• People join communities for specific reasons – do you know why your customers would join yours?
  • Each customer’s needs for joining must be aligned with the online platform chosen to fulfill those needs
  • Public and private platforms promise different things, and combining them may not achieve the expected result

Since SiriusDecisions’ annual CMO study revealed that marketing leaders ranked “customer communities to drive customer engagement” as one of their top areas of focus for driving innovation over the next two years, I felt it timely to review critical steps for driving successful customer engagement through online communities in my recent blog post. Although this is a top area of focus, the top reason communities fail is due to a lack of resources dedicated to keeping the community alive and fresh, and ultimately meaningful to the customers. Keeping it meaningful means offering the right kind of peer exchange platform for specific customers. We don’t bother asking the most important question: Why would MY customers join this?

People join communities for several reasons; it’s critical to tap into the reasons your own customers seek to join, otherwise you may put effort into setting up a platform that won’t engage your customers in the right way.

Some reasons include:

  • To connect with peers for job searching purposes and general networking
  • To build their personal brand. Receiving recognition from industry peers can be more rewarding than a comparable reward from an employer; some join communities to achieve this personal goal
  • To help others. Altruism, mentoring, solving a problem for someone else and the feeling of giving back are powerful motivators
  • To address a problem that must be solved quickly and discreetly. Customers also join to learn tips and tricks from other customers that will help them see value sooner

One of the most important factors of success in delivering a platform that can meet customers’ needs involves choosing between a platform that is only available within your company’s private domain and a readily available public platform. This decision can make or break the community. You don’t necessarily require a private group to enable customers to gain recognition and networking connections. In fact, having a group on a public social platform like LinkedIn may be a great idea; the more eyes that are on customers’ awards or recognition, the better it is for them. A public platform may be beneficial for those who want to join to help others, but only if it helps drive collaboration. For those who have a problem to solve, a private “safe haven” is critical, especially for C-level executive customers.

Companies sometimes try to build private communities on public platforms like LinkedIn as a way to build peer engagement. Public platforms have benefits, but mostly to the company creating the group. These platforms make the group inexpensive and easy to launch. However, a lot of companies overlook the fact that public platforms such as LinkedIn have brand recognition with customers, which may not be a good thing in this case. A brand like LinkedIn brings the perception of a “social media tool” and not necessarily a platform where customers can hold private discussions and ask for help without the feeling that it’s public. There is also little control over functionality and privacy rules, which seals the deal for many customers if their reasons for joining require a safe haven or closed peer interaction. Even if the community manager is on top of every little privacy rule change and all spam activity, it’s the perception that matters.

With private platforms, the company has more control over functionality, user interface and integration with other companies’ systems and tools, and can offer a higher level of security and privacy to its customers. However, creating a platform on your own company Web site can be an expensive investment, and the time it takes to get it right can turn many executives off.

If you really want to walk the right path, ask your customers what would motivate them to join. Categorize those reasons, then connect them to the platform that can best address their motivations. It all comes down to trust among the community members and trust between the members and the company.