Online Communities: Customers Just Not That into Them


Just like those personal relationships gone bad, where you weren't committed enough or sensitive enough, companies are coming up short in their flirtations with Web 2.0.


A recent Forrester Research study found that business-to-business companies appear disenchanted with their blogs, as I wrote earlier this month. And who do they have to blame? Right, themselves. According to Forrester, B2B bloggers don't post regularly enough, rely mostly on company press releases, and don't put enough personality into their posts.


There appears to be a similar problem in the business-to-consumer space, based on a report from Deloitte, which found plenty of unrealized potential in its study of online customer communities.


On the positive side, according to an internetnews.com story about the research, 35 percent of companies with such communities say they've experienced increased word-of-mouth for their brands and 28 percent say overall brand awareness has improved. Online communities also boost customer loyalty and bring new ideas into the organization faster, say 24 percent of respondents.


Less positive: Most communities have fewer than 500 members, and (echoing the Forrester study) 50 percent of respondents say that engaging folks is the toughest part of making communities work.


Ed Moran, Deloitte's director of product innovation, says low membership numbers may indicate a company picked the wrong kind of community. Other issues include companies exerting too much control over outside content or comments and companies emphasizing technological tools over content.


Moran also says he's "shocked" at the number of companies that assign a single part-time marketing person to manage customer communities. Says Moran:

It's important to have a well-moderated and run online community and it's critical someone is there to moderate and mediate what happens online.

Moran's suggestion: Employ a full-time Chief Community Officer, who is familiar with customer communities and the company's products and services, to manage online initiatives. I've written about this trend twice this month, once in a post noting that companies such as Southwest Airlines assign full-time staffers to monitor and manage social media channels, and in an interview with Forrester's Bruce Temkin, who says an increasing number of companies are employing C-level executives responsible for the customer experience across channels.


Moran taps the My Starbucks Idea community and Dell's IdeaStorm as two communities that have successfully engaged customers and produced new ideas that have been put into practice.


Moran may have been alluding to this when he mentions that companies sometimes select the wrong kinds of communities, but here's something else for companies to think about: Sometimes customers just aren't that into you, or at least not into creating an identity, group of friends and discussion groups based only on product associations. While this may work for products that inspire fairly strong emotions and behaviors in folks (i.e., coffee and PCs) , it's not going to fly for more mundane stuff like batteries.