Thoughts on content ownership and long, meaningful discussions

Occasionally, a potential client will come to us and ask why they need a forum. Besides the usual reasons, one point that often comes up is the concept of "content ownership", or "steering the conversation". It goes hand in hand with the other benefits of localised discussions – mainly a significant SEO boost in the form of actual organic content from your users – and goes hand in hand with fears of a conversation rapidly spinning out of the control of a company, often to their detriment.

What is content ownership?

In essence, when a conversation is started, handled, and resolved on a community forum under your branding, you're doing more than simply answering a question:

  1. You're broadcasting the entire conversation to whomever may visit that topic
  2. You're saving this conversation in a searchable, archivable format, that will allow future visitors to resolve their own problems or see how you handled the issue.
  3. You're building consistent, cumulative rapport with your users, who will come back time and time again.
  4. You're hosting the conversation in an environment under your control (more on this below)

What about Social Media?

In the past decade, we've seen a dramatic shift towards social media for avenues of support, or handling of customer frustrations. It's arguable what came first, companies offering support via social media channels, or customers complaining on social media channels (though I'd argue it's the latter). While I'm not advocating for the desertion of social media support, it's a sobering thought to realise that so much of your online support is handled in such an ephemeral manner.

Ephemeral? – Transient. Whatever effort you put in will disappear into the mists of time faster than you can imagine. Today questions are asked and answered hundreds of thousands of times daily on social media, and one can imagine that a large part of those are questions that have been asked before, and likely will be asked again. To put effort into answering a question and then having that conversation disappear (not even archived in any meaningful manner) is a tragedy. Simply put, the notion that social media helps everybody all at once is a fallacy. Facebook comments are nested a single-level deep, forbidding deep conversations by design. Twitter, on the other hand, allows for deeper conversations but only between two participants. The moment a third participant joins, the conversation is forked, leading to a fracturing of the discussion into many shards that are impossible to view (using Twitter's own UI) as a whole, or to follow along. There are many apps that "roll up" a twitter thread into a single blog post, but not a single one tries to organize the responses in a coherent manner, because it's impossible.

On the other hand, when questions are asked and answered on community forums, or when a good discussion takes place, this meaningful content is stored and indexed in a manner that promotes its longevity and continued searchability.

The last time you needed help with something (e.g. car/appliance problem, gardening, etc.) what happened when you searched for the answer? More often than not, a community forum is within the top 5 results. Not Facebook, not Twitter, but a community forum.

What about conversation control?

Regarding the last point above, having control over the conversation simply allows you to steer the conversation in a way that is beneficial to you and your customers. Whether it means handling support over a more private channel (support email, etc.), or deleting obviously inflammatory content1, you have control over the conversation and can steer the conversation in a way that benefits everybody.

It's worth mentioning that conversations within your control are also less inflammatory, due to the "guest right" effect2. While you'll still get the occasional user who wants to vent his or her frustrations to as many people as possible, a majority will be more patient, more open to resolution, and more open to continued discussions. Where social media is a "shoot first, ask questions later" environment, a community forum encourages users to work together to resolve a problem first and foremost.

How does this work in a world with GDPR?

So long as you use a forum software that is compliant with GDPR (spoiler alert, we're one of very few that are), it and content ownership go hand in hand. The right of the end user to delete their user data supercedes the desire to preserve good, meaningful conversations, even if those two are often at odds with each other. The simplest way may be to consider the ownership of content as your community users "lending" their voices and opinions to your forum. Our job as community managers is simply to maintain a space that fosters these good, meaningful conversations.


Notes

1 I will say upfront that the only content we delete on our community forum is spam. We do not censor or delete topics that simply state that NodeBB sucks, because criticism helps us deliver better software (even if a lot of that criticism is knee-jerk). One of my favourite topics is an honest question about whether our software is superior, or a competitor's. A very meaningful discussion sprang up out of this topic, and we've converted some of the criticisms into fixes that benefit all NodeBB users.

2 The concept of guest right is of course, just something from Game of Thrones, but I certainly do think that users feel as though they are held accountable for their actions and behaviour when off of social media.

Cover Photo by Kawtar CHERKAOUI on Unsplash