In 1998, high school senior Simon Wright launched Whirlpool as a non-commercialised forum for helping people choose an ISP.
Chatting alongside users (and kept in line by moderators) were key representatives from Australian service providers, hardware vendors and merchants, who used the forums as an unofficial support and communication channel.
In a pre-social media era, it was often an easier way to get fast answers out of an ISP than picking up your phone. (And this practice of unofficial support still exists – see the list of company reps here, and their code of conduct.)
Today Whirlpool is still mostly non-commercial except for Google AdSense banners, which appear only on pages that people visit directly from search engines. As at the time of writing, Whirlpool had close to 800,000 members, more than 12,000 of whom had visited in the past 24 hours.
No longer just about internet, it’s a broad tech forum with threads on everything from nbn to hardware and mobiles – and now finance.
The financial side of Whirlpool
Sitting in Whirlpool’s list of forums is the ‘Life’ category, which includes discussions around jobs, education, lifestyle, travel and – you guessed it, finance.
This section hosts a big archive of financial topics covering questions about specific providers’ products, as well as general queries and complaints about superannuation, insurance, investing, taxation, banking, home loans, currency and financial planning.
With so many people searching for accurate, practical information, it would seem the perfect place to drop in and provide (brand-approved) facts about your products and services – at the same time, getting your brand some subtle promotion. Or is it?
What you definitely can’t do on Whirlpool
There is no list of finance reps on Whirlpool like there is for tech. So financial brands don’t have the opportunity to use it as a service channel like an ISP might.
Founder Simon Wright confirms that for a financial brand, “Marketing of any form would be explicitly out of the question.”
Which is further explained in the FAQ. You are definitely not allowed to advertise a commercial venture, or use your threads or posts to promote your business, your URLs, phone numbers etc. However, you can use your quip (the 30-character signature under your user name) to indicate the name of a business you are affiliated with (if you dare); and you can also use the “Your web page” link on your user page to link to your business site.
Whirlpool does not take kindly to people going into forums using personal accounts to try and sneakily make their business look good and competitors look bad; they also do not tolerate viral marketers – people employed to promote a company and its products while pretending to be Joe or Joanne Public.
And as the website says: “Please note that Whirlpool users are a highly suspicious lot who can smell advertising a mile away, so if there is even a hint that your post is just poorly disguised advertising, be prepared to have your post removed and/or for the linked site to be torn to pieces from a review perspective.”
Please note that Whirlpool users are a highly suspicious lot who can smell advertising a mile away.
You also (obviously) can’t give advice
Whirlpool makes it very clear that the forums are not a place to seek (or give) professional advice. They are for discussion only; “posts that put the site or users at risk due to the unqualified nature of the advice” are likely to be removed. Not that any reputable finance organisation would, anyway.
And you can’t control user reviews
If you don’t like something a user has posted about your company, you can try to get a moderator to remove it. But there are no guarantees. That’s what financial advice business WCS Group found out when they tried to get negative posts removed, and sued Whirlpool for damages and costs. (They later withdrew the suit).
Whirlpool’s Wiki on the subject summarises the case and principles in detail.
What CAN you do, as a finance brand, in a Whirlpool forum?
The only time when a company representative can discuss a financial product is in direct response to member inquiry, Wright says.
Whirlpool rules stipulate that you are free to respond to any direct questions regarding the products and services you offer (but only if the user specifically mentions your company or unique product/service); and you can respond to someone who contacts you, or to someone who requests you contact them.
We note that these rules are aimed at tech/internet product and service providers, but the same principles apply to financial brands. Simon Wright emphasises that all brands need to refer to Whirlpool’s rep code of conduct.
What are the opportunities?
We couldn’t find any evidence of financial brands having responded in forums, but Wright says it’s likely they have. He cannot confirm whether moderators would have removed their responses.
In theory, a person who works for a finance business (either a traditional type or a fintech) should be able to provide information relevant to a thread, “as long as the rep is transparent about their employer and their presence is directly relevant to the discussion at hand,” Wright says.
If you are going to run the gauntlet of the forums, we suggest you’d need to pick something that is a genuine, straight-down-the-line customer service issue, something very mechanical. And be seen to be offering real help without any ulterior motives. If you could find the right staff member to handle the role, someone who understands the etiquette completely and is a smart forum user, you could own the space.
On that note, we think fintechs are probably going to do better than traditional brands in this environment. They don’t carry the same baggage as the established players and are seen as the cheeky upstarts who are more aligned to that audience.
Get acquainted with your customers
What you can definitely do is monitor the Whirlpool forums to understand what your audience thinks at any given time, what they like and don’t like, what they’re really struggling to understand and what information they need to make a decision. You could then respond through your own content and social programs and ideate around the issues identified.
Another area where a brand might have a presence is in Whirlpool’s wiki, called ‘Knowledge base’. It contains 4,600+ topics created by users, representatives of companies and moderators to provide basic information to inform discussion in the forums. Very few pages are finance related, but you can see these two as examples: the 28 Degrees Mastercard and the Citibank Plus Transaction Account.
Wright says that these wikis exist because these relatively obscure products are frequently advocated by members of our community, and the community took it upon itself to create these pages.
“We would take a dim view of wikis being created by reps unless they satisfied a specific need where the same questions are being repeatedly asked by our community,” he says. If you think the Whirlpool community is asking for a detailed explanation of one of your products, the usual wiki-writing rules would apply, as you’ll see in the Whirlpool Wiki FAQ.