Every day, we are inundated with a deluge of information online. It comes through email, websites, and social networks. It comes from friends, family, business thought-leaders, and professional peers. And just when we think we've gotten on top of all the information being thrown our way, there's even more information to digest.
When you consider everything that's out there at our disposal, it's a miracle we can manage to take away any useful information among the backlog of news, tips, and promotions.
Yet, even among this expanse of information, themes still manage to bubble up to the surface. Occasionally, these trends announce themselves with a clarity that is impossible to miss. Other times, they fly under the radar only to be picked up by a few forward-thinking and aware organizations that end up setting the example of all of us.
Underneath all the online clutter, the pendulum of social business and online communities is swinging back toward bringing together customers, partners, and other members of your company's ecosystem into sustainable online communities.
The four forces driving the evolution of community-based management of customer relationships are:
- A renewed emphasis on the customer experience
- A clear understanding that customers who are successful with your products and services often become repeat customers
- The growing value of making product, messaging, and other customer-facing decisions using real market data
- An understanding that customer advocates are a major growth catalyst
Lucky for those of you who are just now arriving at the helm of the online customer community revolution, there are several trailblazers we can learn from. These six smart people and companies believe that building community online is a crucial element of growth, retention, and customer satisfaction.
6 Companies Betting on Customer Engagement and Communities
IBM: Think Beyond Employee Collaboration
Starting off our list is a powerhouse company that understands social media "likes" only go so far in creating lasting community. For IBM, it isn't just about employee collaboration any longer"”instead, they're utilizing behavioral data made available by public and private social networks to help companies drive their decision making. Rather than focusing on internal productivity, they're emphasizing customer experience and community as the future of innovation.
Chris Brogan, Human Business Works: "Warm" Data Trumps "Big" Data
Brogan's business design company operates on the principle that your content is only as good as the community you build to engage with it. Rather than collecting "mountains" of data on customers, Brogan advocates for "warm" data. In a recent newsletter on 2014 prediction, Brogan explains that "warm" data is "data that can help the customer."
He predicts that marketers will increasingly need community in the coming years to get results. In the past, great content was enough to spread your ideas and help your brand stand out in a crowded market. However, we're moving to a period where companies are going to need engaged, "warm" customer, prospect, and partner communities to be receptive to those messages and advocate for the organization.
Salesforce.com: Its All About Your Customers
CEO Marc Benioff recently admitted that the message of internal collaboration and sales enterprise didn't resonate with businesses. Instead, he revealed that the world's top CRM software provider is now focused on the "Internet of Customers" with their customer-first mantra, "Become a Customer Company."
In talking about the "customer revolution," Benioff is quoted as saying, "There has never been a more important time to listen and interact with your customers. The first wave of computing was the mainframes, then we moved to the second wave where Microsoft and company moved in."
He goes on to project, "Now we're in the third, most exciting wave and it's not about computers, it's about the next 50 billion connected things. Everything is on the net and there is always a customer behind every action on the internet. It's an internet of customers and we have to reassess how we work with this."
Mark Curtis, CEO BRANDERATI: Turn Customers into Advocates
Curtis called 2014 "the year of advocacy" in a brief interview with Forbes.com. According to Curtis, public social network growth is slowing and companies need to look to other long-term and cost-effective solutions for connecting with customers. The solution? Brand advocates in niche communities.
In Curtis' own words, "The next major KPI jump and true business impact will come from very targeted niche communities "“ passionate (and sometimes highly influential) advocates "“ and from marketing with them, not to them."
Vala Afshar, CMO Extreme Networks: Communities Provide Mutual Value
As the co-author of The Pursuit of Social Business Excellence, Afshar advocates for social collaboration. When it comes to engaging customers and truly connecting, Afshar writes in the introduction to his book that "we must do so by way of a personalized and mutually beneficial approach; and in order to do this well, we must embrace social collaboration."
In 2014, Afshar predicted to Forbes.com that customer engagement would need to become even more meaningful and cited online communities as one such way to achieve that level of connection.
Scott Gerber, founder Young Entrepreneur Council: Maintain Meaningful Relationships
As someone who makes it his business to understand the changing face of entrepreneurship and millennials role in dictating marketing strategies, it's no surprise that Gerber is ahead of the game when it comes to recognizing the importance of private online communities to the future of customer satisfaction.
As he told Forbes, "With the noise created by social media, meaningful relationships and context are being drown out." In order to recapture those meaningful relationships, companies need to move away from public social communities and focus on "niche communities created around common interests."
The Future of Business & Online Communities Takeaway
With a list of this caliber (and even more here!), all of these smart, accomplished, and forward-thinking companies and people can't be wrong. If online communities are the future, then why wait for the future to get here?
Getting ahead of the game and giving your customers and members the value and experience they want before they even know they want it shows innovation and adaptability (and can give your company a competitive edge!).
The reasons for investing in building community are concrete and intuitive. As Mark Curtis points out to Forbes, the progression makes perfect sense: "2012 was the year of acquisition, large fan/follower numbers and fast-growing communities. 2013 was a year of engagement and content optimization."
Now, marketers are realizing that "likes" and blog hits aren't the meaningful answer for customer engagement"”at least not one with long term sustainability. Instead, the answer is building branded online customer communities where true engagement can have an actual impact on customer experience and strategic decisions.