Getting Guidance Right for Customer Communities

Ann All
Slide Show

Eight Telling Changes in Consumer Attitudes and Behaviors

Factors such as loyalty programs and the use of technology are influencing consumers' decision to stay with or leave their providers.

I recently read an article in The Atlantic that alternately horrified and amused me. Titled "How to Land Your Kid in Therapy," it featured lots of experts telling parents they needed to resist their impulses to meddle in their children's lives. Kids with overly involved parents generally aren't as well equipped as their more self-sufficient peers to deal with the eventual responsibilities of adulthood. I don't think the experts are telling parents anything they didn't already know. But it's often pretty tough to adopt a hands-off policy when it comes to your kids.


I see a parallel in how many companies treat members of their customer-facing communities. They know they should largely let those folks determine the direction of the communities but they sometimes find it hard to do so. Like parenting, this doesn't just mean turning folks loose and hoping for the best. It's about providing the right kinds of guidance, in appropriate amounts. This came out clearly in a post I wrote last spring, in which I shared online communities do's and don'ts gleaned from my interviews with managers of communities at Microsoft, SAP and Dell.


SAP asks community members to lead discussions, but it also employs a full-time staff to add and review content and assist community members. And it encourages SAP developers, product managers and other product managers to keep an eye on discussion forums related to their expertise. Explained Mark Yolton, SVP of the SAP Community Network: "They don't answer all the questions, but they look for ones that haven't been answered or were answered wrong and help steer those in the right direction."


These companies work hard at fostering long-term relationships with their customers. But they do so in the context of sharing information, not selling stuff. They also encourage active participation among community members by offering meaningful incentives such as early product releases and opportunities to meet company executives. SAP, for instance, awards points for contributions to its community and, Yolton told me, "the points really become reflective of a member's reputation. It reflects how engaged and collaborative you are in how you work with others in the community."


Ning recently produced a report, based on surveys of its users, examining growth and trends in community engagement. When I interviewed Anne Driscoll, the company's VP of business operations, she told me the three keys to a successful community are context, content and engagement. The three tend to complement each other. The Ning survey found growth in both member numbers and engagement levels when multiple people, not just the creator of a community, begin creating content.


So how do you get folks to contribute content? Driscoll said:

The reason why you bring people into the community needs to be compelling enough to drive content. You can't just create a community, add people and assume it'll be great. You need to bring in people who really care about a topic and want to engage with each other.

She offered the example of DIY Drones, a Ning community for people who build model drones and "laser focuses in on a topic that the members are very passionate about." It recently hit a billion page views a month.


Narrowing a community's focus can help, said Driscoll:

Sometimes creating a highly concentrated community around a very specific topic can have far more amplification and impact around a brand. When users take it out to their social graph, you gain so much more than anything you as a company could do within the social graph. Your customers are your ambassadors, and their communities trust them. It's about empowering groups of people to get the word out in the most authentic and compelling way.

Driscoll believes passion-based communities featuring conversations that may not specifically be about a company's brand offer the most potential for companies to connect with and engage community members. She mentioned Kreg Jig , a community of hobbyist woodworkers who often seek advice from each other on their woodworking projects. She said:

... It makes people feel good because they are engaging with people who really care about it and learn from others. Kreg Jig is a set of woodworking tools. People aren't engaging in discussions around how they use Kreg Jig tools but about what they are doing with any woodworking tools. Kreg Jig realizes that by having authentic conversations under the umbrella of their brand, it reinforces a connection with the brand. That to me is the holy grail of what businesses and brands can do with social and community. They can foster and support authentic, passionate conversations.

When I asked her about the survey's biggest takeaway, Driscoll said successful companies don't just view communities and other social efforts as tick-the-box activities; they employ holistic social strategies. This echoes a point made by Ed Moran, Deloitte's director of product innovation, when I interviewed him in 2009 about Deloitte's "Tribalization of Business" study. He told me:

... Your whole enterprise should care, not just marketing. Your product development people should be sitting right there saying, "What does this mean for the next revision of our product?" It'll help you get smart about support. "What are the bugs in our product, or what's not clear about the owners' manual?" You can correct that almost in real time through better integration with your support. Think about HR, even. People who are really engaged with your company's product and services and want to help, wouldn't those be great people to employ some day? So when you go across the enterprise and look at the different functions, every one of them should have a seat at the table. ...

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