Imagine a US football team on the field without a quarterback. That’s what it’s like to be marketing and communicating online without a social community. The role that social communities can play in the marketing and communications process is woefully misunderstood. Many corporate community efforts tend to focus on community for one of three reasons:
- Support:Enabling customers and advocates to support and inform each other, providing self-serve customer service, or offering support via social network monitoring (e.g., Comcast’s efforts via @comcastcares)
- Reputation:Intersecting with communities, social network presences of interest, and influencers in an effort to build reputation
- Research:Using small private communities like a marketing petri dish—a closed, controlled space where customers can be studied
The real value of customer communities, however, is quality and efficiency—efficiency of reach, feedback, communication cycles, and amplification. In other words, anchoring and extending all your online efforts through a central hub where your biggest fans congregate.
People who share B2B information with others are likeminded or similarly focused. (You don’t send an IP migration whitepaper to someone unless you love the content, and you’re pretty sure they’re interested.) In communities, you have many of those people in the same place. The amplification power is enormous, but we are still missing the true power and potential of social communities despite much research proving the link. Why is that? Here are a few reasons:
- The insufficiency of the word “community.” We don’t yet have a better word to describe the complex set of interactions that occur on a continuum that includes everyone from a lapsed subscriber on an email list to a Twitter follower, a raging fan, a repeat customer, and a highly active member of a discussion board or social network. Is an email list a community? Is a blog?
- The perception that selling is bad. Communities are not, in fact, sacred spaces where the distasteful act of promoting your wares is unwelcome. Selling is not bad; selling out of context is bad. Think about it: If your refrigerator just broke, ads for refrigerator repair or a buying guide on new refrigerator features will seem pretty compelling. As a B2B brand, you want to identify that behavior, and get potential customers to the information they need or the action they need to complete.
- Complexity and multiplicity of roles. It’s not enough anymore to say “customer support community” or “prospecting blog.” Someone who subscribes to an email list may have been a customer for six years but may also still be a prospect, an advocate, and a content contributor or sharer. In other words, depending on their goals and information needs on a given day, people will play different roles that don’t line up neatly with marketing personas.
- A shift away from silo-based, campaign-based marketing. That shift forces the realignment of customer experience and prospecting programs. And nothing moves more slowly than organizational change. However, those companies that are nailing the shift to communities (e.g., Salesforce) are vaulting over their competitors in customer loyalty, growth, and insight.
- The perception that social communities are difficult to manage and get value from. It’s all about experience, feedback and the dance between leading and being led. Customers are eager to provide structured feedback to companies on everything from marketing to customer service. The benefit and challenge of community is delivering value on both sides, but groups like TheCR and Feverbee are daily showing examples of how thus can be done.
- Digital customer behavior reveals a connection between community and content. That connection creates a virtuous circle: Value-added content attracts community; community produces, vets, interacts with, shares, and talks about content; those activities can motivate new community members to join a list to receive more content, or participate at a deeper (or shallower) level.It’s not always easy.
Here are four key lessons I’ve distilled from leading more than 100 successful community engagements:
- Plan the right sequence and cadence of intersection points with customer networks and communities
Communities and community members have natural and repeated lifecycles. Do you map them? Do you know how long someone will likely remain a community member? New moms, for example, are new moms for about 24 months, so you’d better be planning acquisition cycles on a regular basis if they are your blog’s audience.
- Line up the right resources
Do you have the right executive support? You will need proactive (outbound communication), reactive (responsive communication), and value-added interactions with your community to keep it alive and fresh. Over the next decade, skills facilitating those interactions with customers will be in high demand.
- Design content to measure how community members move from weak to strong ties
With the right application of content and community dynamics, your Twitter followers have a path to becoming email subscribers, community members, and customers—at their own pace and based on their own needs. More important, content that is strategically designed can be measured. Increasingly, ROI-based interactions, from better customer support and feedback to an interactive online sales process, will be driven and curated online.
- Understand the digital customer narrative
Identifying those customer and community narratives, and how they become patterns and evolve, is critical to harnessing the right energy at the right time and delivering information and experiences that contribute to the community rather than exploit it. All things in life have paths, patterns, and cycles; online communities, networks, and companies are no exception.
The marketing industry is undergoing transformative change at an ever increasing rate. If you’re a content developer, strategist, or marketer, the world is your oyster. But it’s a complex landscape, and being guided in your digital efforts by the actions of your social communities can be a much-needed rudder.
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