The Well is an online community founded in 1985. It was one of the first online communities and is amazingly still thriving today. While still growing, the community has some members that have been participating for over 20 years. The discussions on The Well range from "the political to very personal."
Needless to say, the members of The Well are passionate about the community and rely on the discussion, connections, and content. Until recently, the online community was owned by the large online news site, Salon.com.
Earlier this month, members of The Well demonstrated how much their online community means to them.
As Salon.com's business evolved, they recognized that The Well no longer aligned with their business model. They had the option of winding the community down or finding new management.
In a demonstration of how important the online platform was to members, members of the online community banded together to raise capital and buy their online community from Salon.com to keep it running in the way that is most beneficial to the membership.
That story brings us to a question for your organization:
Are your customers or members getting so much from
your online customer community that they would rise up
and find a way to take over the community if there
was a possibility that their online community would
be taken away?
Your private online customer community is an extension of your product strategy. People do business with you for your full offering, which includes the community and support around your products and services.
It is every organization's goal to create a product that is so important to their customers that they would take matters into their own hands if the product were threatened. Here are 4 tips for creating an online community that your customers can't live without:
Design your customer community's content, discussions, and social connections around solving your customers' most urgent and pervasive problems. This is the foundation for building usefulness, adoption, and loyalty for your online community/product.
Criticism, strong opinions, and lively debate all provide value to your customers and your organization. Don't shut it down or whitewash it. Find ways to push the conversation forward and keep it constructive by asking probing questions and bringing people into the discussion that you know have additional insight.
The lesson here is that your company may own the online community platform, but it doesn't own the conversation. Your customers own the value that they get out of the content, conversations, and connections. Promoting that perspective rallies people inside and outside your organization to come together and support the community, culture, and collaboration.
Your online customer community cannot be a surface-level nod to customers. It cannot exist as a mild gesture. Online communities ask members to make an investment of their time, knowledge, and resources. They are living entities that need a significant number of customers, employees, and partners to thrive.
Don't exert corporate-overlord power over your customer community. Take a more flat, humble stance toward your business's customer community. Online communities for customers need a partnership to sustain and grow.
Ask yourself and your social business team, "Do you customers get so much value from your online customer community that they would join together to keep your online community going?"
It is ok that your customers, company, and partners all get different benefits from your online customer community. If the community is planned well, all parties will reap those benefits when the online community is functioning.
So, rather than taking an "us against them" approach, create a business culture among your teams and within your customer ecosystem that puts the community first. Follow the well-worn path of The Well to create an online community that your customers would fight for if you were to close it.