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Building Online Communities For Insight, Advocacy

Before Facebook launched in 2004, were you part of a community? Did you share pictures of your vacation with your friends? Before LinkedIn, did you share details of your business contacts to help out a friend? Before blogs, when someone you knew said something controversial, did you comment on it?

Of course you did. Social activity isn't new. We're social creatures, mostly.

But why do we act as if online communities are completely new? We make errors in trying to build communities that we would never make in real life. Some of these errors are fundamental. In everyday life, if the conversation only went one way, you'd tell me that you're not going to build a very strong relationship. No one likes to be talked at.

Marketers spend billions on "loyalty"-building activities to build and sustain relationships with customers. The new world of social media seems like a limitless lab for brands, with tantalizing opportunities to transform brand-customer interactions. But the web is littered with sad, lifeless communities.

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Social media is about scale and tools, and the elimination of social friction. At their best, online communities accelerate and deepen our social proclivities. But building a vibrant community is hard.

Everyone wants to know how to drive interest and build engagement in the communities that they create, thinking (and hoping) that because they have built a community for their product, their consumers will come. Why?

In our experience building and operating consumer communities, we've observed that successful online communities have the same attributes as successful offline communities. Humans have been building communities for thousands of years. As social creatures, were conditioned to respond to certain implicit qualities in a community.

Following are the key ingredients to building successful communities:

  • Shared Purpose: We like people like ourselves. This is not a narrow-minded statement. In fact, Shared Purpose transcends traditional segmentation or obvious classification. It might be shared history, shared interests, shared hobbies, or even shared passion for a brand. In today's social media world, we can find those like ourselves.
  • Connection: Communities must first and foremost provide an opportunity for a free and open exchange between consumers and the brand. "Duh," you say? How many communities have we all seen with the anemic discussion boards relegated to low importance if not absent all together? Consumers are ready to talk; it's up to brands to take up their part of the conversation.
  • Recognition: Status is implicit in all communities, no matter how egalitarian. The best communities recognize the contributions of their most active members, and the achievement of status in a community creates implicit rewards for increased contribution. In this context, its clear that Recognition does NOT have to be monetary or rational value. The most valuable brands have always created emotional connections with their customers, and brands now have the tools to recognize those relationships.
  • Impact: If brands engage with consumers, and meaningfully participate in a community with them, they have made a commitment. Many smart brands are already taking advantage of online communities to generate insight. But, are they taking it to the next logical step? Community members become invested and want to know what kind of impact their feedback has inspired.

For any brand, it takes commitment, bravery, experimentation and authenticity to capitalize on online communities and social networks, building new modes of brand-consumer interaction and dialogue. But the connections need to be built on principles as old as the human race.

2 comments about "Building Online Communities For Insight, Advocacy ".
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  1. Doug Pruden from Customer Experience Partners, February 4, 2010 at 1:58 p.m.

    The developmentof online social media has left many believing that the creation of advocates and the generation of positive word of mouth for a brand has somehow become easy to accomplish. We truly need to face some realities before that fantasy explodes and kills the good programs with the bad. Consider: 1)Word of mouth is not just what is on blogs, FaceBook, Twitter or YouTube - it's also personal communication be it face-to-face, by phone, or by text or email. 2)As Aliza states, building customer engagement in any form is difficult - for every highly functional Private Online Customer Community that's really producing increased advocacy, there are many more that are lifeless. 3) To Paula's point, customers probably aren't going to become raving fans even if it's their favorite lettuce or shampoo brand. And most consumers who have a life are at the very most only going to be willing to participate with a couple of brands if that. We need to be selective and strategic.

    We need start thinking about what really builds engagement and advocacy (hint: it's probably not just talking at customers, nor building the latest loyalty points program). We need to be able to PROVE that the effort is retaining customers, and actually growing share of category purchases and increasing positive word of mouth.

  2. Kathryn Gorges from Essentials 3, February 4, 2010 at 7 p.m.

    Building an online community around a brand only makes sense for customers that have a lifestyle around the brand - like Harley Davidson - where there's a crossover between the brand and the people you hang out with. Brands that have as their goal some kind of life engagement - transformational like certain workshops/courses, or entertainment recreation like I mentioned above.

    Customers want to engage with brands at 3 points: when they're looking to buy something in the category and evaluting; when something doesn't work; and finally when they have a chance to provide input for an improvement on the product. These engagement points don't require a community, but they do require some conversation capability like a community -- a social media forum that allows for a free flow of conversation about experiences with the brand/product. This is the type of community companies need to be creating so that they can participate in the conversations -- not a community to hang out in...

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