Many thanks to Tony Long for suggesting this inquiry on whether social support and communities really work. Many support organizations have rolled out social channels but few have set up solid experiments to measure the success of their initiatives. How can you tell that your efforts in that area are working? Here are 3 simple tests.
Test #1: Usage
Basic but mandatory: are customers using the communities or other social channels? If not, you can be sure that they are not working. You may need to work a bit to find out why customers are not using the social channels: are they unaware that they exist? Is there so little activity that the channels appear not to work? Are customer requests unattended? But in any case if there is no activity on social, then social is not working.
An aside: many organizations use social support (Twitter, Facebook, and the like) as a service-recovery channel. That is, they monitor social sites and swoop in when a problem is reported. Although such initiatives are heralded as novel and wonderful, they mostly highlight how badly the regular channels are functioning. So if you are seeing lots of activity on social channels to bitch about the non-social channels, go fix the non-social channels.
Test #2: Active participation
Visits are great; contributions are better. If you see evidence that customers are providing peer-to-peer assistance (rather than questions just sitting there unanswered, or only answered by your staff), there is a good chance that at least some subset of customers are getting something out of the social channels.
Note that you may see unwelcome negative comments about your products, selling methods, or company strategy in social channels. That is normal and should not be censored overly zealously, as long as the language adheres to the rules of civility you defined for participation in the online channels. We all prefer compliments but an open forum requires a tolerance for divergent views.
Test #3: Effectiveness
Usage and active participation are easy to measure and certainly important — but not sufficient to declare victory. Are customers actually finding what they want when they use social channels. There are two (big) problems with this question: you do not know what users want, and you cannot easily tell whether they found it. What you can do is infer from behavior, either by asking directly (try the one-question popup, “Did you find what you were looking for?”) or by capturing escalations to other channels. This is difficult if you do not know who the users are, and a good reason to ask customers to register before using social channels.