Very few organizations with established an customer base or membership where building communities is not a smart long-term strategy.
When you're pitching your online community strategy, you will probably meet some resistance from various stakeholders in your organization. They will layout arguments that begin with, "Here is why an online community won't work at our organization."Often, these naysayers come from a place of misunderstanding. Simply taking the time to educate them about your plans and purpose can go a long way in bringing them over to your way of thinking. Other times, you'll run up against stakeholders who have an argument for every part of your plan and seem determined to defeat your strategy before it can even be put into place.
Before we get into the best way to combat your craziest stakeholders and convince them to buy into your strategy, let's back up a bit.
What is an Online Community Strategy?
Simply put, your online community strategy is how you expect relationships will change through the use of building community online. This is different for every company, but the bottom line is still the same:
How will the nature of your relationship with your customers or members change as a result of the value and engagement your community has to offer?
Your goal might be to create a stronger sense of affinity for either your organization or a product you sell through peer-to-peer connections. Or, you might be interested in increasing customer retention by helping community members become more successful with your products or services. Perhaps you want more involvement from customers in the product development process. If you run an association or nonprofit membership organization, you might want to increase the importance of your member benefits in the lives of your members.
Regardless of the change that you're hoping your online community will ignite, your strategy outlines your high-level plans to achieve this change in customer or member relationships.
Who are Your Stakeholders?
Again, this will vary considerably depending on your specific organization, but stakeholders are essentially any person who has a vested interest in the creation and success of your online community. This means that it is anyone who will be impacted by the planning process, ongoing management, and outcomes of your plan to create a private online community for customers or members. They care about the strategy and how the plan is executed because it impacts their jobs and lives.
Here are a few types of stakeholders that you might need to get onboard as you develop and pitch your strategy:
- Executives from the company
- Board members
- Operational managers
- User group leaders
- Customer leaders
There are other participants in the process, which you might not think of offhand, who could also prove difficult to convince. For instance, your IT department might have some feedback on your strategy regarding how their job will be changing with new tasks around maintaining integrations and online community upkeep. Or, your director of customer support might not be completely comfortable yet with how their job responsibilities will change if you plan to implement a peer-to-peer support system.
What Can Cause People to Try to Stop Your Online Community Strategy?
Everyone has different agendas, experiences, and resource needs that they bring to the table. The hold-up might be related to politics within the company or misunderstandings about what online customer or member communities are all about. We've even seen people look beyond the strategy and trying to stop it—and for an assortment of personal reasons—begin playing devil's advocate to the point of exhaustion.
You've put six months into developing your online community strategy. Suddenly, you're faced with a board member who watched one webinar about online communities and is now throwing obstructive questions at you. Since they are a board member—and therefore a significant stakeholder—you can't ignore them.
Instead, you need to find the best way to field the questions effectively while maintaining a focus on clearly communicating your plan.
The following three-part framework covers the needs of a large majority of stakeholders. By using this strategy to prepare to present your strategy and for stakeholder questions, you can alleviate many of the off-the-wall questions from all corners of your organization.
The Three-Pronged Approach That Will Help Get Your Stakeholders to Buy-in
Getting support for your online community strategy from even your toughest critics comes down to having an answer for every argument they could throw your way. To truly outline why having a private online customer or member community is so important to your organization, try taking a three-pronged approach that answers these questions:
#1) How Does Your Online Community Benefit the Company?
This is probably the part that your internal stakeholders will have the most interest in since it's also the area that affects them the most directly.
Being able to show how leveraging your online community to maintain closer relationships with and among customers benefits the company as a whole will help give you ground to stand on when naysayers start speaking up. Come armed with data and statistics that make your reasons even more solid.
#2) How Does Your Online Community Benefit Your Target Audience?
Your customers or members aren't going to participate in your online community if they don't see the advantage it has for them. Answering this question will help you ensure that there's balance in how your community functions so that it doesn't inadvertently become just an advertisement for your products or services. That is a recipe for a ghost town of a community that doesn't benefit your target audiences or your organization.
#3) How does your online community benefit the people your customers serve?
This prong can make all the difference when you're explaining the strategy behind your online community. Ultimately, your organization succeeds when you help your customer or members. They succeed when they are able to serve their target audience.
For instance, iMark Paster from the Association of Organ Procurement Organizations, recently told us about how his organization provides a platform for organ donation organizations across the country to share ideas and collaborate about best practices. He also explained how when his members can spread good ideas on how to serve their constituents, "more people live."
While not all companies' communities have life or death implications, you can see how focusing on the success of your customer's customers can focus the debate around your online community strategy.
Putting It to Practice: An Educational Software Company
To help you visualize how the three-pronged approach works in real life, let's take a look at an example.
With so much of learning taking place in online classrooms, education management software from companies like Blackboard and Moodle is in high demand. Educational software products like these enable elementary, secondary, and higher education schools manage assignments and parent communication, bring students together to collaborate, and even post grades.
The following example outlines the three-part approach to communicating your online community strategy using an educational software company as an example.
#1) How Does the Online Customer Community Benefit the Company?
In the case of an educational software company, an online customer community brings customers, partners, and employees together to help teachers and faculty get more from their platform.
Centralizing product information, peer-to-peer support and ongoing engagement can lead to:
- Informed customers who are more aware of product add-ons, training opportunities, and new features.
- Higher customer satisfaction and retention
- Lower, more scalable customer support
- Consistent feedback on product features and new ideas
- More efficient identification and recruiting of customer advocates for the company's customer reference program
- Better relationships with partner
#2) How Does the Online Customer Community Benefit Their Target Audience?
By being able to connect with the company's entire ecosystem, users of this education software platform are able to:
- Use the product more fully to solve more problems
- Get answers to their questions faster
- Discover ideas for running their school or classroom more effectively
- Build a personal brand by becoming a thought-leader in the community
- Have a voice in future development of the product
- Find the product and support information they need more efficiently
#3) How Does the Customer Community Benefit the People That Their Customers Serve?
When schools and classroom teachers leverage technology effectively, they can save measurable time and money. However, inefficient use of software platforms can lead to frustration and burnout.
Thanks to this fictional software company's online customer community educators can:
- Spend more time teaching students, rather than managing records
- Save money on printing, mailing, and paper
- Provide more transparency to families about student's process
- Get new ideas from around the world from other educators and administrators
- Expose students to new ways to share ideas and collaborate
You'll notice that these bullets line up with the benefits of the educational software's products. Helping community members find more success in their job, lives, and careers does not usually create new benefits. Communities use collaboration, relevant information, and analytics to make success with a product or in an industry more attainable.
Getting Online Community Strategy Buy-In Takeaway
How you develop and pitch your online community strategy to your toughest stakeholders will depend on the specifics of your company or organization. However, you know that you'll have stakeholders looking at this from several different angles, so the way that you communicate your strategy can't be one-sided. Building your presentation around these three pillars will make your path to buy-in easier:
- Benefits to the company
- Benefits to the customers
- Benefits to the community that your customers' serve.
Regardless of how you fill in the blanks, covering all your bases will stifle the arguments of even the toughest critics.