Having a private online community does not, by itself, breed successful customer or member engagement. Many associations and companies are finding that out the hard way.
An often overlooked success factor is how the organization uses and positions their private social network in their overall customer or membership management strategy. Here are three common approaches.
The checkbox approach stems from organizations hearing about social networking and thinking that they need a private social network to check off that box in their value proposition to customers or members.
Company website: check
Customer service phone number: check
Live customer or member events: check
Private social network: check
Many organizations that are replacing listservs with an online community fit this mold. Since listservs were important to member collaboration, but never central to an organization's member communication strategy, their new private online community platform remains on the fringes rather than becoming central to their customer management operation.
A large membership organization in Washington DC, of which I am a member, recently launched a checkbox private online community. They replaced their listservs with a basic private social network tool.
As a result, it is not utilized by a large number of members. However, this is ok. Keeping members engaged online is not part of this organization's core membership management plan. The organization's strategy includes so many other ways to keep members engaged including webinars, programs, live events, and email communication, that they don't need a member engagement system that can handle being centrally positioned.
It is ok for implement a checkbox private social network if they are not dependent on customer or member engagement to thrive.
It is ok for you online community to fit any of the three models above, IF you do it purposefully according to your overall customer or member engagement plan.
As in the example above, set the expectations of your customers and organization to align with your approach to private social networking. If you chose a checkbox private social network strategy, make sure you understand the member engagement and revenue implications. Organization runs into trouble when their expectations and approach are mismatched.
Not all private social networking software is created equal. This is done on purpose since organizations and strategies differ greatly across industries. Some tools target organizations that don't need to keep customers or members engaged in order to grow and retain customers. Other companies, associations, or nonprofits rely on customer or member engagement to generate revenue, event attendance, product feedback, grassroots support, legislative wins, and brand advocacy.
Having just said that any of the models are fine, the danger of implementing a checkbox private social network that hangs off the side of your website is that it takes much longer to see a return on your investment, if you see one at all.
We see this with the organizations that comes to Socious looking to replace their pirate social network that bought a few years ago. When companies or associations use the checkbox approach built on a basic private social network, they see much lower levels of engagement and according to the "chicken and the egg model of online community success" that only leads to decreased adoption.