An increasing number of companies and membership organizations are implementing online community strategies to maintain better relationships with their customers or members. Online customer communities and member communities deliver tangible benefits to organizations"”ranging from improving customer retention and satisfaction to lowering support costs and recruiting more customer advocates.
Despite this growing popularity, many organizations are still struggling to get from the "why" to the "what" of building a successful community strategy. Often, people hear about active online customer or member communities in their industry or they see competitors launching online community strategies. However, they have trouble getting from "we should look into doing this" to "here is how our organization can leverage these type of strategies."
Let's look at some of the common reasons that organizations find it challenging to conceptualize leveraging an online customer, member, or partner community in a way that works toward achieving concrete business goals.
Some of these challenges tie to the relatively recent emergence of private online community platforms, but other budding business technologies haven't faced some of the same struggles.
Take email marketing software, for example. While there were certainly shaky transitions when it came to choosing to use email over other forms of communication, the connection of how to use it in everyday business was an easy one to make.
There are things that make developing your online community strategy more challenging than, say, figuring out how to optimize your new email marketing plan.
For starters, private online communities are very flexible. As a platform, you can use it to meet a variety of business goals. While that has significant advantages, it can get overwhelming quickly.
For instance, let's go back to the comparison example of email software. When email first came out, it was a clear cut marketing tool. With your customer or member community, the purpose isn't as straightforward because there isn't just one strategy that maps to your community platform. Instead, online community strategies can deliver results in the areas of customer retention, partner relationships, reduced support costs, improved differentiators in the marketing, and so on.
Secondly, it takes time to see the results. In my experience, you won't find a lot of senior managers who have implemented community strategy, so the nuance of developing a strategy to run a private online community might not even occur to your most business-minded executives.
Since the advantages of your community take time to come to fruition, many leaders have moved on to different roles or companies before the real business results are in.
To these points, developing and maintaining a strategy becomes even more important to keeping your goals on track.
So, what's the next step for your company after deciding to look into social community technology? When you're starting from a blank slate, how can you determine if and how your organization can leverage your communities?
This might seem like a no-brainer, but identifying the groups that are important to your organization is the first step to defining your strategy. This could be customers, partners, members, employees, the public, or a specific segment of any of these groups. Ask yourself:
You might surprise yourself by how many communities there are in your organization's ecosystem. For instance, imagine a hospital. Their list of communities might include patients, trustees, healthcare providers, employees, hospital management staff, donors, and satellite clinics.
Now that you know the various individual communities where better relationships would benefit your organization, you next need to determine the problems that are important to each group. Ask yourself:
While you might have an idea of the answer based on your experience with your target audience, it is important to confirm your assumptions, so that you don't invest time and money going down the wrong path.
Uncover and confirm these problems by conducting thorough interviews and consulting survey results and research data. Use this concrete information to develop a complex understanding of the needs of your communities. This step is critical to making your online community useful in the daily lives of your target audiences.
Once you know the segments of your ecosystem that your online community will serve, as well as their most urgent and pervasive problems, it's time to make a plan that offers solutions. Ask yourself:
Whether it's offering training, networking, peer-to-peer support, access to extensive resources and content, or opportunities for self-promotion, this is the stage where you map the solution to the problem. Use the things that online community platforms do best to help one or multiple of your target groups overcome their most important challenges.
For instance, bringing partners in your private online community in a limited capacity could meet both your partners' need for exposure and your community members' need to get helpful advice from people in your industry.
After the first three steps, it's time to filter through your results and optimize your strategy. While your private online community might serve many purposes, you don't want it to be overworked unnecessarily. Filter for"¦
Simplicity. Don't overreach too much to make your strategy fit. If the solution is too complicated, it's less likely to work. Simplicity will make your strategy more clear when you communicate its benefits.
Phases. To minimize the overwhelming factor, try to break your strategy down into phases with smaller goals you can more easily track along the way. For instance, perhaps you should start serving one specific segment of a community and build from there.
Clarity. Your community strategy needs to be easily understood by all parties involved in the planning process, so check to see if certain aspects can be better articulated.
Balance. The benefits of your private online customer or member community need to be as balanced as possible across all sides involved. For instance, if your online community benefits your organization more than customer or members, your community members will take notice and distrust the purpose, platform, and process.
In most cases, your online community strategy will end up being more complicated than this. However, these four steps give you and your management team a foundational framework to test and build from.
Once you analyze what works and what doesn't, you can begin tweaking your strategy to better reflect the growing goals of your community. As you fine-tune and enhance your online community with the new insight that your results will yield, you might even uncover more opportunities to leverage your online community for your organization.