Why Companies Must Create Online Communities

Online Community ManagementAn online community is a wonderful way to engage your core customers, potential customers and raving fans. Companies today can make these important people feel more like a family member than a stranger with purchasing power. This is not the old days folks. In the past a company would internally develop a product or service and bring it to market. Of course most would utilize focus groups and market research, but a company could never truly get customer sentiment like they can today.

With the advent of Social Media through Twitter, YouTube and rating websites like Yelp a company must get involved if they want to defend or promote their corporate reputation and become capable at delivering a superior offering. An online community can not only welcome your customers into your arms like a mother’s embrace, but can also provide critical intelligence that directly impacts your annual revenue.

Transform your customer from a number into a person

In the past a customer would see your advertising on the television, through print media or on the radio airwaves. The next time they were at the store your ad jingle or flashy packaging design might trigger a motivation for them to select your product over your competitor’s when they make their purchase. That really was the extent of your company’s relationship with 95% of your customers. The other 5% were the randomly selected population that might have participated in your market research projects, and those fortunate souls probably felt appreciative that you actually cared about their opinion. How did the 95% feel? See ad, buy product and that is it. Not a very satisfying experience which is bad for you especially if you are desperately trying to increase market share in a very competitive space.

Create and build an online community for your customers. Provide them with a unique and intimate experience that will foster and boost their relationship with your company, products and services. Give them a virtual place to come together with other like-minded people (purchasers of your offerings) and make their stay worthwhile. Allow them to submit stories about how they use your products. Give them a chance to create a homemade video advertisement that you will feature on your YouTube channel. Oh you do not have a YouTube channel? I will post why you need one of those at a later date.

Maybe build out a casual game area that provides games that make sense or fit with your products. If you are a pest control company allow your customers to stomp around a yard or home terminating pests in a really cool way. Instead of a plain and drab uniform give the game avatar armor. Instead of a spray canister or traps give the player a pest plasma ray. Let them rack up points and awards destroying ants, termites and spiders. Awards you ask? Yes, not only create a nifty ranking system, but maybe after so many accomplished levels you provide an exclusive coupon or discount. You can easily track the ROI of that campaign and make those committed members feel special because they have access to something non-community members do not. The possibilities are limitless with an online community.

Protect and promote your brand reputation

Thirty years ago or even ten years ago who cared if you had some pissed off customers. What could they do? Tell some of their friends? Maybe write your company a complaint letter only viewed by your customer service or marketing team? Wow, those options “really” hurt your brand. It is a different game today. Now even a handful of the wrong customer can make decent waves diminishing your proud reputation that required millions of dollars to establish. Just think if one of your complaining customers has a Twitter following of 100,000, or has a blog that nets 1,000,000 visitors annually. Worse yet what if that handful are active on Yelp and post horrifying experiences with not only your product but the poor treatment they received at the hands of your customer service team. Now several million are exposed to the trashing of your product that you spent tons of money developing and bringing to market and people are going to think you really hate them because your CS team told them to pound sand. Those situations can spin out of control and grow if you are not actively combating these occurrences online.

For example, one of my previous tours of duty involved managing the operations of a global online consumer community. My predecessors did not have online community management experience. Their vision was limited to cutesy engagement projects and not a holistic view of a community from the ground up. In addition to managing the community I also handed the SEO of all the corporate websites. As an SEO I was closely monitoring our keyword ranking which included our brand name. We would always be in the first position for our brand name, but positions two through ten were littered with “Brand Name is a Scam!” “Beware Brand Name they are Frauds.” The community members that had a bad experience with our product and our customer service team were rightfully and some wrongfully lashing out and because we were not actively defending and promoting our brand online. Their content was dominating the search engine results pages. Our potential community members and our current community members were consuming this very damaging content. We started seeing references to these posts in our customer service complaints so the poison was seeping everywhere.

Being an adept SEO, I began writing a series of blog articles educating our membership and anyone else in the world that wanted to join a market research community how to identify a legitimate online survey company. The posts never directly countered the specific allegations of our haters, but they did undercut the teeth of the unfounded complaints. Many of the complaints were actually unfounded, but a handful were accurate. So I improved our internal processes and then published blog posts explaining the new procedures. After a month or so the top ten positions on the search engine results pages now comprised results of my blog posts bumping down all the “bad press.” We learned from our angered members and we corrected our mistakes where made and debunked the improper accusations.

Community members can become company and  product advocates

We now know some individuals can wield the power of the Internet for evil, but every Ying has a Yang. Chances are great some of your community members are very active on Social Media or other Community websites; ever heard of Facebook? These ardent supporters will share with their friends, family, fans and followers positive experiences they have with your company and your products or services. True, not everyone has amassed a large network, but some have. Further, your Mom might only have 18 friends on Facebook, but what if one of them was Guy Kawasaki? Here are some of Guy’s Social Media presence:

Guy Kawasaki Twitter
Guy Kawasaki Facebook Fan Page
Guy’s Blog

Your traditional marketing gurus will tell you that Word-of-Mouth is still very powerful for driving sales and Social Media is the new vehicle for disseminating Word-of-Mouth recommendations. Here are some numbers to digest as of April 27, 2011:

Coca-Cola Facebook Page has 25,816,334 Fans
Disneyland Facebook Page has 8,675,966 Fans
Xbox Facebook Page has 8,607,757 Fans
Abercrombie & Fitch Facebook Page has 4,338,955 Fans

There is a huge source of potential advocates. Now think if you had the same following on your own online community. When they are logged into your community you have their undivided attention. This is an opportunity to arm them with advocacy messaging and campaigns. They are there because they love your company or product, so empower them to share those feelings.

Gather product feedback from 95% instead of 5%

Remember how we discussed above that past market research practices only included a tiny fraction of your customer base? Well with Social Media listening devices and your very own online community you can listen to your entire customer base. No, I am not suggesting you incorporate all 153,467 feature requests generated from your customer base. What I am suggesting is to sift through the noise and find the top five or ten annoyances or missed opportunities and incorporate those ideas into your next product release. Assuming what your customer wants is asinine given that you can hear and collect what they want with the magic that is the Internet. Your online community is one valuable tool for collecting this critical information that will increase your market share and revenue.

Your marching orders – Hire experienced community managers

Whether you are about to dive into the online community arena or have already dipped your toes in the pool you must hire experienced community management. If you do not then you will repeat the same costly mistakes many other successful and failed communities have endured. Does the thought of burning several million dollars in recruitment fraud sound tantalizing? How about destroying your email reputation with major ISPs like Comcast, Yahoo, Gmail or Hotmail crippling your ability to communicate with your customer base? Or even better driving up recruitment and not having enough value to retain your membership. Nothing like properly spending recruitment dollars to have a flat community growth rate because for every one member you register there is one member closing their account.

Like many online marketing niches (SEO, Social Media, Usability, Web Design ect) not everyone can do it correctly. Some mistakes caused by inexperience will translate into millions of lost investment. Do you want to be the executive explaining those kinds of blunders to your inquisitive board? My former boss was alright with reporting an annual two million dollar bleed only because it was the fault of his predecessor. But what if that problem occurred on your watch? Instead of rolling with a two to three year experienced and inexpensive option to manage your online community you really need to pony up a competitive compensation because this person will save you millions increasing your community ROI.

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