Key strategies to secure customer participation once you’ve built your online customer community.

An exciting trend we see in B2B is a renewed investment in online customer communities. Companies appear to be realizing how important it is to provide a vehicle for their customers to interact outside of normal communications channels. In a recent blog post, I discussed some key questions organizations should consider in evaluating their community strategy. In this post, I offer ways to secure customer participation once you’ve built your community:

  • Create awareness internally. Commonly overlooked in community support is the need to internally share the good work you’ve done to build the community. With so many competing internal initiatives and external distractions, it’s risky to assume that fellow employees will naturally pick up on what’s happening in the community. Although all areas of your company may be interested in the online community, pay particular attention to customer-facing groups (e.g. customer support, sales, product, customer experience, all areas of marketing). Evangelize to these groups to ensure that they know the community exists and understand the value it provides to customers and the company. Get on the agenda to share details about the community at product meetings, quarterly business reviews and similar standing meetings.
  • Leverage other channels. Odds are that many complementary customer-facing vehicles already exist and can be good sources of support for the community. Since many online customer communities originate in support organizations, figure out how the community can supplement what already exists. Attend, and present at, customer user groups, customer advisory boards, industry or product councils to increase visibility into the online community and ensure these influential customer leaders are armed with information about the community and how it can help other customers.
  • Market the community to new customers. One of the best ways to ensure all new customers get exposure to the community is to create awareness at the onset of their relationship with your company. Make the community a featured part of the customer onboarding agenda, and allow new customers to register and test-drive the community right from the start.
  • Promote within other social sites. In addition to hosting their own, private online communities, many companies also tap external social sites (e.g. LinkedIn). Although these external sites are valuable to customers in terms of supporting the broader discussion around your products or company, they often don’t provide the level of functionality offered by your private community. Marketers should look for ways to get these complementary sites to work together. Support the growth of your private community by making sure that customers who participate in external communities are directed to your private community for deeper insights.
  • Ask members to help promote the community. Active community participants can be a great source of recruitment help. Marketing can subtly present the request for help within the community and even consider leveraging an awards or recognition program for customers who bring in the most additional customers.

As many B2B organizations have found out the hard way, it’s one thing to build an online customer community; it’s another thing to ensure that it thrives. Like so many other initiatives, it requires care and feeding. Assigning clear ownership of community promotion and recruitment is a good place to start. Online customer communities are a powerful, dynamic source of information for, and about, your customers – don’t leave its success to chance.