These days, social media channels are endless (and growing!) and it can be confusing to even consider where to start between Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, SnapChat, Slack, StackOverflow, and more. With so many options to engage customers through social media channels online, why go to the trouble of creating your own community?
Well, despite all of the options out there to engage publically with customers and partners, and the cost and challenges of building an enterprise customer/partner community, there are actually very strong reasons and valuable opportunities that can come from building your own community. Here are what I consider to be the top 5 reasons to make the investment in building an online customer/partner community for your organization.
1. Grow a Community of Passionate Advocates
Your customers love you! But they’re also busy with their own challenges and don’t have the time or motivation to connect with you (let alone advocate for your brand!) At the same time, customers have challenges that come up with your product. And when they do, it’s difficult to know how to solve the issue or reach out and find others that could have been through the same issue and found ways to solve it. This can lead to frustration and, in the extreme, the perception that the organization doesn’t care.
Creating an online customer community helps solve both of these challenges. Customer communities give your customers a voice and a place to congregate to solve problems. When I was responsible for the SAP Community Network, I saw customers and partners solving problems in very creative ways, including:
• Asking questions about their toughest problems (with answers coming from literally around the world)
• Sharing ideas about new, creative ways to use their current technology
• Posting code snippets of new imaginative solutions they’d come up with
• Writing very long blogs filled with screenshots, code samples, photographs, and explanations of some really tough problems they’d solved using our technology
• Commenting on, liking, and sharing interesting blogs or Q&As that inspired or challenged their thoughts
• Some of the best, most interesting and valuable blogs receiving hundreds of comments from other members saying thanks, adding their perspectives, or just encouraging the author to keep going.
An online community creates the concept of a tangible “place” where like-minded members can congregate around a common topic, share ideas, build their reputation as a strong professional, meet other colleagues and experts in their field, and have a collective experience stretching beyond their physical boundaries. These are not experiences you and your customers can have purely on a public social media platform.
As the community grew, I led the effort to expand our reputation system with a full-fledged gamification system. The response was overwhelmingly positive. We saw a 400% increase in engagement activities as members saw more tangible evidence of the positive impact they were having on other members. Members enjoyed seeing their reputations growing visibly on topic area leaderboards (the SAP community has 400+ topic areas), and felt the competitive juices start to flow as they conquered the latest challenge, earned a badge, or rose to the next reputation level in the community.
And while all this was happening, we were growing a network of passionate, experienced, knowledgeable, and vocal influencers that, along the way, became advocates for the brand. By the way, when your prospective customers hear from current customers and partners, their voices are far more credible and valuable than your latest press release, paid ad, or website brochure.
What do you want your customer talking about on their personal blog or social media — the positive, engaged experience they have with you and other customer peers? Or how the last time they had a problem, they couldn’t find anyone to help them work through it? Build your community! Build your tribe!
2. Help Your Customers Help Each Other
One of the best parts of hosting an online customer community is seeing the power of unleashing the creative energy and altruistic behavior taking hold as members ask questions, answer questions, and share best practices. While I know your organization is full of really smart people, no one holds a monopoly on great ideas. Giving your customers and partners a place to congregate and share ideas can have a powerful effect on your customers, partners, and employees as they engage and learn from each other.
In addition, the power of community can have a tangible positive effect on your support resources. Think about the last time you had a question or problem with a device you use personally. For me, the first thing I do is a Google search about the problem. For companies that have established a community, the top search results are always from conversations happening in the community. Why? Because Google optimizes search based on engagement, activity, return visits, and social sharing — but we’ll get to that later.
Customers want (demand) solutions that can be easily found and are available online 24 hours a day. They don’t want to wait for business hours to call a support line, wait on hold, and then get bumped to higher level engineers when the call center doesn’t know how to solve the problem. How frustrating is that? Communities provide a place for customers to help each other. And guess what…every time a customer gets an answer from the community, that’s a problem that doesn’t find its way into your call center. The industry calls this “call deflection” and it’s a measurable financial benefit to having a community. Bonus: As your customer base grows, the community scales along with it and you have that many more smart people (not on the payroll) helping answer questions. A real win-win for communities!
