Companies Need to Get Serious About Social Communities

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B2B organizations can gain competitive advantage from dedicated investments in customer-facing community web pages, finds Leader Networks, a digital strategy and research firm.

According to Vanessa DiMauro, CEO of Leader Networks, company-managed online forums have become the “lifeblood of...many firms’ strategic agendas” and, more often than not, are “the customer’s first point of entry in the buyers’ journey.”

In 2011, before such information was widely available, the research firm put together its Big List of B2B Online Customer Communities and in the five years since has examined the trends that have emerged since the list first went viral.

In 2016, 40 percent of the 71 communities on the original Big List are still “active and thriving,” says DiMauro. An “active and thriving community,” she holds, “is one that is visible, well used and valued by members, clearly supported by the sponsoring organization, and valued strategically.”

To judge if a digital destination is up to par, Leader Networks considers the degree to which user profiles have been completed; the ease with which prospective members can find these pages; the frequency with which managers interact and reach out to members; the rates of active participation; and the growth in community size.

Since 2011, the strongest performers have grown engagement and membership rates. They have also included discussions facilitated by professional community managers and regularly featured new content. These outfits tend to feature content submitted by members themselves rather than by their marketing departments. Members “share information with each other and offer ongoing peer-to-peer support,” DiMauro says.

“Communities that invest in regularly co-creating, enabling, or culling member-created content tend to have a more engaged membership base, are clearly more connected to their customers, and, quite frankly, are better listeners, which acts as table stakes for competitive advantage,” DiMauro says. “The firm that listens best and responds well often wins the race with better products and services that come faster to market with stronger market uptake than those who innovate in isolation.”

Indeed, groups that have been less successful have begun to place added focus on gathering more user-generated content, partly because pages can serve as live focus groups and yield insights for improvement. And considering the heavy price tag of most B2B social media measurement solutions, communities can assist with customer retention and satisfaction, which “are paramount to success,” DiMauro also notes.

In many cases, high-performing communities have also led to the creation of affiliated communities under the same company umbrella. Eleven percent of the names from the original Big List have spun off to include separate forums for different product lines, support needs, or customer personas, for instance.

The decision to create a federated community model or to have multiple stand-alone communities under the same brand is a strategic one, with no right or wrong approach, DiMauro says. “However, firms that do choose to create a federated community that overlays all communities frequently achieve greater reach, efficiencies, [and] scalability,” and lower costs. They also tend to strengthen their best practices universally, provided they create a community center of excellence to orchestrate internal operations for the various groups.

A recent trend is for companies to serve as corporate sponsors for independently run communities. The benefit is that cost and risk are lower. Since they don’t control the community, though, the returns also tend to be lower, DiMauro says.

Whatever the approach, companies considering investments in communities should get serious about them, because neglecting them can result in serious damage to brand reputation. Leader Networks has found that 35 percent of communities are supported and have the appropriate elements in place (i.e. content, information, and discussions), but are not being properly nurtured.

Additionally, 10 percent of the online communities listed are no longer being managed carefully or updated on a regular basis. This means that they feature unanswered questions, spam, old content, and even visible complaints from frustrated users.

To prevent abandonment, DiMauro recommends acting, and acting fast. “Either invest in reinvigorating your community or develop a strategic takedown plan,” she says. To prevent failure, companies should invest in one to three dedicated community facilitators, keep an active editorial calendar, and publish unique content on a regular basis. Most importantly, they should have an active, programmatic on-boarding and customer life cycle program that “keeps the fires lit,” DiMauro says. 

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