New Media: Lessons Learned Part 2

May 6, 2010

Continuing the series of lessons learned as we roll out our latest software product, I decided to devote Part 2 to the lessons I learned while building a user community.

We could have built our own forum as a page or two down from the corporate website, but the Development Team thought it would be easier and more familiar to use Google Groups, and certainly from a SEO perspective, the results are clear.  The application we’re about to release incorporates a link to the Google Group directly into the user interface.  Setting up the Group was easy, but required a Google Gmail account first. I created the Gmail account with the same name as the group, then set up the Group. We drafted a welcome message and then invited beta participants to join the Group.

In its early days, the team met to discuss our Group policy. We’d originally decided that we should acknowledge every user post immediately with a general Thanks for your post response.  Soon after, we realized “Hey. This is a user community. Let the users have at it.” And so, we now adopt more of a hands-off policy. We’ll guide users who post problems that should have been directed to the Support center and offer tips we’ve tried on our own. But for the most part, it’s a natural habitat for our beta users.

I log into the Group daily, perform any management tasks (approve membership, add content), and scan user posts. Everyone in the group is notified when someone posts but I may follow up with my Development team when a user posts a feature request or a great idea, just to make sure they’ve seen it and are acting on it. How Development acts varies. We’ve added features to the application based on user feedback, so I want to make sure our audience knows we’ve listened to them and are considering their suggestions. Sometimes, that’s a reply to a post but usually, it’s a blog entry in the form of product news.

We established the group for members, so users must request membership, which I, as group administrator,  approve. (I am currently approving only beta users.)  But posts are not moderated so once membership is granted, anyone can post anything. We decided not to censor the Group, even when users claim our competitor’s product is better.

One thing to note: you can’t control the ads displayed in the Sponsored Links section of Google Groups. Groups is a free service, so Google makes its money from advertising. Google’s search bots analyze both page content (including the text from users’ posts),  search patterns, and history and then display the links that best match those trends. So if you work for Fedex and search on Airborne, your Google Group is likely to show competitors’ advertising here.

We have much more still to learn as the product is released. More to come!

Part 3: Producing localized videos in six languages.



  1. Interesting idea, especially the idea of linking to the Google group directly from the user interface.

    Can you go into more detail as to why you choose Google Groups as opposed to something like VBulletin? Was it so you didn’t have to deal with the hosting/updating/admin yourself? I ask because I work for a web hosting company, so the thought of using something hosted off our servers for something like this would have never occurred to me. It would be interesting to hear the thought process behind the decision.

  2. Hi, Alan,

    The entire project was conceived by a recent addition to our team, a new Sr. VP who is a huge cloud computing proponent. His opinion was, while we certainly could build it, why should we bother when Google Groups has already done the work for us? Better still, when users do an internet search (and are likely using Google to perform that search), he’d rather have our site come up on the first page than buried three or four pages into the list of search results.

    Further, he believes users are becoming accustomed to going to certain sites for certain needs (need a book, go to Amazon, need an airline ticket, go to Expedia, and so on) and he preferred to leverage their name rather than trying to establish ours from the ground up.

    I’ll tell you it wasn’t a popular choice among the rest of the team at first, but as we approach launch, it’s gaining internal interest.

  3. Patty,

    Thanks for the clarification into the thought process behind this. I understand the need for a community or user group forum – we have a small community forum site also. But I will say that if I was looking for a support or user forum for a product that was for pay and proprietary and found a Google group (instead of a forum hosted on the company domain itself) I would first think it was a fan site or an unofficial site, not the actual support forum site. That’s what led to my question.

  4. I think that was also part of our SVP’s rationale. He wanted this to be a user forum, not an annex to the Support or websites, which is where most official corporate communication would come from. Google Groups is not part of my company so people will either trust or distrust that, depending on their impressions of my employer.

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