The land on which your business completes is shifting. Product features and marketing messages no longer rule the day. According to research from analyst firm, Gartner, 89 percent of companies surveyed plan to compete primarily on the basis of the customer experience by 2016.
For many companies, user groups have long been a big part of building a stand-out customer experience. The prominence of user group communities had been overshadowed by talk of using social networks to engage customers. However, user groups never went away. In fact, user groups are once again becoming a central part of business' customer relationship strategies.
While Higher Logic works with some of the most active user groups in the world, we also see many companies struggle to get internal support and buy-in from their customers for starting a user group.
Part of the reason that people fail to get the green light for launching a user group is their ability to tie user group engagement to core business strategies. The other reason you might struggle to get executives excited about your user group plan is lack of clarity about what a user group looks like and what shape your specific user group will take.
Creating user groups for your products is not as simple as adding a forum to your website and sending out an email to your customers. Communicating both the value of an active user group and the fact that you have thought through your community management plan will help you get your senior management on board.
We've pooled our experience managing user group to layout a path for you. Use the following 10-question framework to document your use group strategy.
The first question that you'll need to decide on is whether your user group will be a company-run user group or an independent user group. The primary difference is that decisions made about the community in company-run user groups are made by employees of the company, while independent user groups are autonomous separate companies (usually nonprofit membership organizations, like associations).
Both are popular models. However, this foundational question has big implementations when it comes to who will run the day-to-day operations of the group.
Will managing the user group be part of the job of the community management, events, and customer marketing teams inside your company? Or will the user group hire a staff of their own, including positions like an executive director, membership manager, director of events, and sponsorship manager.
Whether you are launching a bare bones online user community or a fully-supported user group, the organization will need some sort of budget. While a well-run user group delivers tangible financial benefits to your company, your organization does not need to foot the entire bill. In fact, you user group can generate significant revenue that can be invested back into the community to expand your reach and make it even stronger.
You will need to decide if membership in your user group will be free to customers and non-customers, or if you'll implement a membership dues structure. Based on your market research, you'll also determine if you are going to monetize the community using paid vendor programs, advertising, and sponsorship sales.
Why will your busy customers take time out of their day to join and participate in your user group? When planning your user group, you'll need to design a member benefit portfolio that creates value and solves important problems for your user base.
In the case of free user groups, you have to create enough value so that people want to â€œpayâ€ with their attention and contribution on an ongoing basis. For user groups that collect membership dues, the â€œmember benefit to valueâ€ equation usually has to be more tangible to get people to join the organization.
While people participate in user group to get the latest info about your product, the biggest member benefit is the opportunity network with, learn from, and share ideas with other users.
How will you make that a central part of your user group? Will you provide opportunities for peer-to-peer engagement through in-person events? Or will you give members of your community a way to stay connected with each other throughout the year online?
Events are a major part of building a strong user group community. First, decide if your user group will host events. Will they be live or virtual events, or a hybrid of both? Will you host a one-day meeting-style event or a full user conference over multiple days?
Depending on the size and maturity of your user group, you'll need to determine if you'll host one user group conference in your primary country or if you'll also produce smaller conferences for states or regions. You may want to even grow an international conference program to address users in area such as Asia, Europe, and Australia, depending on where your customer base is situated.
Will your user group have state chapters or sub-communities? It usually only makes sense to create a chapter or special interest group (SIG) structure if people use your product in different industries, roles, and geographic regions.
Managing chapters and other groups adds responsibility and governance to managing your user group. However, you want the value of participating in your user group to be as relevant to your customers as possible. If hosting separate discussions, resource libraries, and events for different chapters or SIGs would make the benefits of membership more valuable, this model may be right for your user group.
It is also important to note that planning for chapters and sub-groups may help you bring rogue exiting user communities under your umbrella.
Independent user groups are usually run by a volunteer board, while your business makes most of the decisions for a company-run user group. However, by nature, even company-run user group have a volunteer leadership structure.
Beyond the board, many user groups rely on committees to manage projects ranging from planning your user group's conference to producing content and resources for your online user community.
What does the user expect from your user group? Think of this question in terms of communication, access to other users, and what they will get out of participating.
It is difficult to answer this question without doing a little research into your users. Like any product management process, it is important to avoid making decisions about the value that your customers are seeking using only data and opinions found inside the walls of your company. Get out and talk to your users!
When you launch a user group, you must be aware of how the initiative aligns with your C-suite's priorities. For instance, how will you measure and report on the community's impact on sales, retention, and revenue per customer?
Through this line of questions, you'll determine whether or not your company will mine the data in the community to highlight revenue opportunities or struggling customers. Your answer will dictate how the user group is set up and marketed later in the planning process.
Mature user groups offers users an array of opportunities to learn and engage. It is advisable that your fledgling user group narrow its focus on the areas where your customers and company will get the most value. To that end, it is important to sketch out the purpose of the initial version of your user group.
Deciding on the primary activities that your user group will conduct is the foundation for your community's roadmap.
Creating a user group is not as easy as hanging out a shingle and letting your customer know. However, it is not as difficult as it may seem. With basic guidance on framework for the decisions you have to make, you'll set your company on the course toward creating a sustainable user group community that delivers ongoing value to both your users and your company.