3. Learn From Your Customers and Partners
Once you’ve built a critical mass of engaged customers and partners in the community, you have to be ready to listen to what they have to say! They’ll help you understand the market in ways you’ve never known before. Some of that comes in the day-to-day conversations and engagement happening in the community. But it’s also possible (and valuable) to create a space to solicit ideas from your new community.
There are a lot of examples of organizations that have asked community members to give input into their product direction. MyStarbucksIdea, Dell IdeaStorm, and SAP IdeaPlace come to mind. This is a great way to hear directly from customers and partners about their experience, challenges, and ideas for how they’d like your product to evolve.
Typically, idea areas have a way for customers to contribute an idea and then allow other community members to vote for ideas they like the best, so best ideas rise to the top. There are also ways for others to add comments to help refine the idea into something stronger. On the back end, idea systems need the ability for your product teams to be actively involved in the process by seeing what ideas are bubbling up to the top, commenting, communicating when you are evaluating an idea, and finally accepting an idea into the product roadmap for the future.
This aspect of community is another win-win. Not only does it bring new, creative ideas into the pipeline, but it can also contribute to customers’ feelings of empowerment and that the organization is listening to their ideas and concerns. One caveat — you MUST make sure your product team is fully committed to participating. The last thing you want is to ask your customers to contribute ideas and have no one on the other side listening — ouch!
4. Drive SEO to Your Website
As I mentioned, Google search algorithms (one of the most recent updates was called “Panda”, but changes continue to occur regularly) are optimized in ways that favor community sites. For example, some factors built into the Google algorithms that affect SEO rankings are also aligned perfectly with community behavior:
• Repeat traffic — a community powerhouse. Engaged community members want to check out what’s happening in the community on a regular basis
• Fresh content — another factor where community really shines. An active community can be a constant source of fresh, interesting content that cannot compare with usually limited resources of your web team
• Number of comments — blogs and forums generate copious amounts of comments, answers, and activity
• Dwell time — when you go to a company’s website, how long do you stay? Community members can get immersed in conversations, new topics, interesting blogs, etc and tend to stay on-property a long time.
• Bounce rate — the inverse of dwell time. Community members tend to hang out and don’t just come in and drop out quickly
• Social shares — you should include social sharing on all community content pages. Community members tend to be active in social and, if given the ability, will regularly share interesting content to their followers on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Slack, and other channels
• Outbound links — community members often include links to reference materials
• Facebook likes — again, social shares and likes are community gold.
• RSS subscribers — community members that care about specific topics often set up RSS feeds to watch for the regular drumbeat of new content and discussions
So what does this mean in reality? At SAP, we took on a project to optimize the community for SEO. It included both IT changes (URL formats, page tagging, etc) as well as content changes (content audit for keywords, placement, etc.). Six months after we completed the project, the community went from 400,000 unique visitors a month up to 1.5 million UMV. We were blown away!
A year later, the community was driving traffic at levels nearing the .com site — without spending a dollar on paid search or marketing programs. The web team was fascinated and we worked together to build cross connects of content between the community and the main digital property. Another win-win because the digital team got a constant flow of fresh, relevant, authentic community-generated content, while we embedded links in the community with relevant product and services content for members interested in exploring solutions.
5. Transform Your Organization’s Culture
One of the main and important constituents in any enterprise customer community is your employees. A community is a place for customers and partners to talk with each other, but they are also talking with your employees as well. Employees from the support teams, product teams, engineering, consulting, marketing, sales, and other areas should be engaged in the community. As community momentum builds, often executives choose to have a presence in the community to share ideas, write thought leadership blogs, or engage with customers and partners.
My experience with communities is that this open exchange of ideas and fluid interaction between employees, customers, and partners has the ultimate effect of transforming an organization’s culture to become more open, resilient, engaged with market trends, and welcoming of customer feedback.
I hope I’ve helped convey some of the unique engagement opportunities, culture, and value that enterprise communities can create and bring to your organization.
Other public platforms like Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and StackOverflow are excellent for sharing news, acting as a front door for the uninitiated, and creating fun, engaging stories around the company and brand. However, the kind of focused, topic-led exchange of ideas, support, and sharing of best practices you find in enterprise communities is simply not possible on public channels where the cacophony of other voices creates more chaff than wheat and makes it confusing and difficult to have a real, engaged, and lasting relationship with your customers and partners.