What does it mean when an online customer community "works"?
It might seem like a simple question at first, but creating a successful and sustainable online community is significantly more complicated than meets the eye.
First of all, claiming your online customer community works well immediately begs the question “who does it work for? Your company? The customers?" This is an important distinction.
In order to really claim that a community is successful, it needs to serve everyone.
One common characteristic that is important to both sides of the equation is an online community manager. Research shows that companies that staff an online community manager are more likely to see tangible business success.
Online community managers also tend to be highly focused on creating a positive customer experience, since the main goal of their job is to build a healthy and functioning community. In this sense, online community managers "work" for both parties involved in the community's success.
Having a community manager in place is just the beginning. What are other characteristics of online customer communities that work? And who are they working for? Let's investigate.
The community management processes you put in place to move customers through the engagement funnel are the lifeblood of a healthy community. These processes are well-planned and continuously adjusted to help customers transition from new members to regular visitors to contributing members to volunteer leaders.
Some larger online communities with huge audiences and a singular engagement opportunity (usually some sort of social discussion) function very well. Quora and Stake Exchange are excellent examples of this.
However, online customer communities don't have the natural draw of large public social networks. They need to offer more value to keep their target community members engaged. In order to accomplish this, it is important to offer an array of content, interactive features, and social networking opportunities.
Specific conversations and content lend themselves to certain tools beyond discussion forum. Rather than exclusively focusing on discussion forums, create opportunities for product feedback, surveys, access to new content, etc. By providing several types of opportunities for engagement, you'll have an easier time bring community members back to the community, rather than just hammering them with "join the discussion" themed messages.
As is true with the adoption of any product or habit, customers are more likely to participate in an online community when it's easy. By providing streamlined options that suit your customers' busy schedules, such as integrated email listserv discussions and mobile apps, your target audience will be able to obtain value and collaborate with other customers without having to carve out too much time from their busy lives.
A large portion of the initial value that your online customer community provides to a new member is through the exclusive information that they can find inside. Before community members establish social bonds with other members, it is your content that drives them to visit your community and contribute to discussions.
By consistently producing content and providing access to conversations, tools, and resources that they can't get anywhere else, you can make sure your community's value is strong enough to bring members in all stages of their lifecycle back to the community on a regular basis.
You don't want customers to have to search through all areas of your community to find something relevant to them. For example, if you have multiple products, your customers don't want to waste time digging through discussions and content on products that aren't relevant to their organization. Segment your content intuitively.
Furthermore, your community members need some understanding about who will see their discussion questions and responses in order to feel comfortable participating. For instance, someone who is on your product advisory board might not feel comfortable having an open and honest dialog about your product if there is a chance that executives from their company might come across their comments regarding where they are struggling.
Clearly communicate who each group within your community is designed for and who will have access.
Email is the number one way to bring people back to an online community. Just as email is used by Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook to bring people back to the social network, systematically sending a "haven't seen you in a while" email, a "check out the latest discussions" email, or a "can you answer this question" email to targeted members of your private social network can motivate re-engagement.
Highlighting relevant information or conversation in your community can cut through the noise of a customer's day and remind them to visit your community and participate.
Your community of customers does not only exist online. Bringing community member together for live events, like customer conferences and user group meetings is important to strengthen the community both on and offline. On the flip side, businesses can leverage the enthusiasm and momentum from great in-person events to reignite interest in what your community has to offer once the live meeting ends.