Recognizing there’s more to online community support than low-cost customer service, progressive companies are redoubling their efforts in communities.
“Companies are much more interested in peer-to-peer engagement than ever before,” observes Robert Wollan, senior managing director of advanced customer strategy at Accenture Strategy.
Brent Leary, a founding partner at CRM Essentials, agrees. “The first push into online communities was around turning customers into first-level support agents, enabling organizations to lower costs while scaling their abilities to support more customers,” he says.
Communities today are being cultivated more to provide better experiences for customers and to deepen relationships with them, he says. “In fact, modern business models are being created with customer-centric themes at their core, and community is one of them,” Leary states.
Of the 71.2 percent of companies today that use social media to address customer service questions or issues, 24.9 percent of them use online communities, according to a recent study by Leader Networks, a research and social business consultancy.
While still a relatively new concept, some companies have been offering online communities for a number of years, and for most of them, that kind of longevity has led to high membership numbers.
Harley Davidson’s Harley Owners Group (HOG) counts more than 1 million active members worldwide. Figment, an online writing community owned by Random House, has more than 300,000 active members. And Sephora’s Beauty Talk, a branded online community for users to share beauty secrets, collects more than 1 million monthly page views. Other companies with very active online communities include Starbucks, Sony PlayStation, H&R Block, Lego, and T-Mobile.
To follow in their footsteps, you’ll need to secure a social media platform, either from one of the long-standing vendors, such as Jive Software, Lithium Technologies, or GetSatsifaction (acquired by Sprinklr), or from one of the dozens of newer vendors—such as Liferay, Hoop.la, or NextBee. Then, you’ll want to make your community vibrant and valuable to deepen customer relationships. Here are some tips to help you do that.
1. SET REASONABLE EXPECTATIONS
For some popular brands, success can come fairly quickly, but most online communities take longer to develop, experts point out. “Communities and people are dynamic in nature, and it is important for companies to understand that there are few overnight successes,” Vanessa DiMauro, CEO of Leader Networks, says. “While most communities measure success to some degree by their membership growth and vibrancy, there is no magic bullet to ensuring that they grow quickly.”
Communities, she adds, “take time to evolve and for trusting relationships to develop. Things like response time to answer a call for help, openness and transparency when issues are raised by customers, and access to experts all fuel trust within online communities.”
A safe gauge is what DiMauro calls the six-month doubling factor. “You can predict the growth of the community by the previous six-month trajectory,” she explains. “If the community goes from zero members to 1,000 members in six months, it is likely to grow by 2,000 members over the subsequent six-month period.”
Social communities initially plateau after that six-month hurdle, when they start to gain critical mass, and then again at the two-year mark, when they’ve matured and experts really start to emerge and contribute heavily.
2. UNDERSTAND SUCCESS IS RELATIVE
As with most business initiatives, success is not guaranteed. Not all online social communities will see enough activity to keep them going.
Part of the problem is that often companies measure community success by membership numbers alone, which can be deceiving. Even if people join their social communities, companies can’t be assured that they will become active members. In fact, Gartner reports that about 70 percent of the people who join online communities fail to actually get involved in conversations.
Just because some online communities fail, however, doesn’t mean yours will. No two online communities have the same combination of platform, audience, and value proposition. The real driver of any community’s success is the company, and the time, content, and strategy it invests in the community.
3. DEFINE YOUR GROUP
For companies looking to build an online presence with social communities, therefore, it’s vitally important to distinguish an audience from a community. There’s a big difference between the two: An audience is one-way, not interactive; members passively watch or read, but don’t really participate or share with others. A community, on the other hand, is extremely interactive, extremely social, and full of multifaceted conversations with a lot of back-and-forth exchanges.