Online Communities Become Par For The Course | Article

golf ballNothing can provoke a temper tantrum in an usually well behaved adult faster than a missed putt. When abusive behavior began to pervade an Internet golfing community, a golf Web site turned to an ASP to clean up the act.

Golfonline.com, a Web site produced by Golf magazine and owned by Times Mirror Magazines, adopted the magazine’s editorial mission of providing personalized content and service to the world’s duffers. Creating a vibrant virtual community was a cornerstone of the site’s game plan.

The New York City-based dotcom is an Internet pioneer, going live in 1995. In those early days, golfonline.com used bulletin boards for user interaction. The site’s programmers ran the bulletin boards. The bulletin boards worked well as a forum for golfers until last year when conversations began getting rough. Even though the site’s programmers installed a profanity filter, angry duffers still found a way to use abusive language in these forums.

Julie Hansen, golfonline.com’s general manager, grew tired of the slamming. “We wanted our bulletin boards to be a virtual recreation of the 19th hole,” a place known for camaraderie not clubbing, she says. “When the conversations got nasty, that defeated our purpose,” she says.

In addition, maintaining the bulletin boards was becoming as irritating as a double bogey. Staffers spent at least three hours almost the time it takes for a round of golf — every day deleting ugly messages. Hansen realized that “was a ridiculous waste of time.” It was time for a new course.

Taking A Swing At Outsourcing

Web technology had advanced by then, so the site had new options. Some staffers felt the company should develop the bulletin board technology itself as a core competency. They were opposed to outsourcing this function even though the site already successfully outsourced its Pro Shop to a third party. The employees felt Web development was much closer to the cup than golf hard goods and therefore should remain on their plate.

But the Golfonline.com executives eliminated writing new software in-house as one of the options. Instead, the executives decided to take a swing at outsourcing. However, they realized they didn’t want their golfers registering on an outsourcer’s site. They scratched that out of the outsourcing specifications because they decided to write their registration link internally.

Then the executives teed off a nine month search for an appropriate outsourcing provider. The search team created a scorecard for the bulletin board providers it interviewed. “We compared and contrasted,” says Hansen.

Hansen says at first she was surprised how expensive the outsourcers’ fees were. Golfonline.com had never paid a monthly fee for its bulletin boards. But when she analyzed her balance sheet, she began adding up bandwidth costs and programmers’ time. “Suddenly, outsourcing seemed attractive,” says recalls. “We had a paradigm shift.”

Controlling user data became a selection issue. For example, some ASPs produce monthly reports but the customer wants the data in weekly increments. This discrepancy is a handicap because “weekly data doesn’t line up with monthly figures,” says Hansen.

Supplier Teaches Buyer

Golfonline.com selected PeopleLink, a Santa Monica, California company, because it had the community building technology golfonline.com thought would be helpful for people using the links. Hansen was impressed with the additional offerings the outsourcer had available. “We felt we were getting more for our money from experienced people,” says Hansen.

One welcome but unexpected advantage was PeopleLink’s willingness to teach its customer how to build even better communities. Hansen appreciates the provider’s willingness to transfer knowledge. She says customers should feel free to ask their suppliers for advice. “That’s what they do all day,” she says.

Hansen says she works at maintaining an advantageous relationship with her ASP. She views the relationship as a mutually beneficial twosome that requires strokes on both sides.

There have been few problems. Even though there are quite a few help links on the PeopleLink site, Hansen says she receives a flood of email if there’s a problem with the community software.

All things considered, working with an ASP that enhanced the community interaction  at golfonline.com was an outsourcing hole in one.

Lessons from the Outsourcing Primer:

  • Outsourcing can enable needed changes in older Web sites.
  • Don’t expect everyone on staff to believe in outsourcing as a solution at the outset.
  • Add up all hidden costs before you start comparing ASP fees with your current expenditures.
  • Determine how an ASP reports user data. Make sure all parameters, like reporting periods, match yours.
  • Utilize your relationship with your ASP as a resource. The company has lots of experience in the field and can help you improve your offerings.


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