More than 15 years ago, my company and several others pioneered a novel approach to understanding consumers: engage with them through private, online communities. For the first time ever, brands had an ongoing dialogue with customers.
Over the years, online community research has matured from novelty to necessity – an essential tool for marketing professionals. And it has evolved into more than just a mechanism for listening and gathering feedback from customers. The use of communities has grown steadily as a result. According to the Market Research Society (MRS), spending on online research increased 15 percent from 2008 to 2012.
But simply having access to customers in communities is no longer enough. Not when all your competitors have similar platforms. The differentiator is how you use those platforms to make your customers a strategic asset – what you do with the insights and how you draw inspiration from the community to align priorities, create meaningful change and, ultimately, generate new value.
In our new research, the result of interviews with more than 100 client-side practitioners from a variety of industries, we examine four of the best practices brands can follow to create the most impact with online communities.
Don’t underestimate the amount of work that’s required
Too often, the work required to maintain a thriving community culture – one that yields a continuous stream of insights and opportunities for the business – is grossly underestimated. Inexperienced community managers are frequently the worst offenders; they find it difficult to estimate accurately how much time is required to make a community successful.
The risk of underestimating the necessary time is that the day-to-day work of tactical community management will prevent planning for future strategic initiatives like new product development. If all cylinders are firing on the here-and-now (as often occurs) the well of future projects runs dry, thereby reducing the community’s value and effectiveness.
To help guarantee your community will be successful before the project begins, thoroughly scope what can be handled in-house, what you’re comfortable outsourcing, and how you will collaborate with an external agency. Always over-estimate the time needed for planning and managing a community, and carve out dedicated time for strategic planning. In fact, 76% of participants felt that communities “became ineffective when they were under-resourced internally.”
Don’t just recruit “fans” for your community
When recruiting for community members, be mindful to identify the right participants — those that are capable and motivated to open up and share their lives and ideas to make a brand better. Finding and retaining these people shouldn’t be left to chance. “Fans” might be easy to recruit, but they may not be the most valuable when it comes to providing critical insights.
While communities are ultimately created to provide insights to clients, community managers must focus on building ongoing relationships with their members so that they stay engaged and active. To develop and maintain a vibrant community,it’s important to provide extrinsic motivators – like cash incentives, special perks, and discounts – that provide tangible rewards and rationalization for time investment. But don’t expect these rewards to keep people truly satisfied over time. In many cases, being recognized as an insider and influencer who can impact a brand – then see that impact in action – is motivating enough. It’s the job of dedicated community managers to provide intrinsic motivators for members to share ideas, while simultaneously creating a fun and rewarding environment.
Beware of community burnout: take care not to ask too much too often of community participants, as well as to preserve the delicate dynamic of the community group. This requires reasonable requests and regular, transparent communication and feedback. Because business priorities can shift over time, repeated reassessments of the community’s ability to provide valuable insights should be built into the strategic planning process upfront.
Measure the ROI
Managing communities is a big commitment. It requires a great deal of energy and focus from both staff and external resources, which is why demonstrating the value and ROI of the insights provided by customer communities is so critical.
Unfortunately, there exists no single, magic-bullet metric that satisfies these requirements for every community. Each organization is different and is attempting to solve specific challenges; therefore, each views and uses its community in its own way.
Always begin by asking: Why does the community exist in the first place? How can we link the work we do in the community back to our goals? The more you can map the community’s purpose to a business strategy or organizational mandate, the better. And don’t rely on cost-savings alone as the measure of value. Communities may be more cost-effective for gathering customer insights than traditional qualitative research; however, the value of these groups should never be limited to this one element. Other metrics to consider include savings as a result of the business notdoing something as a result of a recommendation by the community (loss prevention); the overall impact on stakeholders’ decisions based on a deeper understanding of customers’ needs; new revenue from product or service launches impacted by community work; and, customer “hero stories” shared at annual shareholder meetings or awards ceremonies.
Create a brand for your community
It’s easy to get sucked into the mindset that the community is simply some external entity just waiting to be activated and engaged with. This misses half the point of the community. Think of each community as a mini-brand – with its own identity, messaging, and imagery – that needs to be marketed across the business. Doing so can create alignment among internal stakeholders and business units, in turn demonstrating that the community is a worthwhile investment that yields fruitful returns.
Branding the community also creates a shared sense of purpose and engagement, and clearly demonstrates value to everyone involved.
Companies should see online communities not as a new way of conducting existing types of research, but as an incredibly powerful tool for getting closer to customers. Building trust and nurturing ongoing relationships takes careful planning, the right resources, and a goals-oriented approach. Communities are a catalyst for rethinking the role of customers in business – and creating a pathway to sustainable growth.