I have been getting a lot of positive feedback about our recent post, 10 Things About Building an Online Community That May Surprise You. I have also been getting some questions. One of most important questions has to do with centrally positioning your online customer or member community in your customer communication strategy so that your target audience has to use the community to get valuable information from your organization. Some organizations may even see running their customer communication through their online community as potentially violating their audience's communication preferences.
It is Not Necessary to Give Away the Farm
The easy answer is to open up the community on public social network and your public website so that your audience can access the information the way that they want to access it. However, this is the wrong approach for most organizations. We have to dig a little deeper and your social strategy has to be a bit more nuanced that this.
A private online customer or member community is not an extension of your social media strategy; it is an extension of your product strategy. For businesses, it is part of the way that your offering helps your customers get the most out of your products, programs, and services. For associations, it is central to the value your members derive from membership in your organization. It is part of why your customers or members will continue doing business with you.
Giving away your "product" to the public does not lend itself toward growth and customer retention. So, how can you create a successful online community by sending customer communication through your online community without going against how your audience wants to be served?
A Social Business Model That Fits Your Customers' Communication Preferences
The first concept to understand is that funneling your customer communication through your online community does not mean that you need to force you customers to change their communication style or preferences in order to get value from your private online community. It also does not mean that you are communicating using only one online channel.
To make your online community a success while respecting the communication preferences of your members or customers, separate the value that you online community provides your customers from the way that they access that information and the way that your target audience receives, consumes, and shares information on a larger scale.
To promote and build awareness of the exclusive value of your online community, you should still use public social media and email marketing to communicate with members or customers, but rather than driving them back to your public website (as you would with an inbound lead generation strategy), you will drive customer traffic back to your online community. Also, increase engagement by allowing your audiences to access your online community through the channels that fit them - online, through email listserv discussions and notifications, and on their mobile devices.
Most enterprise-level online community platforms include both the breadth of engagement functionality and flexibility to engage your customers the way that they want to be engaged. This concept is seen in action through the recent research concluding that associations using online community software keep 35% more members engaged than organizations using other software packages. The primary reason for the higher engagement levels is the organization's ability to develop a social strategy where they can provide an online community as an exclusive benefit to members and customers that aligns with the way that each organization's target audience wants access the community and to stay up-to-date with the organization.
Member and Customer Engagement Takeway
Beware of one-size-fits-all private social networking platforms. Every organization's customer or member makeup is different. Be sure to understand your specific customers as you plan your private online community. Keep in mind that you can provide the tangible benefits of a private social network to your customers or members without forcing them to bend over backward to remain engaged, a practice that almost always results in a failed online community.
Experiment with the model above to separate the value of your online community from the way that you customers access it and the way that you promote it to align your customer communication strategy with your audience's online and offline communication preferences. However, be careful not to give aware your "product."