Thursday, September 8th, 2016 | 10 min read
Consumers are more connected and empowered than ever. Companies need to build sustainable customer relationships to ensure they hear the voice of their consumers clearly and can react nimbly. Online communities have emerged as a key tool for companies seeking to meet these needs.
The benefits from a strong customer community span the organization:
Building a customer community from scratch may seem like a daunting task, but with the right technology and a smart approach, it’s easier than ever.
If this seems like the right fit for your team, here are seven key elements that add up to a successful online community: objectives, metrics, architecture, design, content, marketing, and platform.
Building and maintaining a community requires time and money, so it’s important to define the business goals before you begin the process.
Consumer-focused companies like airlines and mobile providers need to manage a massive amount of customer interactions while maintaining a personal touch, so their objectives might center around improving customer satisfaction and keeping call center costs under control. They might also concentrate on using customer feedback to develop new product ideas or process improvements.
Business-oriented companies, like tech vendors, are often more interested in using customer communities to streamline the sales process and enable prospects to quickly find solutions relevant to their needs. Post-sales, communities often provide priceless real-world tips and tricks for implementation issues that fall outside the scope of product technical support.
Once you’ve defined your business goals, it’s important to link them to relevant metrics. How will you know the community is having the desired impact? How will you know your business goals are being met?
Essential metrics include monthly pageviews and unique visitors, but it’s also essential to track engagement – how many people are asking and answering questions, creating blog posts, or otherwise contributing user-generated content (UGC). You may also want to measure satisfaction via exit surveys or through broader metrics such as Net Promoter Score (NPS).
Experienced community managers will combine data from multiple sources to create a holistic view of the site’s health, including the community platform itself, third-party tools like Google Analytics, and data from important referral sites such as your corporate website.
Many organizations have found that an established community can contribute a significant portion of the referral traffic to their main website, thus providing an excellent conduit for new customers who have arrived via organic search.
This one is harder than it looks. Communities are typically organized into forums or categories to make it easier for people to find relevant content, comment on it, and contribute their own text and visuals. But for someone to contribute to a forum, they need to see that it’s already active and contains fresh, pertinent material.
So, during a community’s early days, it’s crucial to structure the content architecture around a few busy areas, then expand as volume permits. These content buckets can be distinguished by product, vertical market, use case, or other factors based on your audience and their concerns.
Some best practices in this area include:
Today’s design standards for business interactions are growing due to increased consumer expectations. This means your community has to be visually compelling and must allow for easy content discovery and engagement.
Be sure to involve your organization’s branding team early in the process to ensure you strike the right balance in the community’s visual design. You’re aiming to remain consistent with your brand’s overall identity, while distinguishing between a public community and the corporate website.
Although the tools and protocols for web design are constantly in flux, one essential is responsive web design – using fluid grids, flexible images, and different style rules based on the display characteristics of the device being used. If you’re looking for superior design ideas, do a web search for “customer community” plus major brand names, both those relevant to your particular market as well as companies outside your market space that are doing exemplary work (e.g., Apple, Nike, Intel).
To provide a snapshot of design themes, create a slide deck of the home page and a topic page from 20 or 30 of these communities, brainstorm with your team, then borrow the best ideas and adapt them to your customers and channels.
Building a community from scratch is a great opportunity, but it’s also lots of work. You need to seed it with representative content that will attract and engage your first users.
Start by talking with your customer care and technical support leaders, product managers, developers, and engineers about their existing and planned content assets. In many cases, they’ll be delighted to have some of their current content shared in an approved public-facing site.
Then, set up brainstorming sessions to plan future content; for instance, your sales ops and customer care teams may decide to collaborate on a new forum containing all the content for your annual customer conference.
The key is to nurture the community. Successful community managers are great collaborators – they’re able to find experts on all kinds of subjects, then coach them through the writing process so they can share their unique knowledge. The smartest tech buffs may be eager to share their insights, but might need help structuring their thoughts effectively and communicating them with clarity.
Some other important content considerations:
“If you build it, they will come” is a wonderfully poetic line – from a work of fiction. In the real world you need a real budget to build a reasonable sized audience for a new community, not to mention additional resources if you want to sustain and build that audience.
Even if you’ve developed an active base of brand ambassadors contributing “free” content that amplifies your message, it takes resources to find, nurture, and reward these super-users. You need to know your customer – look closely at the community metrics, especially for registered members, to get a better sense of your audience and their concerns.
And don’t ignore your installed base. Work with your Sales Op team so that each new customer receives an invitation to join the community, then reward them for sustained engagement.
Above all, put yourself in the mind of your audience. You want a community that’s vibrant and well-managed, and the best way to accomplish that is for it to be managed by someone who cares. If the audience for your customer community is hard-core gamers, for example, your community manager should be a hard-core gamer – speaking the language is vital.
We started with a focus on the business objectives that drive the deployment of a customer community, and this is where the choice of platform becomes so crucial. This isn’t about which app you choose – it’s about strategic platforms that help you know each of your customers, not as data points but as people.
We’ll close with three important issues to include in assessing the suitability of different community platforms:
Paying close attention to these seven key elements will help your organization effectively plan, build, and sustain a customer community.