With a new year comes new scrutiny over which marketing efforts are working and which need to be cut. For a community manager, that means yet another opportunity to justify your existence (and your salary!) to your superiors.

Here’s at least one reason for them to keep you around this year: online community-based customer support.

In the past, companies have engaged with digital channels (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) as if they were glorified customer support lines. While that won’t completely go away, I believe this year will show a steady rise in community-based support.

In the next couple of days, I’ll suggest some ways in which community managers can capitalize on this shift. But first, I want to give you three reasons why I think it’s happening: authenticity, trust, and efficiency.

Authentic Conversations Builds Rapport

Customers will do everything they possibly can to avoid calling your customer support line. Anyone who’s every been on hold for more than 15 minutes can attest to that.

So, they’ll start with the web. Sadly, company websites aren’t always the best place to get personalized customer support. They’ll probably end up turning to Google. If they can’t find answers there, they’ll ask friends on social media.

Interestingly enough, many will run this process exactly in reverse.

In either case, your customers are going to end up looking for answers on some form of social media. Unfortunately, their go-to platforms are getting swamped by advertising. With spending on social advertising projected to rise by over $35 billion next year, it’s only going to get worse.

The last thing a customer in need of support wants is to be taken advantage of. The prevalence of advertising creates a space in which they no longer feel as though they’re having a conversation. Instead, they’ve been commercialized.

A hosted community space allows brands to maintain control of the conversation—to create an authentic environment in which customer service requests are taken seriously and addressed in a way that strengthens customer relations and amplifies the brand narrative.

You won’t get that if your customers are too busy dodging banner ads and sponsored posts.

Developing Trust Through Peer-to-Peer Conversations

Alongside the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, we’ve seen an alarming rise in “fake news.” Sadly, both Google and Facebook have played their part in lending social proof and search traffic to news stories with little truth content at all.

What that means for customer support is that the internet is increasingly becoming a less reliable place—if not in actuality, then at least in perception. If we can’t trust Google to point us in the right direction, then who can we trust?

In the same way that people used to ask friends and neighbours for advice, customers are turning to their online communities to discuss issues before they pick up a phone and call a customer support line.

Customers may not be able to trust the random sources Google points them to, but they can trust the group of enthusiasts they’ve gotten to know online. With the right blend of input from brand loyalists and direction from digital support staff, an online community can become the place for reliable customer support.

Efficiency Through Scale

In 2015, Vanilla Forums ran an audit on 250 discussion threads over 25 customer support communities to see how customers were interacting with those forums. They found that 55% of the questions asked had to do with technical support.

82% of those questions were answered, not by the company, but by other customers.

The beauty of a vibrant online conversation is that your digital support staff can step back and let the user community do the heavy lifting. Of course, you can and should dip in to steer the conversation and provide valuable resources.

Nevertheless, by letting the community own the conversation, you solidify the bonds between your members and, ultimately, your brand. Not to mention, you’ll cultivate a healthy stream of user-generated, Google-indexable content.

Online community-based customer support is going to be a big deal in 2017. Don’t miss your chance to get out in front of it. Start setting up systems and processes that will help you steer the conversation towards higher brand satisfaction and increased conversion.

Keep an eye out for my next post, where I’ll give you a few ideas on how to do just that.