There's a Catch-22 in deciding whether or not to invest in trying to nurture one or more online customer communities. The biggest issue in my mind is not, "will customers say bad things about us?" The answer to that question is, "Of course, some customers will be critical, but other customers will be complimentary. It's better to have at least some control over the conversation by hosting it, than it is to be at the mercy of the discussions customers are having elsewhere on the Internet."
The more important question, to my mind, is "will the community take hold?" Why would your customers or prospects want to converse with one another in and around your products or services? The answer is that they really don't want to talk about you or your products. They want to talk about themselves: What they are trying to do; what they care about; and, also many of them actually enjoy helping others who share similar jobs, interests and passions, it's kind of a quid pro quo. "I'll help/encourage you. You or someone else will help/encourage me."
What Kinds of Online Communities Are There?
There are many different kinds of online customer communities:
- Customer Support communities are typically the best place to start for any company that has technical products or for one that provides services to help people get things done.
- Developer communities are critical for any software or systems organization that wants to attract and support an ecosystem of third parties to build applications for their platforms. Whether people are developing and publishing iPhone applications, Android applications, applications that work with Salesforce.com, or virtual instruments that work with National Instruments' LabView. The "developers" of these "applications" may not be programmers. They may be super-users, kids, scientists, engineers, or others who are willing to invest the time and effort to learn how to develop and disseminate applications for fun and/or profit.
- Professional Peer communities are important
for many businesses and not-for profits. Whether your
customers are teachers, police officers, doctors, lawyers,
accountants, power plant managers, or customer experience
executives, not-for-profit directors, or CFOs of mid-size
private companies, they value the answers, resources, and support
that only someone else in their particular field or job can offer.
- Affinity/Loyalty communities. People have
passions. They may be passionate about a kind of music,
passionate about a TV series, passionate about the latest
cars, passionate about ice cream, passionate about parenting,
passionate about investing, passionate about travel, or passionate
about a brand (LEGO, Apple, Muji). If your organization can tap
into that passion and nurture a community around that
passion, you can profit from fanning the flames of that
passion and make it easy for fans to recruit more fans.
- Virtual World/Gaming communities. Consumers
who participate in online, interactive gaming experiences
usually expect to be able to interact with other gamers both
during the game experience and in and around the gaming
experience. Designing community support for online gaming
communities is particularly challenging when your customers are kids!
You usually have to limit their online interactions to
allowing them to select from a set of canned dialogs and to
ensure their identity is carefully hidden. For adult gamers,
the opposite is true—those environments can become pretty
rough and tumble.
- Insight/Innovation communities. Many organizations invite customers and/or subject matter experts to participate in brainstorming and voting on/prioritizing new product ideas using idea generation community platforms. These are usually open to all. But other companies prefer to host private, by-invitation-only communities for select groups of "lead customers" – customers in a particular target market segment who tend to push the envelope in their use of products and services. These public or private innovation communities are often great sources of new product and service ideas. These customers also serve as consultants as you’re designing new products and services to provide early feedback and tips that will make adoption faster.
What Kinds of Online Communities Will Your Customers Participate In?
Which type of online customer community is going to be most welcomed and frequented by your customers? Or, if you already have at least one of these kinds of communities, how do you know if it makes sense to invest in more?
To answer those questions for yourself, start by thinking about your target customers and about the things they need to do the most. Watch them online and notice where they go:
- Do they flock to independent user groups for support because you don't have an online support community or because they don't trust the information they get from yours?
- Do they search your site as well as the Internet for tips and tricks about how to use your products? Do you find them commenting about issues they're having with your company or your products on Twitter or Facebook or in other online venues?
- Do they respond to blog posts from your subject matter experts? Do they mention you in their own blogs?
- Do they seem eager to strut their stuff by sharing what they've done using your products—their own applications, pictures of how they’re using things, their ideas for improvement?
- Do they frequently email insightful or thought-provoking questions?
- Are they already emailing in suggestions for new or improved solutions?
- Do they already engage with one another via SMS, chat, email, Twitter, Facebook, or otherwise about your brand or your products?
- Do they find other aficionados and form independent discussion groups on Google Groups or Yahoo! groups?
If you can find examples of one or more of these behaviors, then the chances are good that you have the seeds you can sow to launch an online community.
Whether or not, you find evidence of your target customers "communing" with one another in cyberspace, you should also give some thought to this question: What complex or difficult challenges do your customers face? How could you make it easy for them to share tips and tricks and to reach out to and/or learn from one another? You have a lot of expertise in your company's field. Your customers have a lot of experience and specific challenges in the ways that they use, or try to use, your products and services. They care about things in ways that are different or surprising than what you may think. Wouldn’t it make sense to help them enjoy one another and benefit by eavesdropping and interacting with them in those rich conversations?
How Will Your Organization Benefit from Customer Communities?
Each of these types of online communities has different benefits both for customers and for members of your firm. To gain some perspective on what's in it for both you and your customers, I recommend Matthew Lees's seminal article Measuring the Success of Online Communities.
How to Be Successful with Customer Communities?
There’s a lot of hard work, thought, and investment involved in being successful. You’ll find some useful tips in the articles featured on our Customers Communities' page.
What Community Platform Should You Use?
You can roll your own online community software and tools. You can make use of public social media tools for blogging, posting on Facebook, tweeting, etc. But those who are serious about building and nurturing robust customer communities tend to invest in customizing online community tools to meet their customers' needs. Then, they integrate public social media tools into those online community platforms. There are hundreds of platforms from which to choose. Matthew Lees follows this space closely. Twice a year he takes a look at the most popular community platforms being used to support online customer communities. He provides an overview of the top 12 companies in this space, describes their strategies and their offerings, and gives you a good sense of the kinds of functionality these platforms provide. Enjoy!
Online Community Platform Company and Product Update – 1H 2010
A Solid Period of Stability and Hiring
By Matthew D. Lees, Senior Contributing Editor, Patricia Seybold Group, September 2, 2010