• Before customers will engage in your online community, you need to gain their trust in you and your social collaboration platform
  • Alignment between community goals and corporate objectives is critical for success
  • Don’t be eager to throw money at technology unless you are 100 percent sure it works with your environment

When planning to build a customer community, one can almost hear the thunder of cautionary tales from organizations that have tried and failed. Competition and convergence threaten most community strategies, and those failures tend to highlight the lack of understanding that companies have about their customers’ real engagement needs.

When our annual CMO study revealed that marketing leaders ranked “customer communities to drive customer engagement” as the highest of their top three areas of focus for driving innovation over the next two years, and that 46 percent plan to innovate through customer communities, I felt it timely to review critical steps for driving successful customer engagement through online communities.

  • Carefully define your community strategy and align it with corporate objectives. One reason communities fail is that the goals of the community are not well-defined. Similarly, the company may see the community as a marketing tool, not an extension of the business. Lack of staff support is also a big indicator that management’s expectation of the community’s potential is lackluster. The community needs to be seen as a new product or “customer advocacy program.” Engagement from all areas of the company is recommended, as is a detailed layout of the goals, market share and competitive analysis, business model choice and recruitment strategy. Is the goal to improve existing client satisfaction? Is it to generate data to confirm new product and service ideas? What about potential upselling opportunities? No matter what is chosen, the company should apply intelligence from the community to its operational processes and product development.
  • Develop a platform of trust. Another reason communities fail is because they do not offer a social collaboration platform that will drive the necessary peer and content exchange. Another is offering users who should not be members access to the community and its resources. These mistakes have paralyzed communities. Create a space in which your customers feel comfortable exchanging ideas. Then create a platform that will support that space. It all comes down to trust among members and trust between the members and the company.
  • Content is key to continued vitality, while collaboration provides the momentum. A lack of useful content customized for the target audience prevents the community from getting off the ground. Content is the reason people join, and the connections they make keep them coming back for more. Generating interaction among members is key to igniting debate and problem solving. Doing so shows that you know your client members well, which they will appreciate and respond to.
  • Test it out. Don’t be eager to throw money at the technology needed to create the community until you test it with your client advisory board and other potential members. Members will not come back if they find the platform too challenging to use or if it doesn’t meet their needs. Keep in mind that communities like this require continuous updates due to changing business needs.

Developing an active community takes perseverance and patience. Success will be obvious: Do your customers have a need to network with each other based on the issues they face? Are they revealing to their peers what they do NOT know? Can the company compel members to meet face to face? If the answers to these questions are “yes,” then the community may beat the odds of survival.

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