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A&E Exclusive: A Community of Collaboration: How the Industry Uses the Internet to Grow Business

Through forums and Facebook groups, individuals are using their experiences to create a community of collaboration and learning across applications.

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Epilog laser fans

With the advent of social media, sharing expertise has never been easier. Across the World Wide Web, individuals in the awards and engraving industry are using their experiences to create a community of collaboration and learning across applications, from sublimation and sandcarving to support and sales through forums and Facebook groups alike. There are a number of factors to gauge the legitimacy of a group or forum to help grow your business.

Where to begin?

Industry forums and Facebook groups are available to users of all skill levels across the internet and are tailored to specific applications, such as laser engraving, sublimation and sandcarving. 

Sublimation & More is one such group on Facebook. Created by Amy Hale of Hale Bound Designs, the group is a community of sublimation users providing a space for other users to offer advice, ask questions, and to share their work.

Out of growing frustration with the quality of these types of groups, Hale saw the demand among novice sublimators and created the group a little over a year ago. “I basically wanted to be more involved in sublimation and I was learning, but slowly realized that most of the people in these other groups weren’t sharing their knowledge. There wasn’t a lot of help or how-to,” Hale tells A&E magazine. “I found that as I was becoming more knowledgeable, I wanted to share my knowledge.”

The group, which now totals almost 7,000 members, is comprised of a diverse set of users of all skill levels. Manufacturers and distributors are also members of Sublimation & More; however, the group is unique in that Hale and her administrators strive to keep the discussion void of promotion.  “We want options and we want to be fair, but we also want it to be completely dedicated to learning,” she says.

Where’s the line?

This balance between bias and merit is delicate among awards and engraving forums. In fact, Epilog Marketing Communications Specialist Amy Dallman admits that Epilog Laser Fans, a Facebook group with 6,300 members, was created before the company had a presence on Facebook. “We waited awhile to get on Facebook because we wanted to have engaging content. We started it because there wasn’t a group out there like it. There still aren’t very many,” Dallman says.

Bob Hagel, a small business owner and active participant in a number of online forums for both laser engraving and sandcarving, agrees. “The trick to making a forum work really well is managing suppliers involved. There are so few of them that really meet those needs,” Hagel says, explaining that there are two factors that affect these communities: whether they are open to all users or suppliers are restricted from participation, or how they participate. “Because it doesn’t turn into a sales tool, you get the kind of conversations that people really want,” he says, adding that there really is almost no topic related to your business that isn’t discussed.

And with the plethora of information out there, these discussions are formatted for user-friendly navigation by category, such as equipment or artwork where users can go to ask specific questions. “It’s broken down so you’re in the right place and the question you ask attracts people who are doing that type of thing,” Hagel says. This feature is critical when you have a problem that needs to be addressed quickly.

One issue with these forums in particular is the reliability and accuracy of the information. Each answer has to be taken with a grain of salt, Hagel says, explaining that a source can be judged by the legitimacy of the information provided in previous conversations. These forums also have a way of self-correcting. “People are generally not afraid to weigh in if the information is not accurate,” he says. “Through those kinds of discussions, you get to the heart of what really works.”

What went wrong with my machine?

What makes these forums so useful is the fact that you’re generally speaking to other users with an array of experience levels, from brand new users to people who have been doing it for 25 years, Hagel says. “It’s helpful because there’s always somebody who has experienced what you’re experiencing. Even if it’s odd, they can steer you in the right direction,” he says. However, this kind of availability can cause problems for companies with established technical support centers.

As one of the administrators of Epilog Laser Fans, Dallman oversees discussion and addresses issues as needed. “A lot of users will ask support questions and will usually identify their laser before asking. ‘My machine is doing this. What could cause this?’ We really try to deter that,” she says, explaining that while users are very eager to help, the company has to keep an eye on the discussions to ensure that these issues are handled properly. “When we see things like that come up when technical support is open and ready to help, we’ll direct them to technical support.”

On the other hand, Dallman admits that the crowd-sourced technical support is a helpful resource when Epilog’s department is not open on the weekend. In fact, these groups have become a go-to for after-hour assistance.

“There have been many nights where I’ve gotten out of bed to answer someone’s question,” Hale adds to that point. “(Sublimation & More) has become a virtual terminal, and it’s not just me; I’ve built a group where everybody is like that. So I felt like this is a good thing that really helps people in the business industry.”

What’s popular?

With the diversification of the awards and engraving industry, many users are branching out into other applications beyond their comfort zone. These forums and Facebook groups tend to reflect these changes.

Dallman says that while there will always be discussions focused on laser engraving, the conversations are changing. “(Our) group has evolved in the things they talk about because customers are branching out depending on what is becoming popular in the personalization industry,” she says. “There’s a lot of talk about sublimation. Some people will also branch off into sandcarving. Right now, everybody’s talking about powder coating with the stainless steel tumblers.”

Of course, keeping up with current trends also means keeping up with how to price these products. One very helpful aspect of these groups is discussion centered around marketing and pricing, Hagel says. “Personalization businesses are complex from a pricing standpoint. Pricing has 20 different approaches to it. For newer people, it helps get their mindset to what approach is right for them,” he says, adding that because most of the users are local business owners, there are rarely competitors interacting. “You’re not giving away pricing. Most pricing questions are related to (pricing) approaches.” This sharing of expertise creates a community that is ripe for collaboration and criticism.

What do you think?

While these sites are inherently places to ask technical advice, they are also a means for users to receive critiques on their work and create a community and a collaboration of content by sharing other resources, such as artwork.

Simply requesting vector artwork in a forum or Facebook group can save a lot of time. “Within 24 hours, you can get two or three things you need to meet a deadline,” Hagel says, adding that these designs are also subject to critique. “Someone will put up artwork or layouts and ask for comments or they’ll put up pictures of products they’ve created and ask for feedback. It’s generally pretty honest, and unlike a lot of other internet forums, it’s respectful.” It’s this atmosphere that opens up opportunities for the industry to grow.

Are you in?

To manufacturers, administrators and users like Dallman, Hale and Hagel, the beauty of these forums is that they are what you make of them. Users can choose to take advantage of learning opportunities and be a part of a community, or simply choose t0 be spectators.

“Unfortunately, I see a lot of people owning businesses that don’t get involved in their industry at all,” Hagel says. “A lot of shops are made up of one or two people and there isn’t a whole lot of contact with people in your business. Forums give you that opportunity to learn a lot of different ways to approach things. It provides really everybody with access to industry information from around the world and someone to help quickly.”

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