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October 7, 2008

NI Supports the Groundswell – Part 2

by deirdrewalsh

See Part One before reading this post.

After you understand your audience, the next steps in Groundswell’s P.O.S.T. methodology are to have a clear Objective, strong Strategy, and knowledge of appropriate Technologies.

At National Instruments, our Objective was to build a successful online support community for engineers and scientists at more than 25,000 companies around the globe based on three Strategic community focus areas: content exchange, technical collaboration, and rewards and reputation.  These three areas positively alter our relationship with engineers and scientists while accomplishing the following support-oriented objectives:

· Increase quantity, quality and diversity of user-submitted, support content

· Connect like-minded users based on geography, product, and application area to improve peer support network

· Obtain valuable feedback on NI products and services

· Energize and nurture core influencers

· Create a unified rewards program for community participation

To accomplish the objectives above, NI has implemented a variety of online Technologies such as discussion forums, wikis, social networks, blogs, brand evangelists, videos, etc. These tactics not only help accomplish the primary objective of support but also allow NI to listen to, talk with, energize and embrace the groundswell. I’m going to discuss in detail our two main technologies: discussion forums and online communities.

Discussion Forums

National Instruments uses the forum technology offered by Lithium to assist with support issues. Currently, we have more than 110,000 registered members, of which more than 60 percent have contributed at least once. As a company, we are committed to providing an answer to every support question posted on the forums. Initially, we relied soley on applications engineers to assist with customer issues. Now, NI gives the community 24 hours to respond to a support question before assigning an applications engineer to the task.

Today, the community correctly answers 46 percent of all issues, saving the company a significant amount of money from call deflections and forum resources. Specifically, there are 14 “enthusiasts” who have contributed a combined 65,000 posts in the last seven months. These revered members of the support community are recognized and rewarded for their important contribution. Based on user feedback, we recently created and asked the users to name the highest level on the forums. Dubbed the “Knight of NI (a clever play on Monty Python),” Dennis Knutson has contributed more than 15,000 posts and was recognized on the forums by NI Co-Founder and “Father of LabVIEW” Jeff Kodosky.

In November 2007, we added tagging to the forums to improve the search function and help engineers find the support content they need. This new feature has been widely adopted and there are now more than 2,500 keywords in nine languages.

One of the most significant areas of the forums is NI Labs. Introduced in August 2007, NI Labs introduces pre-alpha software features to the support community to get insight for product development roadmaps. While marketed, the site is completely managed by NI R&D engineers in the United States and China. Due to its success, NI Labs has helped shaped the development of the flagship product, LabVIEW, as well as answered the communities’ questions on “what’s next.”

In Patty Seybold’s article, What Low-Cost Innovation Techniques Should You Be Using RIGHT NOW??, the innovative author stated that companies should, “get your product development team to participate actively in these discussions and forums. Have them poll the online customer community about priorities and features they’re working on to get customer input early. Have someone regularly go through customers’ suggestions and issues to rank order these for implementation. If you’re really good, your customer community will take it upon themselves to pull all the best ideas out of the customer support Q&A threads and turn them into prioritized requirements. That’s what National Instruments’ customers do in National Instruments LabVIEW Developer Zone.”

Online Community

In February 2008, National Instruments went live with the NI Developer Zone Community. This central portal helps users discover and collaborate on example code, tutorials, and textbooks with a worldwide community of engineers and scientists. Using Jive’s ClearSpace X wiki-based platform, NI users can now share development techniques, learn about cutting-edge technologies, and connect with product experts working on similar applications. This online community greatly helps users with complex, system-level support challenges that exceed the limited functionality of the forums. Additionally, it incorporates collaborative technologies including blogs, videos, polls, and tags.

With the open platform, NI is able to partner with externally-run communities focused on its products. Using RSS, NI aggregates community content housed outside of our domain. Additionally, we place community-contributed content throughout our site and index user-generated content in our search. According to NI research, most engineers do not care if their technical support issues are solved by an NI employee or peer. Therefore, we’ve made community content pervasive throughout ni.com.

We also created the FIRST Robotics Community that helps more than 40,000 high school students learn basic engineering concepts and get support on the NI products used in global robotics competitions. This community fosters a unique support program — the LabVIEW virtual mentors — where professional engineers can help students with NI-related issues without ever leaving their computers.

NI has also worked to identify and reward our key influencers through the LabVIEW Champions program, which identifies and energizes our key product evangelists around the world. Currently, there are 26 members from 10 countries tasked with supporting users online and offline with engineering problems. This elite group answers 12 percent of all support issues and is rewarded with exclusive technology previews, direct communication with LabVIEW developers, prioritized feature request and support, visibility within the online community, special event discounts and cool gear.

To increase awareness of and membership in these two online support programs, National Instruments talks to the groundswell utilizing a variety of social media tactics, including the following:

Viral Videos: An Engineering Mind
Brand Blogs: VI Roadshow
Social Networks: LabVIEW Groups on YouTube, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter

Question to the readers: What technolgies work best for your organization?

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