How many of you have seen a swarm of emails that looks like this recently?
These are automated emails from LinkedIn groups that I chose to belong to telling me that they have automatically unsubscribed me from the group email digest that I selected since I had not visited the group online often enough.
While I can login and re-select my preferences, I have not found the time to update my dozens of memberships. Instead, I accept that my communication stream has been cut off by a robot at LinkedIn and I'll re-engage when (and if) I need to.
Now think about all of the businesses and membership organizations that have invested time and energy in driving their customer or members to LinkedIn groups as their primary online community for customers.
Companies that tout the size of their product's LinkedIn groups are seeing huge drops in awareness and participation. Associations that try to squeeze ongoing member engagement out of LinkedIn groups are unable to spread their messages and stay top-of-mind with members that use LinkedIn. User groups that support users of specific products using a combination of online discussions and email digests are left with mainly the online discussions, but no way to drive members back to the discussions on LinkedIn.
This is just one example of why both companies and customers strongly dislike customer communities that are built on public social networks like Facebook and LinkedIn. Then, why do they go down that path in the first place?
Why Companies, User Groups, and Nonprofit Membership Organizations Build Private Online Communities on Public Social Networks
To be blunt, there are three main things that organizations like about using public social networks to build their private communities:
- Price. The technology is free.
- Ease of Use. The limited features mean that staff needs little training.
- Initial Access to Members. Organizations often see an initial spike in membership of the online community after launch with a little promotion. Although, getting real business-level results and maintaining high levels of engagement over time prove much more difficult.
However, these benefits don't translate into long-term engagement and business-level results. As savvy social business professionals know, the cons of making Facebook, Google+, or LinkedIn your online customer community significantly outweigh the pros. While public social network play a role in customer engagement, that role is not as your central online customer or member community.
Problems that Customers and Members have with Customer Communities Created in Public Social Networks
Here is a list of some of the top things that people don't like about joining and participating in online customer or member communities that are built on public social networks.
Problem #1) You Don't Know Who's Watching
Not everyone is eager to share things on public social networks. One of the main reasons is that once you post an update or comment on a discussion, it is out there forever. You have limited control over who can see your activity now and in the future. Along with government regulators, journalists, and future employers, your activity is readily available to the host company, like Google or Facebook, which is interested in more than just community building.
Not knowing who is watching and reading everything that is posted can make most people leery of really sharing their concerns, questions, comments and insights.
Problem #2) Too Much Spam
A public forum is all a spammer needs to start ruining everyone's day. People who genuinely have an interest in interacting with your organization's community online do not want to be bombarded by posts that are full of spam, random links to other sites, or possible virus attacks.
The last thing you want is for members of your community to feel as though they can't trust anything they click on. When your community becomes overrun with spam messages and posts, fewer people will participate and soon you have nothing but a community for spammers to gather.
Problem #3) Overblown Self-Promotion
Like spam, groups in public social networks can often become overrun by those who want to do nothing but pitch themselves to the members of your community. They are constantly asking people to "check out my blog," or "try my new miracle detox plan."
With communities on public social networks, you have the choice to either give up control of who is a member or take on the task of approving every individual who wants to join the group and remove them when they leave their organization. Even when you put in the time to tightly manage your group's membership, approved members can cross the self-promotion line. Overt self-promotion quickly dilutes the value of your community.
Problem #4) Limited Functionality
With communities on public social networks, there are only so many things to do. You can leave a wall post, add comments and "like" what other people have said." People want to actively engage with the companies and membership organizations that rely on every day. The value that customers and members need from doing business with you demands more than just a few simple tasks.
A few popular customer engagement features that public social networks don't have include event/conference management, the ability to send targeted emails, secure file libraries, feature prioritization tools, or surveys.
Problem #5) The Organization Looks Like Everyone Else
A big part of an online community's success comes with developing high a sense of community among your members. When the online group looks, feels, and operates like the dozens of other groups that an individual is a member of, customers and members struggle to sense the shared history and embrace the personality of the group, the as well as find value in the exclusivity of the community.
Problem #6) The Rules Change
As in the LinkedIn example at the top of this article, when you put your customer community eggs in another company's basket, that company calls the shots. LinkedIn recently unsubscribed people from the emails they were getting from your group. What is to stop Facebook, Google, or LinkedIn from selling your community's data or activity to advertisers or killing your most effective member engagement feature?
Your organization and your target audience need stability. Lack of consistency is a fast way to lose community members. If rules and policies on public social network communities are always changing, then you will see fewer individuals taking part.
Problem #7) Often Nobody Owns, Leads, or Guides the Community
When people think of online community, they often think of everyone chipping in to provide direction, value, and the effort needed to keep it going. However, most often, people join groups on LinkedIn, Facebook, or Google+ to receive top-shelf content and keep their finger on the pulse of their industry.
Professional and business people join communities for support and help doing their jobs. People want to know that there is someone in charge, someone from your business, who is ready to listen, interact and engage with customers. Too many organizations create an online community and then sit back and watch to see what happens. It does not work that way.
In order for the community to respond, they need something to take action around. If your customers or members are not familiar with the culture of the community and don't get explicit encouragement to chime in, they will be a lot more hesitant to participate and eventually lose interest (or patience).
How Can You Use Public Social Networks and Private Online Communities Together?
Not creating private customer or member communities on public social networks does not mean that you can't build an online customer community at all. Nor does it mean that you can't utilize the community or groups features on Google+, LinkedIn, or Facebook.
The Role of Groups and Communities on Public Social Networks
Companies, user groups, and associations should still build groups in public social networks, but they should be used for marketing rather than managing customer relationships.
Creating an open community in LinkedIn, Facebook, or Google+ is an excellent way to positioning your organization as a leader in the industry and build awareness of your products and services by driving people back to your website or blog. You can even engage your customers in these networks with information about what is going on in your private online customer community and send them to the private community on your domain to get the fully information or participate.
Private Online Customer or Member Community Platforms
Increasingly, businesses and membership organizations are creating secure online communities within their own websites. Along with giving companies the flexibility and functionality they need to engage customers, this approach enables organizations to integrate their community with other systems, such as CRM software, to create a better experience for customers, as well as provide better insight to the company.
Implementing a strategy that employs anyone-can-join groups on public social networks alongside your exclusive customer community platform on your domain enables you to still be where your customers and prospects are on Facebook, LinkedIn, or Google+, while having much more control over your data, features, privacy, and community management strategy. You also don't need to worry about the rules of your customer community being changed by your social network software provider.
Online Customer Community Takeaway
Utilizing an online customer community is a great way to retain customers and build up a strong brand loyalty. They give your business opportunity to listen to what your customers are saying and show them that you hear them. You can be proactive and address problems before they become full-blown issues instead of only reacting when they do. You keep a close link to your customers, encouraging them to engage and interact in order to develop a stronger relationship.
While you can set up a community on Facebook or add a private group on LinkedIn to reach out to customers, there are several things that most people hate about customer communities on public social networks. These kinds of things can keep people from fully engaging in your customer community.
By utilizing a combination of online customer community software and open groups on public social networks, your organization can maintain the value and security that comes with a branded private online community, while taking advantage of a the reach of massive public social networks.