Why do online communities matter so much? One of the best ways to foster customer loyalty and to build deep relationships with customers is to host vibrant online communities. Even if 90 percent of your customers don’t actively participate in these online discussions or contribute to blogs or Wikis, they value the ability to see what others are saying. A vibrant customer community adds tangible value to your brand and your products.
Business customers and consumers tell us that they rely on their peers for information they trust. When customers research online, they often trust strangers more than they trust suppliers and brand owners when it comes to getting the “real skivvy” about something. (Caveat: Unscrupulous marketers have been known to sponsor “customer” reviews).
When customers want to find out which products will best meet their needs, they rely on customers’ ratings and reviews.
If they want to know how to solve a problem, they rely first on others who have encountered and solved the same issue.
If they want to get up to speed on a topic, understand a new discipline, or expand their knowledge, they look for knowledgeable subject matter experts, so they can eavesdrop on their conversations, get up to speed, and then feel confident asking a question.
If they have strong opinions about an issue or a policy, they want to express those opinions among peers who will listen and appreciate their input.
If customers or prospects have new capabilities they need in order to accomplish something, they are likely to look first among other end-users who have attempted something similar, to pick their brains about what works best and to compare notes about possible approaches that might work. Those “how would you do this?” or “has anyone attempted something like this?” conversations are often the catalyst for product or service innovation. You want those conversations to take place in connection with your brand. You want your most creative customers interacting online with your researchers and developers.
The bottom line: your organization can benefit from engaging in public and private dialogs with customers. To reap rewards, you can’t approach online communities in a casual manner. You’ll need dedicated staff, executive commitment, and tools that are easy-to-use for customers and for the paid staff and unpaid volunteers who have important roles to play in nurturing customer communities.
On January 10, 2008, Matthew Lees provides an up-to-date framework to help you evaluate how your online community capabilities stack up and to help you determine what additional functionality and resources you may need in 2008.
This online community framework addresses the concerns of the five distinct groups of people whose needs you should address:
1. YOUR CUSTOMERS. They participate because they have questions to ask and problems to solve, because they want to connect with others who have similar interests and concerns, because they want to make a contribution and be recognized for it, because they want to express their ideas and opinions, and because they identify with and have (or want to have) a special relationship with your company.
2. COMMUNITY MODERATORS. Moderators may be your employees, work for a third-party freelance contractor, or be volunteers who are members of the community themselves. They want to ensure that members have a positive experience in a comfortable environment.
3. COMMUNITY ADMINISTRATORS. Administrators have the most technical role and need to know the most about the way the platform works. They want to create and maintain an easy-to-use environment that functions well, and they want to support all stakeholders in their work.
4. SUBJECT MATTER-EXPERTS. These experts usually, but not always, work at your company. They are knowledgeable in areas important to your customers, and want to share that knowledge with the community.
5. BUSINESS SPONSORS. Business sponsors are the ones who set the business goals and provide the resources to make the community happen. They may be executives involved with marketing and market research, sales, product development, technical support, customer service, or something else. They want to know what’s on the minds of customers in general, and what they think about specific products, services, and processes for doing business with you. They want to reduce the demand on certain company resources, such as customer service and support centers, while increasing revenue from developing stronger long-term relationships and encouraging community members to act as spokespeople for the company’s products and services.
As always, we use these stakeholders’ critical scenarios to provide the framework against which we recommend that you assess your own current platforms as well as any proposed solutions you are considering. During the course of the coming year, we’ll provide our own objective product evaluations to help speed your decision process. If there are particular solutions (either commercial or open source) that you’d like us to evaluate, please let us know so that we can get to them sooner than later! And, if your team does an evaluation using our framework, we’d love to see what you came up with!