4 Ways to Build Engagement in Your Online Customer Community

Most companies today know that to thrive in a competitive economy, they must be truly “customer-centric.” For many companies, this isn’t easy. One strategy that can help, though, is creating an online community that facilitates direct interaction between the company and its customers.

An online community provides a central location where customers can easily reach out directly to company representatives, connect with other customers with similar issues, and access support resources. Getting the information they need and establishing personal connections creates a sense of belonging and loyalty. All this customer activity also generates volumes of data that the company can mine for insights into what customers want and need to be more successful.

Based on this, online communities should be a natural for business-to-consumer (B2C) companies since they are leading the charge in customer engagement. However, a recent report from Leader Networks found that 41 percent of online communities surveyed are hosted by pure business-to-business (B2B) companies, while just 7 percent are hosted by pure B2C companies. Another 13 percent are hosted by companies with both B2B and B2C offerings. While not an exhaustive look at the industry at large, the report seems to suggests that B2C companies may want to start paying more attention to how their B2B brethren are deriving value from their communities.

We at Dynamic Communities are striving to demonstrate the value of online communities. The administrative organization behind professional software groups such as the User Group for Dynamics 365 & CRM (D365UG/CRMUG), the Dynamics GP User Group (GPUG), and more, Dynamic Communities was formed to ease the burden on the volunteer leaders of these Microsoft application-focused user groups, and our mission is to help each group grow.

Today, more than 108,000 members participate in our user groups. By focusing on spurring engagement and conversation within each community, we have increased overall discussion traffic by 84 percent since Q1 2013, and boosted organic site visits by a whopping 1,319 percent since October 2014. This increasing participation correlates with higher levels of satisfaction with each user group’s core applications.

With this in mind, here are four online community best practices that can help any organization, whether B2B or B2C, increase member participation and maximize engagement.

1. Open forum discussions and daily digests to spur participation.

Make your open forum as easily accessible and as active as possible to ensure a constant flow of new discussions, questions, tips, etc. At Dynamic Communities, everyone who joins a group is automatically subscribed to the forum. We make it very easy to participate—members just need to log in to start posting questions and comments. A daily digest emailed to members is another way to encourage participation. It enables members to stay engaged without having to visit the site every day. Our platform even allows members to respond to discussion topics right from their email inbox.

The digest can also directly benefit the hosting organization. For example, a digest once alerted a staff member that some misinformation was starting to spread across one of our communities. This heads-up allowed us to take immediate corrective action and issue a clarifying blog post before any real damage was done. Without the digest, it would have taken much longer for a site administrator to detect the problem.

2. Make subgroups available to encourage more personal engagement.

Offer separate subgroups or chapters to foster deeper and more personal engagement among like-minded members. For example, a SaaS CRM provider may have different subgroups for end users, administrators, and executives. Subgroups are also a way for a company or association to give some operational autonomy to the subgroup. At Dynamic Communities, local chapter leaders can set up their own regional meet-ups to create a much deeper level of engagement among members that have a lot in common.

3. Set up a library of easily accessible resources.

Provide easy access to documentation, FAQs, webinars, and other resources. This is one of the best ways to increase customer satisfaction while reducing support costs. At Dynamic Communities, for example, our user groups host over 100 webinars each year, and we make every webinar recording available to the paid members of our sites. Today, the hundreds of hours of content on how to solve problems and achieve goals enable our members to find the answers they need when they need it. And our members much prefer finding answers with just a few mouse clicks to setting up a support ticket.

4. Establish automation rules for more engagement, and less management.

Automate routine communications with members. Automation rules enable increased interaction with members without the need to add staff. For example, Dynamic Communities has automated a welcome email for new members, a thank-you email for a member’s first post, a “We Miss You” email after 90 days of silence, and more. These emails provide positive reinforcement and help keep community members engaged—our “We Miss You” campaign has a 26 percent conversion rate for bringing members back to the community. These campaigns also cost nothing to run!

In our fast-paced world of high efficiency, constant mobility, and just-in-time everything, online communities are using the latest technology to create a throwback environment of high-touch personal interaction. Customers can get the answers they need while enjoying communication with like-minded individuals. Meanwhile, companies can constantly take the pulse of members to understand how to support greater customer success. If you aren’t creating an online community, it’s time to consider doing so.

Michelle Lowry is the director of community for Dynamic Communities, where she manages vibrant online user group communities that help attract new members and drive member engagement and renewals.

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