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Vendors: Community Friend or Foe?

Written by Heather McNair on April 20, 2016 at 10:30 AM

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Your community is functioning like a dream - organic discussions, engagement through resource-sharing and member-led meetups, a delightfully eclectic thread of the community’s favorite GIFs - and you’re pretty happy with its momentum. Why mess with a good thing? Then vendors start reaching out, with grand ideas to envelop community members with updates, answers and product pitches. You panic - should they even be here?

How vendors can enhance community engagement

Vendors have more to offer than simply self-motivated sales pitches - their information can be educational and useful to your community members. The key is to drive them toward providing helpful resources and steer clear of disruptive behavior.

Guiding vendors: As a vendor, an obvious sales pitch is the kiss of death. What you share should be inherently useful to members or their organizations. Position yourself as an information provider or expert in the field. Because you work with many clients, you have the gift of being able to bring a broad perspective to the table. Contribute to ongoing conversations and look for opportunities to add value by teaching members about the areas your organization serves, what you’ve learned, and what you’ve seen work and not work. Education will be better received and have more longevity than catchy marketing hooks or promotions. Then when members need the product or service you provide, you’ll be the expert who is top of mind.

Guiding community members: As a community member, you (hopefully) already have trust in your community, fellow members and its content. If you’re vocal about your expectations and how you currently use and love the community, then that feedback will translate to community managers and admins. Together, both groups will ensure community guidelines are met, privacy is respected and integrity is upheld. Maybe you find rotating ads on the homepage, featuring event products and the latest the industry has to offer, to be acceptable and useful. But you’d prefer any vendor not have direct access to profile information or certain discussion groups.

Remember, though, to think through the ramifications of your requests. Years ago, there was an outcry from the Medical Group Management Association (MGMA) members to ban all vendors from their communities, until they realized that would also mean removing the consultants whom they’d come to rely on for some of the most valuable contributions.

This value can be presented in different ways. The Coin Laundry Association has a public community for its 50,000+ laundromat owners, and it includes a buyers and suppliers guide and extensive manufacturers directory to reach out to vendors in the industry.

How to keep members from pillaging your member directory

One of the primary concerns with allowing vendors to participate in the community is they’ll harvest the directory and profiles for your members’ contact information. There are ways to mitigate this risk. For example, you can limit the number of records returned in the search results, you can limit the information vendors can see on members’ profiles (such as hiding email addresses and phone numbers) or you can prevent vendors from accessing the directory completely.

The short list: how to open up your community to vendors

The first step is figuring out the best community channels in which vendors should participate: are they allowed to join any and all communities and groups? What’s acceptable to share in terms of resources and conversations? This will vary greatly, especially if your community comprises companies or organizations involved in sensitive information, like the healthcare field.

Vendors and members truly can live side by side in your community. While every community will have unique considerations when it comes to drawing the line between sharing and pillaging, there are still some tried and true methods everyone can test out. This is what we’ve seen work and recommend when allowing vendors in:

  • Dedicated directories. It’s all fun and games until the vendor bombards a community member with emails and phone calls about their latest and greatest product. But what if you create a directory that members can opt in to for vendor information? Or turn the directory concept on its head - provide a vendor directory with space for each vendor to showcase products and services, where members can reach out directly if interested.
  • Standalone libraries. A library or resource center can be a haven of industry best practices and mentorship. Set up a separate “vendor resources” library for your partners to upload brochures, case studies, white papers and more.
  • Featured resources. Have you ever thought about teaming up with a vendor to produce a white paper, industry report or information video? This serves multiple purposes: vendors can highlight what they want with data to back it up, the community can provide new, educational resources for members, and pre-existing places like directories and libraries won’t have to worry about a vendor take-over. The featured resource can be available on the homepage and then archived for future reference.
  • Event-focused education. Rather than a space within the community, give vendors a time slot. Offer the chance for a vendor to co-host a webinar on new products or industry news, participate in a live chat, or be interviewed for a featured resource.

 

What’s been your experience with vendors in your community? Share the successes you’ve seen and the challenges you’ve faced.

Topics: Community Platforms & Updates, Communications, Online Community Management

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