Innovative new tools enable companies to expand their online customer support portals into dedicated social networks, where company employees and customers can ask and answer questions, share information, get product updates, plan events, and more—without the downsides of using a public social network.
In the past, companies or user groups would set up groups on Facebook or LinkedIn to foster interaction. Those platforms provided a rich array of social functionality (at no cost) as well as ready access to large audiences already using the platforms.
But creating a customer community on a public social network also has at least three significant drawbacks:
- No (or limited) privacy protections for members
- Murky ownership of content and no control over the underlying platform
- Frequent changes to UI and functionality (recent changes by LinkedIn have many group managers and moderators quite unhappy)
Building a dedicated customer community portal eliminates these concerns. But it does involve direct and administrative costs, as well as persuading customers to embrace a new platform. Does a managed customer community make sense for your organization?
How a Customer Community Works
Customer communities go way beyond online support. Basic customer service functionality like searchable knowledge bases, email/chat support, and message boards have, of course, been around since the early days of the web. Today’s community tools typically include those traditional support capabilities plus much more.
Beyond common help desk and online support functionality, community building (a.k.a. customer engagement) platforms generally provide features like:
Blogging: Corporate blogs serve important purposes, but customer platforms allow for a much richer environment of distinct blogs based on product, industry vertical, subject matter expertise, or a mix. Authors can include both company personnel and outside contributors.
Social Media: Members can do the same sorts of things they may do on social networks, such as posting updates, uploading files, “liking” content, commenting, and sharing.
Discussion: Customers can ask questions and discuss issues with company employees as well as other customers in forums organized by categories and topics.
News Feed: Just as with Facebook’s news feed (except that you get to play the role of Mark Zuckerberg), users see relevant updates based on who they choose to “follow” and the engagement platform’s algorithm. Common social media features like support for attribution (@) and hashtags (#), comments, likes, pinning, and ability to share images and videos are typically included.
Email and Messaging: Send emails to select groups of users. Enable users to engage in one-to-one messaging between each other or with company experts. Push notifications (with permission) to users for key updates.
Surveys: Create and conduct surveys, polls, and quizzes. Enable users to submit and vote on enhancements, conference speakers / topics / venues, and other pertinent subjects.
Groups: Set up public or private groups based on geography, industry, product used, or other characteristics. Automatically alert group members to updates.
Artificial Intelligence: Most vendors are in the early stages, but are gradually building machine-learning capabilities into their platforms to optimize the experience and display the most relevant content and updates to each user.
How Communities Help (Companies and Their Customers)
Companies benefit from providing an online community for users across different corporate functions:
- Marketing – easier communication, voice-of-customer research, identification of brand advocates and case study opportunities
- Sales – opportunities for cross-selling and up-selling, greater awareness of emerging customer issues, higher customer retention
- Customer Service and Billing – reduced call volume and costs, opportunities for proactive issue resolution, increased customer satisfaction
- Product Development – better insights into emerging customer needs, ease of soliciting feedback, increased customer knowledge
For customers, as with local networking groups, brand communities are a place to share knowledge, exchange tips for product use, avoid the mistakes of others, and make new connections.
When companies invest tens of thousands or even millions of dollars in enterprise platforms, they need to optimize their use of those systems. Training and annual user conferences are valuable, but online communities connect users to a wider array of sources and on a much more regular basis.
Do You Need a Customer Community?
Customer communities can thrive in the B2C and B2B environments—but not every company needs one.
Among consumer brands, companies like Patagonia, Harley-Davidson, and Nike stand out. Customers share their passion not for clothing, motorcycles, and shoes, but for the outdoors, adventure, and fitness.
That doesn’t mean only big brands can build communities. Smaller companies can as well, if they can identify and nurture an inspiring brand purpose beyond their products and services.
In the B2B world, customer communities are common for complex, expensive systems that are core to the operations of a business (or a specific function within it). Most types of enterprise software qualify.
B2B product and service providers are likely to benefit from a community of their offerings frequently change or are updated, require ongoing support, can be supported by other users, and rely on user feedback for setting future direction.
Apple is probably the ultimate crossover example; a brand with a zealous, almost cult-like following in both the consumer and business worlds.
How to Build a Customer Community
A community won’t thrive without both a compelling reason for existence and a robust yet easy-to-use technology underpinning. One digital camera brand learned those lessons the hard way when its online community failed due to combination of a clunky user experience and excessive marketing on the site.
Tool options for creating a solid foundation include:
Ning: A social website-building tool, ideal for smaller companies and non-profits.
Intercom.io: Personalized social messaging designed for SaaS vendors.
MindTouch: A support-focused community tool, primarily for tech firms.
WorkOutLoud: Broad-function social platform for midsized companies and enterprises.
The keys to a successful customer community are to put users in control, go light on marketing content, and remember above all that the community exists to serve customers—not the brand. As explained in Harvard Business Review:
“Managers often forget that consumers are actually people, with many different needs, interests, and responsibilities. A community-based brand builds loyalty not by driving sales transactions but by helping people meet their needs…For members, brand communities are a means to an end, not an end in themselves…Putting the brand second is tough for a marketer to do, but it’s essential if a strong community is the goal.”
Is your company ready to build a customer community? Or perhaps to take an existing Facebook or LinkedIn group to the next stage by moving to a dedicated platform?
The investment in time and technology is only worthwhile if the community serves the brand. But it will only serve the brand if it serves the needs of customers first and foremost.