Every time I stumble across a new online community like this one from SES Water, a little part of me dies. Why are companies like this still building online communities from scratch in 2017?
I’m an SES customer, but I’ve nothing against their service. And at work, my interest is in helping our clients use the web for better engagement. We make money from this type of work. But I wonder if we’d make even more money flogging turn-key community platforms to companies like SES.
My problem with this community is two-fold
I don’t understand how there can be enough of a representative range of customers to sign up and contribute to something like this. Clearly water is vital, but I reckon most customers have simple, fundamental expectations about that service:
- the water is clean
- the water is supplied consistently
- the cost of the water is manageable
Beyond these things, do people care enough about their water supply to register with a website and contribute posts?
I also wonder why a water company feels the need to engage with customers in this way. They’re a utility company providing a fairly simple (from a customer perspective) service.
There doesn’t seem to be an obvious way to ask questions through their Facebook page. The Contact Us button takes me to their lengthy website contact page.
To their credit, you can ask them questions on twitter and it looks like they respond, which is good.
So why the need for a stand-alone online community?
SES cover a fairly small patch of Surrey. I’d estimate there’s around 20 active Facebook groups covering most of this area, where SES could, with care, post questions and ask for feedback on their service. That’s before we get in to platforms like nextdoor.co.uk, which seem to be gaining popularity.
Back to the platform. The URL doesn’t get us off to a very good start: seswater.explainonline.co.uk What does ‘explain online’ mean? Explain my problems to the water company, or is this for them to explain their work to me? I suspect the latter, given some of the recent posts:
Do you think customers have a role in ensuring there’s water for the future?
There seems to be approx. 15 comments from users each month, which is hardly great given SES have around 282,000 customers (according to their website).
The platform works fine, looks OK and I’m sure tests pretty well. But the question remains – why does it exist in the first place?
Scratch beneath the surface, and it appears to be provided by a company called Explain Research.
A market research company
A market research company facilitating customer engagement sounds like the result of a need that’s about the supplier, not the customer.
Among others, Explain Research provide an interesting example of a motorbike community they created. The insight generated by this community is provided to companies who provide services to motorcyclists. That’s fine for Explain Research if it helps them flog insight, but why aren’t these motorbike services companies doing their own engagement with communities in the first place?
The world definitely does not need more online communities for people interested in motorbikes.
The problem with scratch-built communities
- They ignore existing communities, and thereby miss the real issues people are talking about. The sort of issues that only bubble to the surface of communities after years of discussion and relationship-building.
- These scratch-built communities are not very honest in their approach. The whole ‘have your say’ approach is really a disguised corporate need for customers to behave in a different way.
- They waste people’s time – customers and staff. There’s rarely an intention to maintain communities like this for the long-term. What happens when the market research company and senior management decide they have enough data?
- The main problem with these places is that they throttle the confidence and skills of organisations to talk to customers in established communities. Rather than tracking down customers on Facebook or specialist forums, corporate teams retreat to the safety of a space that they moderate.