Higher Logic Blog

Why Online Customer Communities Need a Purpose Bigger Than Building Community

Written by Joshua Paul | December 3, 2014 at 3:45 PM

A few years ago, I penned what I believe is still one of the most concise and clear definitions of social business:

While the original publication of the definition received a lot of positive feedback, a few readers of the online community blog took issue with the use of the phrase, "use its communities" in the definition.

I respect those purists who hold the act of building and maintaining a community above all else. After all, an organization cannot derive any business benefits if nobody uses their community. These are the people who grow and manage online communities. And every community needs these advocates.

I also want to point that online communities don't work if community members feel that they are there to serve the sponsoring company's purposes. Your online community's value proposition must clearly solve your target audience's problems without a hint of self-interest.

Having made that clear, even after a few years have passed, I still stand by my original definition. Discussing how online communities are "used" or leveraged by companies certainly isn't an idealized view of them. It is a practical one.

Simply, building an online community is not the same as growing a business. Online customer, developer, and partner communities aren't built just for the fun of it, to promote the idea of community in a specific market, or to solely provide support and resources to your target audience. They're created to serve a business purpose.

Creating Active Online Communities vs. Planning for a ROI

Unfortunately, many organizations start their thinking too late in the process and end their planning too soon.

The true business goals of online customer communities can get lost in the planning process. All too often, companies focus more on creating an active, thriving community at the expense of first developing a well-thought-out plan for integrating the online community into their business.

Considering most companies are launching an online community for the first time, this is an understandable problem. It's perfectly natural that the focus is on creating a functioning and healthy community, because this is a very involved process and that goal is often easier to define and measure.

Here's the problem, though: simply developing a thriving community isn't going to lead to improved business performance.

Focusing on community management personal and processes before settling on an online community strategy causes many companies to throw their hands up and declare that their private online customer community isn't "working." Often, projects stall before they get off the ground because the business outcomes and how they will come to fruition are not clear to executive stakeholders. Their goals aren't achieved because they weren't well-outlined in the first place.

So, how can you make sure your customer community will be sustainable, as well as serve a bigger purpose for your organization? The solution requires changing your approach to building an online community. Rather than starting with plans for how to create an active community, design your online community with a greater business-level end game in mind.

5 Steps for Creating an Online Customer Community That Drive Business Outcomes

Step #1) Start With Business Goals

There is a difference between creating an online community and creating an online community that leads to business success. Planning to build a community is great, but if you want to plan for a community that impacts traditional KPIs, your reason for building community cannot end at creating an active social space online where your customers and partners want to spent time.

When your plan starts with business goals at their core and grows from there, you can create a community that is designed to solve a problem for both your target audience and your company. Begin by identifying the business goals you'd like your community to achieve and plan everything else with those goals in mind.

For instance…

  • Do you want to reduce your support costs?
  • Do you want to increase opportunities for upselling and add-on revenue?
  • Do you want to create more sellable products by bringing customers into the product development process?

Having these goals at the forefront of your planning process will allow you to make better choices as you implement your community.

Step #2) Make a Plan to Address Those Goals

Once you have your business objectives in mind, you can begin to plan how you can leverage increased customer engagement within your community to address these goals.

This stage is important for two reasons:

  1. To create concrete processes that address your objectives
  2. To ensure that creating a community is the right course of action to achieve your goals

Here's a tip: You might discover that this is not the right solution for your business problem. Online customer communities aren't for everyone. If you can't map out how online community engagement and the tools in your online community software will address your business goals, it may be time to explore a different approach or get a second opinion during the online community planning process.

Step #3) Design Processes for Leveraging Social Community Data

Once your community is active, you'll have access to a wealth of social and behavioral data. This includes a ton of information about your customers' challenges, motivations, and dispositions toward your company. Don't let this data go unnoticed. It is the real gold behind your online customer community strategy. Put processes in place that allow you to leverage it to achieve your business goals.

For instance, how will what you learn about your customers within your community impact your product roadmap? How can you leverage data to create better customer relationships with customer advocates or proactively reach out struggling customer?

In the hustle and bustle of managing an online community, analyzing data and integrating your conclusions into your business processes often slips to the bottom of the to-do list. Making it a priority will help you align your online community with the things that you senior management cares about.

Step #4) Create a Community Your Customers Will Value and Want to Use

Yes, even though your business needs to "use" your community to its advantage, your target audience (usually customers or members) also need to see the value in order for your community to be successful.

This is where people who take issue with my definition of social business want the community building process to start. This step is highly important since your business won't see any of the business benefits mapped out above if your community is a ghost town. However, it is important that this step comes after the internal planning outlined in steps 1-3.

With your knowledge of your customer base, you can create an active and sustainable community that your customers will want to return to often. Keeping your target audience engaged is what will make achieving your business goals possible.

Step #5) Put Processes in Place to Keep the Community Healthy and Growing

The community management processes that you establish are what will allow your community to continue to grow and thrive long after the initial excitement of the launch. Develop detailed onboarding and nurturing processes that create active and engaged members.

Consider how you will move your community members through the engagement cycle. What processes will you have in place to turn first time visitors into active participants?

Online Customer Communities Takeaway

While you want your customers to receive value and enjoyment from participating in your community, it's important to remember that your online community doesn't exist solely for their needs. When your customer community platform is designed with business outcomes in mind, you can more easily leverage the engagement in your community to achieve those goals.