Community Managers Must Speak the Language of Business

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While it’s almost a given that companies can benefit from online community pages where customers can discuss their products and services, it has been harder for the managers running those pages to communicate their advantages to the executives responsible for their funding, according to Leader Networks, a digital research and strategy firm. 

Although 92 percent of the more than 270 marketing and community professionals surveyed believe their online communities have an impact on their businesses, 35 percent lack the metrics to help them report that success. Additionally, 24 percent of respondents didn’t know whether their communities generated revenue, and though 45 percent said they were certain the pages reduced costs for their companies, they weren’t sure how to measure those savings. 

However, “for communities to be treated with the gravitas that they deserve” and live up to their expectations, managers “need to start stepping up to the plate and speaking the language of business,” says Vanessa DiMauro, CEO of Leader Networks. 

That’s because communities are no longer the “shiny new object” and so are no longer being funded in “good faith,” according to DiMauro. “Communities are now mainstream, many organizations have them, and they are requiring more staff, more funding, and having a bigger impact on the organization,” she says. “Because [communities managers are] asking for something big and financially meaningful, they’re being held to the same accountability standards as any other innovation initiative.” 

To simplify the process of proving value, Leader Networks created the Online Community Impact Framework, composed of a set of metrics for companies to use. These include the following: 

• community vibrancy—tracking the overall health and utility of the community;

• content consumption—indicating community content relevancy and reach;

• customer support impact—marking the value of the community as a support channel;

• customer retention/satisfaction—noting the correlation between membership and customer retention;

• marketing and sales—tracking the community’s impact on these departments’ objectives; and

• business integration—recording the impact of the community on core operations. 

Naturally, not all of these will be relevant to every company, DiMauro says. To figure out which metrics matter, community managers must figure out what is most important to their organizations. DiMauro recommends spending time with key executives in other departments—whether it’s sales, research and development, or marketing—and looking at the corporate strategy for the year and the annual or quarterly goals. 

As a rule of thumb, DiMauro suggests choosing two or three metrics to prioritize. If one of the organization’s top goals is to reduce support costs or increase access to support, it should select the customer support impact metrics. But if one of the primary goals of the organization is to reach and engage with new sets of buyers or to launch a new product or service that has yet to achieve market awareness, then it should focus on market and sales metrics, she says. 

When companies develop their metrics, DiMauro says, “they need to really look at them critically and ask, ‘Will anyone at the senior level care about this number?’ And if the answer is no, don’t circulate it.” 

DiMauro singles out Kronos, a provider of workforce and human capital management solutions, as having had great success using this approach. Its online community, which is less than a year old and run by Leo Daley, is thriving partly because “Kronos has a really powerful way of measuring [its] success, and they’ve really done a fantastic job of homing in on that which matters to the business,” while filtering out the noise, she says. 

DiMauro also commends ­Hitachi Data Systems’ community, run by Michelle Groff Burling, for its “world-class” dashboard. “What makes ­Michelle’s approach so powerful is that she evolves the metrics frequently, at least once or twice a year, based on the business needs.” 

To get started, DiMauro says companies need to “look at the corporate strategy for the year, meet with key executives or leaders to find out one or two things that keep them up at night, that they need to move the dial on in their line of business, and then identify, if possible, the ways that communities help that leader succeed.” Additionally, if that leads to “a very small number of meaningful metrics that can help that leader advance in their goals, as aligned with the corporate strategy, then that is a brilliant way to succeed,” she concludes.

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