Industry analysts travel—a lot. It is, therefore, no surprise that I care deeply about airlines’ frequent flyer programs and track the changes to those programs as closely as baseball obsessives track star players’ slugging percentages. When I want information on what these changes mean practically in my situation (Will the new loyalty program make it harder for a 75k+ elite member looking to book a companion ticket’s upgrade on an alliance partner airline, for example), I typically do not turn directly to the airline. Instead, I log on to Flyertalk, a forum that bills itself as “the largest expert travel community.” The forum—populated by thousands of frequent fliers far more obsessive than I will ever be—consistently houses discussions of exactly the thing I want to know.

The lion’s share of people answering questions on Flyertalk and other forums like it—Cruisecritic for the cruising fans, TripAdvisor for travel and hospitality broadly, AutomotiveForums for car enthusiasts, etc.—are other consumers, albeit well-informed ones. But these non-brand controlled communities provide opportunities to brands to differentiate themselves through service.  Because affinity communities have barriers to entry, including registrations and jargon, community members are usually deeply interested in the topic at hand. In communities that regularly discuss brands, these customers are also more likely to be exactly the type of high-value customers that companies want to provide with great customer experiences. But brands need to decide when and how to engage customers in these forums they do not control.

Contact center pros who want to provide customer support in such forums face a technology problem today: the tools designed to provide contact center workflow for social customer service cannot, for the most part, capture and respond to posts on social forums the company does now not own. But that is changing. As social customer service products mature they will be able to handle nearly all social channels.

Our new research, Take Social Customer Service Beyond Your Own Walled Garden, provides an analysis of the need for, and opportunities in, customer service in these affinity communities. It also provides recommended steps for contact center and application development and delivery professionals looking to create pilot programs for building these forums into a holistic social customer service program.

Let me know if your company has experience providing customer service in communities you do not control. I’d love to hear how you handled capturing those interactions and automated the routing or distribution of work inside of your customer service organization.