The truth behind online branded communities

“Join the conversation.”

It’s about as appealing as asking someone to step onto an empty dance floor at a lame party and start busting a move. So why does this call to action serve as the mantra for the communities that I see so many corporations set up for their customers?

It’s because online branded communities usually have it half right.

I say “half right,” because offering your customers the option to have a party on your community is not the same as throwing a rager and being a kick a** host. Too many online branded communities are started for the wrong reasons and wind up being ghost towns. Sure people join, but they seem to move out as soon as they sign up. So why do these communities fail?

Communities Are Not a Customer Retention Tool

The first mistake most online branded community owners make is viewing their community as a customer retention tool. By doing this the community becomes about the company rather than about the customer. Even worse it usually means the community has a very short trial period to show overwhelming and unreasonable performance before someone in upper management starts thinking about pulling the plug.

Communities are a customer attention tool.

Customers should feel that by joining a community they are now on the inside, the way you feel when you go to your favorite restaurant where everybody knows your name or show up at the local clubhouse. Each member of the community, whether they are the quiet type who is just there to browse and collect or the extrovert who wants to start posting before their registration form is filled out, should receive attention, preferably from a dedicated community manager. Great communities provide a sense that when someone raises an issue or wants to promote something awesome attention is going to be paid to it.

The most vibrant online branded communities are run by companies in the video game, technology and entertainment industries. Sure, these are more exciting than say a tax planner community or a community for underwater basket weavers (although you would be surprised at the engagement numbers in some of these niche communities; of course these are rarely branded by a corporation, but the opportunity is there for the right company), but what any company can take away from these key communities is the lesson that any successful community has to be about the customer and their needs, not the company.

The Thank You Economy is a Return to Small-Town Word of Mouth

Gary Vaynerchuk wrote a book last year called “The Thank You Economy.” If you haven’t checked this out yet and you run an online branded community you need to get a copy now.

As Gary outlines in the book, online communities and the Internet have put power back into the hands of consumers. We now have unlimited choices and voices. If a company does us dirty we can tell our all of our friends with a status update and they can tell their friends who tell their friends, and before you know it, as Gary says in his talk below, “Dunbar’s number is fu*ked,” (per Wikipedia, “Dunbar’s number (150) is a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships.”).

Where the corporate cleansing of personal relationships in business made everything “just business” the social revolution happening on the Internet (and yes this is just the beginning) demands that companies care about their customers. And I mean really care.

That means building relationships with customers and not giving them the run around. It means providing a phone number where people can actually reach someone who can help them. And it means offering communities that are for them and what they need rather than for companies to retain customers by looking like they care.

Tips on How to Build an Online Branded Community That Matters

Here are some tips on how to build a branded online community for your customers that gives them the small town feel they are looking for.

  1. Listen – a lot of online branded communities start from assumptions made by someone in marketing that customers want X. Sometimes these assumptions are even based on traditional focus groups that the marketer conducted with actual customers. The trouble with these sessions is that people often don’t know what they want even when you ask them directly. As Malcolm Gladwell said in his TED Talk in 2004: if he had asked the audience what kind of coffee they preferred, over 80% of them will say “a dark roast that is robust,” when the truth is that a greater variety of preference actually existed. Preferences would likely range from creamy sweet coffees to spiced coffees and everything in between. Asking them is not enough. They don’t know how to tell you what they want. You’ve got to listen to their conversations, and with social tools like Hootsuite, TweetDeck and Radian 6, now you can.
  2. Context – as I mentioned above, a lot of companies start branded online communities as a value add on for customer retention strategy. STOP NOW. The only reason to build an online branded community is to better serve your customers by giving them a place where they feel like they have your attention both to help them resolve issues with your company and to receive insider extras they wouldn’t get outside of the community (think “free drink” from your favorite bartender). That’s how you build the foundation for a relevant context that can evolve into a real community, like Apple Support Forums, where the inmates run the asylum discussing issues and interests beyond their initial reason for coming (i.e. support).
  3. Function – most communities function around sign up for and set up of a profile, some kind of content sharing and usually member connection. A lot of companies build their online branded communities from out-of-the-box solutions like Telligent or Kick Apps. Granted there is something nice about just getting a community up and running, but in my experience these communities often have technical issues that turn off members. The best communities are going to offer functions for what your members actually want to do. Are they going to use forum boards? Do they really want to use the community’s blogging tools? One way to insure user engagement and user generated content (UGC) is to allow a lot of cross functionality with other popular platforms. Use an API that allows users to sign up and in with their Facebook, Twitter or Linkedin profiles. Have a feature that pulls data from those profiles so the member doesn’t have to replicate the same details on yet ANOTHER social network. Enable posts from the community to be syndicated on other networks with the click of a button. Allow all types of content from video to pin boards. Most of all, make sure your community works – there’s nothing worse than trying to build community on a piece of crap software.

These are just a few items that should be considered for any online branded community. Top all that off with a stellar community manager and you have a chance of running a community that your customers find useful, interesting and enjoyable.

Remember: it’s all about them and their bottom line (i.e. where should they spend their time?), not yours.

Watch this talk by Gary Vaynerchuk on the thank you economy if you want a real kick in the pants.

IFRAME Embed for Youtube