For the past few years, industry consultants and analysts have promoted the promise of peer-to-peer social networks as part of an overall customer interaction strategy. They’ve argued convincingly that organizations and customers alike could benefit from the wisdom of the crowds in online communities. Organizations can use community platforms to listen to and interact with their customers and, in turn, build armies of advocates and supporters. The benefit to customers is pre- and post-sales support from their peers. According to the much-promoted 2006 Edelman Trust Barometer, people tend to trust someone like them, so product recommendations coming from peers, rather than vendors, should hold more weight.
But trust in peers has been slipping since 2006. According to the 2011 Edelman Trust Barometer, U.S. trust in peers has fallen considerably, from 68 percent in 2006 to 43 percent this year. That begs the question: Where are customers putting their trust? According to the 2011 study, in academics and experts (70 percent) and technical experts within the company (64 percent). What accounts for this shift? The majority of those polled could have been academics and experts clandestinely looking for more recognition. Uninformed people seeking information online are indeed finding people like them—other uninformed people. Or, more people are living by the Groucho Marx adage, “I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept people like me as a member.”
Seriously, though, to a get a consensus view of informed people, you either have to ask each person his thoughts or read a slew of posts from informed customers. Academics and subject matter experts not only have a deep understanding of the subject but they also can provide insight into the behaviors of those customers who are knowledgeable about the subject. This saves customers the arduous work of reading multiple and conflicting customer reviews.
Now that trust in “people like me” has been steadily on the decline, does it signify the death knell for community platforms? I think not. That’s like suggesting to someone who has a bad telephone interaction with a customer service rep never to use the phone again. The community platform is an interaction channel that is still growing in popularity. The information on community platforms is extremely valuable to those who trust others like them and can be made more valuable by including more academics and subject-matter experts.
But measuring the success of community platforms has been challenging, as their influence can be so far reaching and elusive. Often, success stories have been anecdotal. For example, as I was writing this column, my wife told me that Osama bin Laden was killed. Shocked, I asked where she read this information. Her response? Her favorite online community: www.televisionwithoutpity.com, a site featuring snark about Bravo television shows, such as The Real Housewives. Quickly, I turned on the TV to find CNN breaking the news. I was particularly delighted to see Wolf Blitzer interviewing David Gergen, the keynote speaker at our upcoming CRM Evolution conference (August 8–10) in New York City.
Our challenge for this month’s issue, though, was to prove the worth of online communities through hard facts. Our cover story, “Peer Power,” by News Editor Leonard Klie, does this by providing several convincing case studies from small to large organizations that have benefited from peer-to-peer community platforms. Some of the results are quite impressive, and you’ll likely find after reading this story that a community platform can still be a viable piece of your overall customer interaction strategy.
Editorial Director David Myron can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.