From A(erospace) to Z(oology)

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The second annual Forrester Groundswell Awards highlighted eight organizations with exceptional social-technology efforts. From Starbucks to Mattel, the award winners each focused on a respective community—and yielded fantastic results for their customers and internal operations. National Instruments, a provider of hardware and software for engineers and scientists, was awarded one of the social-media honors in light of its NI Developer Zone community site and forum.

National Instruments has long been engaging its user community, according to Deirdre Walsh, the NI community manager and social-media strategist. “We found it essential to figure out ways to utilize social-media technology to help connect our user base, which consists of engineers at 25,000 companies around the world,” Walsh says. “No one industry represents more than 10 percent of our revenue. It would be impossible to hire the [number] of engineers to support the industries like aerospace and zoology.” In such a highly technical industry, customer support is critical. Knowing this, NI looked to its customers as resources, and kicked off early social-media efforts in 1999 by introducing a community-support forum.

National Instruments launched an expanded community site a year ago to integrate other social aspects into the forum, such as blogging, wikis, and videos. The objectives of the upgraded community are threefold: allow users to exchange content, foster technical collaboration, and reward expert users and contributors. Walsh notes that nearly 46 percent of all support questions are answered by community members, monitored by NI engineers who offer alternative suggestions.

Walsh says a great emphasis is placed on super-users who drive conversation and respond to thousands of queries. One community member, in fact, submitted 15,000 support posts, and was recognized with the Monty Pythonesque title “Knight of NI.”

But not only is NI conversing with its customers and allowing them to converse with each other, it’s letting them help design products, too. Perhaps the most valuable business gain involves the NI Labs initiative. Users can volunteer to try prerelease software and offer recommendations and feedback on the product development.

Walsh notes that being recognized as a Groundswell winner helps boost community morale. “For us to come back and say, ‘Thank you, you are an award-winning community,’ was huge.”

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