Like a ‘real’ community, an online community’s success hinges on the quality of both relationships among its members and their interactions with the community’s vision/mission/brand.
In this insightful and sometimes counter-intuitive post on The Harvard Business Review‘s blog, the core message is that an online community’s experience determines the strength of the relationships formed between brands and their audiences.
More specifically, the article can be summed as saying:
- For online brand communities, strategies for starting, continuing and extending authentic conversations (whose insights can be shared among company stakeholders) are more important than sheer numbers of members/fans and making a pitch about the brand.
This notion runs counter to many marketers’ approach of aiming to generate as many online followers/fans of a product/brand in as short amount of time as possible. Without meaningful engagement, though, what does this approach truly accomplish?
As bi-polar extremes, approaches to online community-building can be characterized as fleeting mass campaigns versus smaller but more intimate engagements.
Authentic conversation among a tighter knit community creates more meaningful interactions with a vision/mission/brand than a superficial impression of a logo on a page a user never visits again. People trust content they get from peers, which some brands can ultimately become associated with.
Key excerpts from the post (in case you don’t feel like clicking through the link) by Communispace’s Debi Kleiman and Harvard Business School’s Anant Keinan:
Don’t think you can just plug in and go. Managing communities requires more than technological skills and software; technology is just an enabler. If you don’t have people who understand your business and have the skills to facilitate vibrant discussions without dominating the conversation you won’t generate good insights.
Don’t believe bigger is better. Companies often believe that the bigger the online community, the better the insights, and so they build communities with thousands of members. In fact, large communities are less effective than smaller ones at nurturing relationships among members, and between members and the brand. They are more transient, less “sticky,” and less satisfying all around. When the goal is deep customer insights, smaller, private communities (up to 400 members) are best for developing trust. What you’re after is participation, not reach.
Don’t expect people to stick around for nothing. Community members need to benefit from their participation. To sustain their interest, design engaging activities (online or off) that allow them to talk about the brand in the context of their lives and build personal or professional relationships. Give them ways to talk with each other, and with you.
Don’t “sell”. You’d be amazed at how many companies get customer communities up and running only to sabotage them by trying to turn them into another sales channel. Customers want to feel like you mean it, and they know when they’re being suckered. They’ll clam up as soon as they get a slick sales vibe. Build trust and your community members will tell you more – and buy more from you.
Don’t drop the ball. Show members that you are actively listening and you value them: contribute to the conversation, building on their comments, and tell them what you’re doing with their input. The worst thing you can do is stop engaging when you think you’ve got your “answer.” Develop a long-term relationship with your community. Deep insight takes time to emerge.
Don’t hoard the data. Don’t expect lasting benefit from the community unless you have a plan for how to mine its lessons and tailor them for the people who can use them. Create reports and communication plans that fit different stakeholders’ needs within the company — everyone from market research, to product management, to C-suite executives. Some people should hear unfiltered customers voices; some need deep dives with detail; others need quick and dirty top-lines. The more that people throughout the company engage with community feedback, the more value they’ll find and the higher your ROI will be.
Listening online shouldn’t be a campaign or a project; it should be woven into the company culture. Do it right and you’ll get better customer insight and do a better job of discovering and satisfying your customers’ needs.