Whether and How to Build a Branded Customer Community
By Kimberly Smith – from the library of www.MarketingProfs.com
Social communities are all the rage, but at what point does it become more beneficial to
build one vs. use one that's already there? Online-community gurus Peter Kim and Aaron
Strout weigh in on whether and how to create your own social portal for customers.
First, there were blogs, then mass-market social-networking sites... now some companies
are bringing it all under one roof and hosting their own interactive online customer
communities. Should yours be doing the same?
Social-marketing strategist Peter Kim says it depends on your intent.
If the priority involves listening to what's being said about a brand, communicating with
consumers, or achieving broader reach, it's more effective (and cheaper) to take advantage
of the critical mass that the existing networks have already established.
A company-sponsored community may be the way to go, however, if the goal is to...
• Connect with a very specific group: Users who join specialized corporate-
sponsored groups on Facebook, for example, are often more interested in
expressing their connections to the brand than actually interacting with the
company. By hosting a private community, you can increase the likelihood that
users are there to engage with you and your purpose, while simultaneously
providing them with an exclusive place to mingle and liaise.
• Conduct market research: This is one of the most advantageous occasions for
sponsoring a community, Kim explains, because it allows you to do the prompting,
monitor behavior, and garner highly targeted feedback from users who understand
they're participating under the sponsorship of a brand for specific purposes.
• Motivate influencers: Running the show also allows you to focus on, and reward,
your star supporters. "If you're hosting the conversation, you can energize your best
customers and get them out evangelizing your brand," explains Aaron Strout, VP of
Marketing at social marketing firm Powered, Inc.
• Provide a safe zone: Smart users know that personal postings on public forums
such as Twitter and Facebook can quickly come back to haunt them. Offering them
a secure environment where they feel more comfortable sharing those inner
thoughts may help pave the way for deeper customer interactions and relationships
than may be viable on existing networks.
If any or some of those are your goals, then building your own community might make
sense. Here are a few steps for ensuring your investment thrives.
1. Build a destination with purpose
In the planning stages, it is pertinent to come up with a value proposition that serves both
customer and company, Kim explains.
Gartner Group forecasts that 60% of Fortune 1000 companies will host some kind of
online community by 2010 and that more than 50% of those who do will fail to establish a
mutual purpose and thereby weaken their customer and company values.
Mutual purpose can be achieved by incorporating Gartner's best-practices for social
• Magnetic: The purpose should draw people directly to participate, immediately
appealing to the "What's in it for me?" aspect.
• Aligned: The purpose should also align with business value, directly or indirectly.
• Measurable: The purpose should allow for business and community value to be
clearly measured for success.
• Community-driven: Ultimately, the value must come from the community.
Strout adds that "90% of the time, product centric communities do not do well unless
they're for the iPhone or a brand of beer--[that is,] something people are passionate about.
More often, it's about lifestyle and being rich on content."
Sony's "Backstage 101" and "Digital Darkroom" communities, for example, help convert
customers and drive purchase consideration via more than 100 tutorials and other content
that teach consumers of all brands how to get the most out of their personal electronics
experiences. Fully 78% of users report that they are more likely to purchase a Sony
product as a result of the perceived value Sony provides them.
"You have to give before you can get," says Strout. "People do not want to hear an
infomercial. Referencing the company is okay, but it should be a lot more about delivering
value and talking about the stuff [users] care about."
2. Assemble a congregation
Building a sizable community takes time and patience, but here are a few ideas to help spur
• Start with your immediate circle of employees, friends, and family. "Start some
dialog and discussions," says Strout, "but don't fake it. Be clear that these are
employees or friends, and ask [participants] to be authentic. Make sure they're
having real discussions that the community will be interested in."
• Next, go after your influencers and enthusiasts. Identify individuals who are
affiliated with or already talking about your brand (online tools such as those
offered by BuzzStream can help), then give them reason to participate.
Adobe, for example, was able to build up its biomedical-focused community by
first establishing relationships with industry influencers, empowering them with a
platform to be heard, fitting them out with gear that further connected them to the
community and brand, then equipping them with the tools to enlist others who
respect their opinions.
• Then invite your most loyal customers to join, followed by less frequent
customers, and so on down the line. "Loyal customers will be more forgiving;
prospectives will want to see good conversations taking place," explains Strout.
• Allow users to spread the word by integrating friend invites and share features
(such as links to post on Technorati, Digg, Delicious, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) into
• Recruit externally via social media announcements (on your blog or Facebook
profile/page, in a tweet, etc.), online ads (note that Facebook ads allow you to
target very specific demographics and interests), and purchased email lists, but only
after you have cultivated a solid user base and enough steady interaction to
demonstrate value to users who may have little affiliation with your brand.
You can also integrate your community with Facebook Connect, which allows users to log
into your site using their Facebook usernames and passwords. Meanwhile, you gain access
to their demographics and Facebook profile information, as well as their friends'
information and demographics. Facebook Connect further enables you to publish
information about user activity occurring on your site to users' Facebook profiles—for all
their friends to see.
3. Spark user interaction and involvement
To increase return usage and prevent your investment from bearing resemblance to a ghost
town, consider the following initiatives:
• Designate an attentive host: Users can't be expected to moderate themselves;
instead, it's important to commission someone within the company to focus on the
community, drive discussion topics that emphasize user interests, and ensure a
"well-lit space," says Strout.
• Implement interactive features: Beyond great content, offer user activities that
encourage involvement and a sense of membership. Users of Sony's "Digital
Darkroom" community, for instance, can upload and showcase their photos; view,
rate, and comment on others' photos; compete for Sony gift certificates in a
monthly photo contest; and participate in forums and share techniques, in addition
to accessing tutorials and other content.
A note of advice from Strout: while you may eventually offer a broad array of
activities, it is best to not get too overly ambitious right out the gate; too many
options may lead to too little user engagement on any one activity. Instead, start
small with just two or three where you can focus your efforts and ensure lively
interaction (and therefore value) before further diversifying.
• Organize an overarching community purpose or goal that users feel they can
benefit: The "WePC" community hosted by Intel and Asus, for example, has
brought users in and kept them engaged with the lure of contributing to the first
ever socially designed PC. Users can submit their ideas, votes on others' proposals,
and earn prizes for their involvement in the winning designs.
• Facilitate identity, and even hierarchy: Allow influencers and high-activity users
to take on leadership roles within the community and use their own initiative and
creativity to get others more involved.
Eastman-Kodak's "Print Rave" community, for example, has found success by
appointing community moderators to post and chair discussion board topics, by
creating mentor connections which match experienced users with newbies, and by
launching explorer activities which encourage users to spearhead related offline
projects then report back to the community with their findings.
• Allow for detractors: For good, healthy discussions to take place, it's important
for users to feel comfortable sharing their opinions, even negative ones. At the
same time, it is vital that the company professionally and authentically respond to
those posts in order to uphold its credibility, Strout explains.
• Send out email updates: Weekly or monthly digests can serve to rally users
around the community conversations taking place and remind them of the value
you continue to provide.
• Measure and react: Which elements are people gravitating toward and which are
spurring negative feedback or causing users to leave? Implement the tools and
processes that will clue you into those insights, then adjust your offerings or
approach as appropriate to give users what they want.
Sony, for example, encourages users to rate and review its courses and content and
launches periodic surveys to garner direct feedback, in addition to using back-end
metrics to ascertain the popularity of various features. It then uses that insight to
keep its offerings fresh and inspiring.
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