a customer forum T-mobile can directly contact its customers, the target of which is to improve the relationship. Furthermore every telecom company has the challenge to improve its customer services without many extra resources. The forum has to play an important role in this challenge. During the first quarter it already welcomed 250,000 visitors (thank you to Insided for the numbers). 33,000 topics had been started up, resulting in more than 270,000. 30% of the visitors were loyal to the forum. The beauty is that the customers spontaneously start helping other customers with T-mobile-related matters.

From fan to Conversation Manager

Every company today would need to think about how fans can handle part of the management. The marketing section of the future is one where the customer is at the same table. Below I describe my learnings from these cases.

In order to succeed in the evolution where fans handle the Conversation Management, these are important findings:

  • Manage the fan community. An active fan community is worth its weight in gold. When your fans help with your Conversation Management, this is a huge saving for your company. Do not be too opportunistic though and maintain as positive a contact as possible with them. If you take this seriously, you hire someone to manage this community fulltime.
  • Involve them in more than just the Conversation Management. Having fans who help with the Conversation Management is great, but usually these people can (and want to) do more than that. They often have very specific ideas about your company. They see things you do not see. The more intensely you involve them in other aspects of your company, the larger their engagement and the better the decisions you can and will make. Customers and collaborators who are shaping the company’s future together, isn’t that wonderful?
  • You’d better give a bit more than just a pat on the back of the very active members. Some fans can be very active. If you notice that someone is really giving top service to other customers and almost does the impossible, think about what you can offer this person. Acknowledging the facts is one thing, but at a certain moment you will have to talk about a structural collaboration.
  • When this happens spontaneously, chase it, the opportunities will be even larger. In some cases fans automatically start Conversation Management versus other customers. This means they are strongly engaged. Do not simply settle for the spontaneous, try and move on to the next level, which is drawing up a professional plan to have fans run the Conversation Management.

What do you think of this evolution? Do you see pitfalls, chances? Or do you have experience with appealing to fans as Conversation/Community Managers? I’d love to hear about it and to learn more about this captivating subject. In the future I think an increasing number of people will appeal to their own customers as Conversation Managers. I’m curious to see what you think!