Tell the truth, continually look for perspective, and you’ll be alright.
Although my lot in life was never to be a Presidential Historian, I nonetheless continue to collect little tidbits of knowledge about those who have occupied the Oval Office. Some US Presidents have been loved and some have been reviled, but all hold a place in history. In some cases, aphorisms from past Presidents continue to linger in American culture; more often than not to reinforce morality (e.g. - a young George Washington’s statement, “I cannot tell a lie” after he chopped down a cherry tree), but sometimes to just pithily articulate some kind of gestalt.
It is of the latter variety of aphorisms described above which comes to mind when I consider the anonymous visitors to an Online Community. Our 37th President of the United States, Richard Nixon, described those who elected him as the ‘Silent Majority’. An appropriate term, if ever there was one, to describe the vitally important audience that large brand communities accommodate. Indeed, the ‘Silent Majority’ of passive viewers that read Online Community content to solve their own Support problems and to inform their purchase decisions become a critical component to discovering the Community’s business value.
And yet, questions and doubts still arise.
If we do not know who these people are, what they learned, or what they bought, then how can we possibly attribute value to their Visits? For years I have just taken it on faith that (some, not all) anonymous passive viewers of an Online Community benefited from their digestion of the peer-to-peer content contained within. However, my blind faith in the power of the ‘silent majority’ was recently tested by a business stakeholder during a large project I had been working on for her brand’s Community. She wanted to see my Contact Deflection story from a much more narrow-angle. Instead of using Visits (or even Unique Visitors) as the starting metric to evaluate Contact Deflection, her suggestion was to use only those members of the Community that were known to us (i.e. - ‘Authenticated Users’), and furthermore, she asked that any Accepted Solutions that were viewed to help avoid contact to Support be authored exclusively by another peer or customer and not an employee (contractor or otherwise) of the brand.
“Oh geez”, I thought to myself, “this simply will not do”. I understood the spirit of her request. The savings story is great! Both the Community and the brand are very large and extremely successful. And although there was every indication that she was a believer in the returns generated by the Community, she still had to internally explain the story to the brand’s senior leadership and perhaps an even tougher and more skeptical crowd, the brand’s Finance Department. So she was well within her rights to request a recalculation of the Savings story with those tighter parameters.
But under those more restrictive conditions and numbers, I knew the returns would be substantially lower, and even more importantly, I knew that those numbers would not be telling the truth. I would have to tell this stakeholder that she was wrong! So long as the Community content is able to be searched for, read, and potentially used by the ‘Silent Majority’ to stave off contacts to Support, then there is value being derived via cost savings. Now I found myself in little George Washington’s shoes. I could not tell a lie!
But I could tell a story. So that is what I did.
The story started with doing what she asked.
I ran the calculations using only authenticated Visits that viewed Solutions only authored by other customers of the brand and not employees or contractors. As expected, the Savings story went from being impressive to anemic. No surprise there. But then I backed up a little bit and explored what others have said over the last 25+ years about anonymous/passive Visits to websites. I figured there had to be some substantive industry research that could be boiled down to some kind of philosophical missive that I could use to gently convey that the ‘Silent Majority’ can not and will not be ignored.
As usual, I was right. But as a great man once said to me during my 6-month review at this company (nearly 15 years ago!):
“It is not Jake’s job to correct the customer”.
So forget the corrections. Consider the following instead:
The single largest audience who interact with your business is anonymous. Typically 97% or 98% of website visitors are anonymous. For most companies, only 2%-3% of visitors end up sharing their email addresses or otherwise identify themselves.
57%-70% of the purchase decision is complete before a potential customer is known to the business. These anonymous site visitors may be far in the purchase process and by the time a sales lead is generated the decision may already have been made.
And at the risk of putting too fine a point on the power of the ‘Silent Majority’, one of the greatest pieces of Online Community research (and certainly one that involved a tremendous amount of courage) dared to examine what would happen if anonymous Visitors could no longer easily find an already successful Online Community. A brand de-indexed their Online Community from Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and the results were nothing short of stunning. Richard Millington from FeverBee documented this story in the Harvard Business Review:
"The locals still know it’s there and can visit, but the visitors don’t and won’t. When we did this, the number of visitors plunged by an average of 83%. While some found the community through other channels (the website), most simply filed support tickets or called customer support instead. The number of tickets (calls/online ticket forms) to other support channels increased by 58%."
I may not agree with Millington on a number of Community-related things, but ladies and gentlemen, this article more than any other restored my faith in the power of the ‘Silent Majority’. Props to Millington and the brand he worked with for doing what I have boldly (but gently) suggested to the occasional non-believing customers that I have encountered during the last 7 years that I have been doing Online Community ROI as a full-time job.
So now that my story about the ‘Silent Majority’ started to develop some meat on the bone, I did what any and all of us do in 2021, I made a slide deck out of it.
Terrible, right? Nah. It actually kind of worked out.
At first, I showed it to the Community’s dedicated strategist (who is eager to please his boss and his boss’s boss) and he said, “So the true number is probably somewhere in between the original number that you shared and then this newly refined conservative number, right?” I responded with an, “absolutely not”. “The smaller number is the result of an exploration.”
I could hear his brow furrowing. This guy, good old Uncle Jake, is going to tell the business stakeholder that she is wrong. Nah. I am just going to illustrate what the industry has said, how the industry looks at such things, and then share an anecdote about what another brand did to test (after a fashion) her way of measuring the Contact Deflection Savings….and then I’m going to tell her that she is wrong.
Well, although I do admit to dusting off my resume before going into the meeting to share my presentation, I am happy to report that the business stakeholder had a reaction that really impressed me.
First, she thanked me for taking the time to slice and dice all the data to arrive at the much more conservative number. I liked that. Indeed, a critical part of the story that I am sparing all of you is how to arrive at the ‘Resolution Rate’ and ‘Solution Views’ generated by only non-employees of the brand. Those particular calculations involved some gymnastics.
But it is what she said next that really won me over (and I already liked her, btw):
Yes! I cannot agree with those sentiments enough. In this day and age where everybody is so darned certain about everything that they believe in, perspective is invaluable.
A lot of people don’t know this, but...
President Richard Nixon was both a huge fan of American football (Washington D.C.'s team even allowed him to ‘call a play’ during their appearance in a Super Bowl one year), and he was also an avid bowler. If you watch the film, The Big Lebowski, you can see that the Jeffrey Lebowski character has a poster in his apartment of President Richard Nixon bowling. In all likelihood, the photograph was taken in the bowling lane that Nixon had installed inside the White House in 1969.
An Online Community has a ‘Silent Majority’ coursing through its veins. Ignore it at your own peril. Richard Nixon occupied the highest elected office in American politics because of the ‘Silent Majority’ that voted for him, but his reign ignominiously ended due to the proverbial gutterballs he threw.
So remember that if you tell the truth and continually look for perspective, you’ll be alright.
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