I was pretty sure that online community would have its day in the sun in 2008. At the time, I had been involved in marketing, launching and managing online communities since mid-2006 and it seemed like they were gaining critical traction in the corporate world. That was before the wheels fell of the economy in Q3 of that year and corporate marketing budgets got cut to the bone. While it's true that in the 400 days between Q3 2008 and the beginning of the next decade, lack of budget and a little creativity drove brands to focus on third party social networks like Facebook and Twitter, many are still struggling to figure out how derive value from these conversation hubs.
While a 2010 report performed by research company, ComBlu, showed that many corporate communities had not evolved over the last year, leaders in the space like Sears, BofA and SAP, will show other companies the way. To me, I've seen that there are really four crucial elements that companies need to make sure that community is a success:
- A well thought-out strategy. Who are the people a branded community is trying to attract (be careful of being exclusionary)? How do they plan to engage them? What value will they deliver and what is the company's value proposition?
- Great content. While consumer generated content has its place, brand contributed content that is educational and lifestyle oriented is a key catalyst in helping to drive community loyalty.
- Strong management. This can come in the form of moderation but in many cases, requires someone to lead the charge. This is someone that nurtures and tends to the community needs and ideally helps foster conversation.
- Integration with third party social networks, blogs and other relevant Web 2.0 properties.
While a well thought out strategy may seem like a no brainer to most marketers, many forget about the need for good content. Unfortunately, some marketers have been provided with the advice that "if you build it, they will come." Or worse yet, once you put up a community, your customers will start to self-organize and create enough content to sustain your community. While this may be true in one out of every one hundred communities, it's not the case in most branded online communities. To foster productive conversation, there is no substitute for great educational content like "how to organize your home office," or "setting up a wireless network."
The big question many marketers are facing today is, can they have their cake (a branded online community) and eat it too (tap into the critical mass of mega social network, Facebook). The simple answer is yes and it's because of a critical piece of functionality called Facebook Connect. The reason Facebook Connect will play an increasingly important role in the ways brands connect with their customers and other constituents on Facebook is because it allows members to authenticate on, that's right, communities, blogs and other third party sites using their Facebook credentials. The benefit for both sides is that Facebook Connect not only lowers the barrier to entry for sign up (little to no additional information needed) but more importantly, it permits users to drag content, activity and conversations back into their Facebook newsfeeds.
Better yet, Facebook Connect has already demonstrated its ability to increase traffic back to one's site dramatically (just Google "Huffington Post Facebook Connect" for some real life stats). More importantly, however, is the fact that Facebook Connect facilitates the natural sharing of branded and consumer generated content back into one's Facebook newsfeed. With north of 400 million members on Facebook, it doesn't take long to see the power of compounding when content gets shared in a viral nature - most importantly, coming from an individual versus from a brand. This doesn't preclude a need for a corporate presence on Facebook but rather will reinforce a brands "social awareness," assuming the fan page creates value.
I'll be the first one to admit that many companies have stumbled out of the gate in their efforts to build a successful branded online community. This is the year that all that changes as companies go back to basics. Just like it took companies awhile to figure out their online Web sites, so too will it take time to create a successful online community.
About the Author
As chief marketing officer of social media agency Powered, Aaron Strout (email@example.com) not only focuses on day-to-day marketing activities but also provides a social voice for the company by speaking, blogging, podcasting, and engaging in social networking activities. In addition to his knowledge of the interactive and new media landscape, Aaron has more than 15 years of experience in online marketing and advertising.
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For the rest of the June 2010 issue of CRM magazine — our second annual Social Media Issue, this year focused on communities — please click here.