Creating Community the New-Fashioned Way

Putting branding and image control directly in the hands of customers may seem more frightening than letting a teenager take the wheel of your brand new Lexus hybrid, but according to a new study by the Patricia Seybold group, this is exactly the kind of surrender companies must make to develop successful online communities. The study, "Enabling Customer Communities," explains the value of creating Web-community platforms for companies, highlighting the importance of knowing the audience, catering to its needs, and letting it--at least superficially--run the show. "The interest in online communities is growing steadily for a lot of different kinds of organizations and applications," says Matthew Lees, contributing editor at the Patricia Seybold Group and author of the study. "Many communities aren't successful, so we see a lot of learning being done from the ones that make it and the ones that don't." One of the most common reasons online communities flop is that companies try to exercise too much control over these platforms. An overabundance of positive messages uncoupled with negative feedback can turn customers off, the study claims, as they will recognize the site as a public relations statement rather than an open community. As Lees says, "Having some dirty laundry [on the site] can help you in the long run." To develop a stronger relationship between company and customer--the strongest driver for developing an online community--customers need to feel that they can trust the information on the site. A balance of positive and negative output can strengthen this feeling of trust, the report argues. On the other end of the spectrum, Lees cites another common mistake: not lending the site enough investment and attention. "It needs some kind of nourishing," he says. "You can't just plug in software and expect it to be alive and vibrant in six months." The study states that a company must first understand its business objectives and then put ample resources into the platform through investing in technology and human support in order for a site to be successful. Measuring such statistics as common search terms, number of answered and unanswered posts, popularity of the forum, number of polls, and number of email notifications sent are all helpful in gauging activity and investigating gaps in the community so that these spaces may be filled. The study also describes useful tools to make an online platform more attractive to customers so that a community will develop and flourish. Enabling rankings of individuals by others in the community can create a motivation for members to not only return but to provide insightful and helpful feedback, as some companies award prizes and privileges to highly ranked members. Capabilities such as file sharing, polls, chat, surveys, and accessibility through mobile devices can be exciting ways of presenting company information, according to the study. The report argues that although these more advanced features can help build a site, it is most crucial to first provide the more basic features: search and security. Lees sees the future of online communities as driven by customers. He reports many companies are looking to create these platforms right now. However, those who are most successful and innovative will work on their platforms themselves, as well as letting their customers do some of the work for them. "We see the growth coming from codevelopment." Related articles: Grapevine Technology Through Grassroots Techniques
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