This post was written by Tom Chambers, online community specialist and business development manager at Higher Logic.
As an online community manager, you are responsible for ensuring that the vendors and partners in your online customer or member community are providing meaningful answers, resources, and information within your community.
Vendors are not inherently evil and your members were not raised to dislike people who offer solutions to their industry. The quandary of allowing vendors and partners into your online customer or member community stems from not having a well-thought-out vendor program in place.
The underlying rule that must be interwoven into your community vendor strategy is:
Any benefit that a vendor receives must also be a benefit to your members.
If you follow this guideline, your vendor program will generate consistent revenue and, at the same time, provide an additional value to your customers or members.
The following tips offer ways to ensure that partner participation in your online community benefits both your vendors and your community members.
Tip #1) Place a Premium on Member Privacy
Allowing vendors to only view group-based member information keeps your membership from being picked off individually. Enabling vendors to be able to see aggregate group-based information, such as company profiles, versus the information of individual members provides a great value to the vendor and still keeps the individual member profile content private.
Tip #2) Focus Discussion Participation
Enable your vendors to only answer questions in forums or discussions, rather than start new threads. This helps populate your community with information directly from industry experts, while allowing your membership to control the discussion topics.
In your online community software settings, you can also hide many discussion forums from vendors. The ones vendors and partners can see will give them a tremendous opportunity to participate with your community members to provide value. Partner participation give your customers or members a wider perspective on answers to their questions.
Tip #3) Provide Opportunities to Produce Insightful Content
Set up a partner blog! Vendors will love this. Blogs in your private online community gives partners the ability to showcase their industry knowledge and expertise on regular basis without being invasive to your membership.
It can also be seen as an additional benefit to the vendor. Rather than building relationships with your customers or members by initially trying to get their attention to drive them to vendors' websites, vendors in your online community can bring their content to your members.
Though your organization, as the host of the online community, has complete control over what is posted, vendors can be a great source of useful and educational information for community members. Don't be afraid to tap into that content to help build your community.
Tip #4) Give Each Vendor a Resource Library
Give each vendor their own separate file library in your online community! However, members and customers don't want to be harassed by a salesperson for downloading a resource online.
The solution? Use your online community software platform to make member activity anonymous to your vendors. Vendors can still gain insight on what is important to the membership based on how many times a particular file was downloaded.
Tip #5) Add Value to Both Vendors and Members With Targeted Email
Many vendors are trying to buy lists of your members. Along with the customer list or membership roster, your organization's online community has a built-in email engine to deliver emails to your customers or members.
Allow vendors to send a certain number of emails to your community members each year. All vendor emails should be vetted by your organization and sent through your email communication process. This way, members can stay up to speed on the latest information and offers from vendors, and at the same time, you keep members' email addresses private.
Tip #6) Offer Educational Webinars from Vendors
Some vendors are really good at producing webinars with content that is not a 60 minute commercial. First, create a "how to" or "webinar rules of engagement" document for your vendors. Stress the importance of making webinars educational and helpful.
Also, stress that the recording will reside within the community for years to come, making the life of the information and exposure exponentially longer. Webinars that may only have 300 views initially end up being viewed 30,000 times by the end of the year!
Tip #7) Tier Vendor Membership
If you are just now implementing an online community strategy that will include access for vendors/partners, consider a tiered membership for your vendors (e.i. silver, gold, platinum, etc.).
Membership at the lowest tier will offer a sub-set of the opportunities listed in this article. As the vendors buy into higher tiers, they will have access to more ways to engage with and be helpful to your community members.
This is a great way to upsell access to more areas and tools when marketing to potential vendors. It may even help cover the cost of implementing an online community.
Tip #8) Generate Activity Through Games
To generate excitement around a new community, topic, or blog, try using your community software's gamification features to run a contest within your community.
Have your vendors submit answers to specific member-driven questions or have them create and post videos or presentations. Then, have your members vote on the best answer or most useful presentation. This will generate some great content, bring people back to your community, and make it fun for all parties involved!
Tip #9) Use Vendors to Promote Events
Customer and member communities don't just exist online. Live events are a big part of building community. Leverage your vendor network from your online community to promote live events.
Have your vendors develop communication or updates around the upcoming event. They can use their blogs, email systems, and social networks to get the word out using a combination of helpful information, such as previewing the event's hot topics, and promotional messages.
This approach helps your organization increase its reach, while elevating the status of your partners and their relationship with you in the eyes of their target audience.
Partner and Vendor Community Take Away
Rather than a group that you want on the outside looking in, your partner network and vendor community can be a tremendous asset to your customers or members. By planning your vendor program and implementing it correctly in your online community platform, your organization can increase engagement and revenue from partners, as well as provide valuable information and access to experts to your community members.