I get far fewer funny looks than I used to when I give presentations on why customer communities are the future of customer management. It may be because the data is beginning to play this out.
According to research from the IDC Social Software Survey, released in early 2013, building online communities is the #1 social business focus for companies.
Image credit: IDC
In his write-up, IDC's Michael Fauscette, outlines the expansion from internal collaboration to communities where customers, employees, and partners/suppliers come together:
"In our original survey over 4 years ago, companies were very focused on using social for outbound marketing. That wasn't a surprise, at that time marketing was leading the use of social tools and there was not yet a clear understanding of the value of the conversation over the broadcast and on the value of community and networks.
In the next round of surveys the focus shifted to internal collaboration and building a knowledge sharing culture. This phase was important for broadening the scope of social and for drawing more of the employees into the activities. This in turn demonstrated to more groups inside the company how social could provide solid business benefit and opened up new processes to social activities.
Last year, as companies matured in the use of social tools, the focus shifted yet again to integrated activities like drawing customers and partners into the network, solving customer issues, getting customer and partner feedback, etc. Important because it started to show the business that the future is really networked and connected."
Whereas companies begin using social tools around internal knowledge€“sharing and culture, businesses are now turning the use of social communities toward their profit centers and customer-facing operations.
However, this evolution doesn't just apply to you. Your competitors are just as aware of the revenue potential and cost savings of online customer communities.
In competitive markets, there is a timing element that business leaders must weigh when prioritizing the development of their online customer community. The last thing you want is to be left in the dust by your competitors who are already creating community platforms of their own.
It is no secret that companies with an active online customer community have an advantage against businesses that don't. Your executives are not prioritizing your social business strategy in a market vacuum. Your competitors are also very aware that having a thriving customer community is a strong differentiator.
If a customer is comparing your products to that of another company, the factor that makes them choose one over the other could be the added value that comes from having an active community of customers, employees, and partners to support them.
Fighting for business with a competitor that touts a private customer community gives your prospective customers two kinds of signals that put your offering at a disadvantage €“ symbolic and practical.
During the sales cycle, the existence of an active online customer community symbolically tells your prospects that your company takes your relationship with customers seriously. It shows people that you invest in their success by providing a way to easily get support and effectively communicate with their fellow customers as well as your business.
Secondly, when competing against a competitor who markets their online customer community as part of their product offering, you face practical disadvantages. Customer communities tell prospects that they will get the support they need and always have a safety net of peers to help them overcome challenges at all hours of the day.
Online communities are by no means the only way to demonstrate your commitment to customers during their buying process, but when comparing two companies where one has a customer community and the other does not, your prospects will see clear differences in each company's focus and approach to customer relationships.
Customers only have a finite amount of time that they can commit to online communities each day. Their time is divided among personal communities on public social networks like Facebook, communities of interest to support their hobbies and other interests such as travel, and communities that help them with their professional lives.
You want to make sure that your online customer community is on the shortlist of the ones that your target audience does make time to visit as often as possible.
Without your company's online customer community in the mix, you are opening the door for your customers to find value in other professional communities and build relationships with other organizations, and even competitors.
When it comes to participating in online communities that provide them support and help them become more successful in their jobs, your customers will begin visiting other communities frequently and leading conversations in other discussion forums.
Building customer commitment is an important part of creating advocates in the market and increasing customer retention. The more commitment you show to your customers through on online community, the more committed they will become to your business and products.
Waiting to launch your online customer community often means that you'll be spending more of the community's first year trying to pry your customers away from the online communities that they have already spent time building affinity toward. In the worst case, you may find that your company is squeezed out of your own customers' busy lives and that it will be quite some time before your customers are ready to engage in your private online community.
In the late 1990's your company could get 80-90% open rates on your email marketing campaigns. Today, companies rejoice over a 15-20% open rate. As more people become accustomed to communicating via email, email marketing became a less effective differentiator and way to get people's attention.
Companies that showed their target audiences that they could deliver value via email saw measurable success and were able to translate those relationships into dollars, even as the customer communication landscape changed. Businesses that adopted email communication later met resistance from a market that was more hesitant to read new emails and had trouble getting noticed.
Community-based customer relationship management is the future of business. According to the IDC research mentioned above, 79% of businesses have already implemented an ESN, enterprise social network (mainly internal online communities). Of that number, 28% have more than one network set up.
As indicated at the beginning of this post, businesses are now turning their focus to online customer communities. That means if you are not already planning to set up a private social network for your own customers, your company may go from staying with the pack to falling behind over the course of a year.
Setting up your online community software is only the first step. Getting your business to change its culture and change behavior around a customer community is the part that takes the most time.
Starting to plan your business' own online customer community is vital to staying ahead of your market, your competitors, and your customers' expectations. You cannot wait to see if the data is wrong and customer communities are just a fad that will pass. Your customers are expecting the same interaction and engagement that they get with other businesses online. The clock is ticking.
More businesses are seeing the importance of maintaining an active online customer community. Customers have come to expect this level of interaction with all businesses, and those who aren't keeping up will soon be overlooked.
A customer community gives you an advantage over competitors. They see that you take an interest in customer success and stay engaged with customers, making your products and services more desirable over another others in the market.
In a world with an overabundance of information (a lot of it hype), customers have an easier time committing to a brand that encourages two-way conversations and networked interactions with them and the company's ecosystem of customers and partners. Giving them a place to go when they need questions answered or problems resolved quickly makes them more eager to stay loyal. In addition, a thriving online community keeps you ahead of the competition because you are staying on top of the latest trends and can gain continual feedback from your target customer.