We recently had the chance to meet up with Stuart Waterman, Online Community Manager for AAT. AAT stands for The Association of Accounting Technicians. They’re a non-profit membership body offering accounting and finance qualifications and short courses. AAT’s qualifications enable people to gain the accounting skills and experience they need to enter the profession without going to university. Their head office is based in London, but they have over 130,000 members worldwide.
Q. Thanks for taking the time to speak with us. Let’s jump into it. Can you tell me more about how you use the community forum now?
A busy forum also provides us with considerable SEO benefits and an unparalleled insight into our membership’s needs and challenges.
There are certain recurring questions that prospective/current AAT students and members have. The AAT discussion forums allow us to help these people find and connect with each other, which is vital for our members as often the best answers come from people who have ‘been there and done that’. In addition, a busy forum also provides us with considerable SEO benefits and an unparalleled insight into our membership’s needs and challenges.
Q. Can you tell us about the problems you faced with your previous solutions in building your community?
Our forums have actually been in existence for over 10 years. Over the last couple of years, it became increasingly clear that the software we were using was no longer fit for purpose – there were security issues, functionality failures and a rising feeling of frustration from our members.
Despite also using other social media channels such as Twitter and Facebook, we were adamant that a healthy forum was something we wanted to continue to provide to our members. Having a searchable archive of conversations is vital for our audience, and being able to ‘own’ our data is also important.
We’ve actually seen an increase in organic search traffic compared to the period before our migration.
Q. With such a change needed, can you tell us what your criteria was when you went to select a new solution?
Firstly, we needed reliable hosting and support. We also wanted something that users would find straightforward to use (with responsive/mobile capability) to which we could apply our own branding, and that offered a single sign-on solution should we decide to go down that road. In addition, we wanted the kind of modern functionality users expect and the option to adapt and grow the site as our needs evolve.
Q. It’s good to see you had clear criteria. How did you end up using Vanilla’s cloud offering?
We engaged a London-based agency called Claremont to undertake research for us, and to suggest some potential solutions. Vanilla Open Source was suggested by our agency, and while this was a compelling proposition we eventually decided to go with the hosted version of Vanilla as it offered a bit more.
After a videoconference demo from a Vanilla rep, we were able to quickly see the everyday functionality offered, as well as some of the ‘bells and whistles’ we might want to play with. All in all, we were satisfied that Vanilla could help us not only get up and running again, but improve and grow the site in the future.
Q. Was there anything that worried you about switching from your old platform?
I was worried we might lose the SEO rankings we’d built up over the years. However, the process of implementing redirects was quick, straightforward and well-communicated. We’ve actually seen an increase in organic search traffic compared to the period before our migration.
Q. What specifically do you like about the Vanilla offering?
The introductory offer we received was impressive, our account handler was accommodating and polite, and the software did what we wanted it to do. In addition, a mobile-friendly version of the site – something we’ve needed for a long time – came as standard.
I really like the advanced search add-on – it’s powerful and quick, and provides access to a depth of knowledge in a way that ‘sexier’ social platforms aren’t able to. Plus the API enables us to do things like dynamically highlight the forum on our corporate website. You can see how we’ve done this on AAT’s online community hub (bottom right of the page).
Q. Can you share any specific results you have you seen from implementing our solution?
After users’ initial confusion at the new platform, we’ve noticed a gradual increase in engagement with the forums. We’re not yet back to the point where they were at their height a few years back, but I’m really pleased with how existing users have taken to the platform, and the number of new users we’re attracting. We’ve set some testing targets for onboarding new users, but I think we may need to raise them next year!
Here is a small example. In February 2015, compared to September 2014 – which was the last month with our previous software provider – we’ve seen the following improvements:
- A 10% increase in organic search traffic
- An 8% increase in unique users
- A 35% increase in pageviews
- A 22% increase in pages viewed per session
- A 28% increase in the average session duration
- A 20% increase in the average session duration on mobile devices
- A 35% increase in the average session duration on tablet devices