The worlds of corporate brand marketing and online community management have been in separate orbits. And if you’re not taking steps to bridge the gap, your organization is missing a massive opportunity.
I’ve seen too many community managers describe their online community as a “customer support community”, relegating it to the backwater of call center operations. Likewise, brand marketing teams are focused on brand architecture, messaging, imagery, advertising, and campaigns—often totally missing the opportunity of engaging and harnessing the power of their customers and partners that inhabit the “messy” world of their online community.
In a brilliant recent article entitled “Hey, CMOs: Who owns your brand?”, former Marketo CMO, Chandar Pattabhiram, argues:
“CMOs and marketers are just the keepers of the brand—the “heavy lifting” is done by a brand’s community, or “tribe,” of customers, fans, influencers and advocates.”
This broader vision of both branding and community has sadly been missing from leaders in both camps that don’t realize the power they can harness by coming together.
Traditional support communities are valuable places for customers to learn and solve problems with your product. They’re more efficient than call center support for 90% of problems. Solutions are available 24/7, they’re a Google search away, they draw on peer customer experiences, they’re easily consumed, knowledge grows as the community contributes more, and frankly it’s what customers prefer. But if that’s the only way you are engaging with these customers, you’re missing out on a much more powerful opportunity for your customers and your brand.
Opportunities with Customer Communities
Many forward-thinking organizations have transformed their communities from “support communities” into valuable brand assets made up of engaged, passionate customers and partners connecting with experts, peers, employees and influencers in your industry. In short, they have created an influential network of brand advocates sharing your story with the world. Now that is powerful!
These communities, augmented with social media, can deliver on the vision of harnessing the power of customer voices to validate, amplify, and carry the brand message in a more authentic way than traditional branding can ever deliver. How does this happen? It’s not automatic. It takes vision, a concerted effort, the right level of resources, a little science, and a little alchemy to unleash this true power of community.
Here are the building blocks necessary to take advantage of a modern, effective customer community.
• Customer engagement: Make your community and social media interactions a place where customers can openly engage with each other, with other experts and influencers, and with your employees. This can be challenging because it requires your entire organization to embrace an open approach to talking with the outside world. Make it open to the world (not behind a firewall) and encourage an open culture of all participants embracing a fearless approach to customer and partner engagement.
• Building and sharing your tribe: Your employees know the best and most vocal customer advocates that they work with every day. But how well are they known across the organization or by the outside world? A vibrant customer community can be a place where your best customers have a venue to share their thoughts, where they can be encouraged to engage and share their best experiences with the world, and where your employees can see and connect with these customers when they otherwise might be hidden in a one-on-one conversation with the sales team, support, consulting, or with other peer customers.
• Creating brand advocates: Your customers love you, but often don’t have the medium or the motivation to speak as advocates for the brand. Communities and social media provide the medium, and a reputation system with gamification can provide the motivation. Gamification, done right, can be very powerful (It’s gotten a bad rap from the name – it’s not about playing games – it’s about putting incentives in place to encourage people to do what you’d like them to do – simple).
I’ve experienced first-hand a well-thought-out-and-executed gamification system drive a 400% increase in engagement, grow impressive “community generated content”, and create authentic assets our product teams used in their upcoming launch campaigns to drive awareness, interest, and action to build a pipeline. Along the way, the community is filled with brand advocates growing their own reputations in the broader ecosystem of customers, partners, influencers, and prospects. A win-win for all!
• Listening to customers: Once your community has reached critical mass, one of the great opportunities with customer communities is to provide a mechanism for customers and partners to share their ideas in an open forum, allow others to rate and comment, and have the best ideas float to the top. Your product teams need to commit to reviewing ideas and accepting the best ones into the product roadmap. This kind of transparent engagement with customers is liberating and motivating for customers to feel they have a voice and a stake in the future of the company and the brand.
• Connecting more deeply with customers: Online communities combined with your customer in-person events can energize your customer base and create opportunities for deeper, more meaningful connections (see my recent blog post on the topic). At SAP, we created an elite group of community members called the “SAP Mentors” – 125 of the most engaged and vocal, yet respectful community members.
While onsite at events, our most senior leaders from the CEO on down, made time to meet for an hour with Mentors. These were free-wheeling, valuable sessions where our executives got the unvarnished truth and the Mentors had access to top executives to influence the direction of the company. Another win-win. (BTW, for community managers, this also gives your executives a first-hand, personal experience with the value of your online community.)
• Let the community create their own culture and traditions: Communities grow and morph sometimes in directions we don’t expect. It is empowering for the community and a strong motivator for community members to become more involved and take on leadership roles themselves. As your organization’s community leader, you still shape, nurture, guide, and encourage the community to go in positive directions (moderation and gamification helps). However, community members deserve the respect (and will respect you more) if you let them take the lead on shaping the culture and traditions of the community itself.
• Leverage your community in buying cycles: The value of an effective community is a powerful part of the value proposition to your prospective customers: “You’re not just buying product XYZ, you’re buying into an entire ecosystem of organizations and individuals that are available online 24 hours a day to help you be successful”. Your marketing and sales teams should understand this power and build it into marketing messaging, campaigns, sales enablement tools, and conversations with prospective customers.
A New Paradigm
In his groundbreaking book DRIVE, Daniel Pink opened everyone’s eyes to the flaws in old carrot and stick reward systems organizations have lived with forever. He argues powerfully for a new paradigm of motivation recognizing people’s need for autonomy, mastery, and purpose to unleash their passion for performance. Well-run customer communities embody all three of those motivators allowing community members the autonomy to work independently and shape their world and culture, gain mastery and build their reputation around their expertise in your solutions, and work with purpose, helping each other in the community become more successful and empowered. Online communities allow organizations to mobilize the power of customer and partner volunteers, passionate about your brand and looking for ways to contribute.
At the beginning of this article, I called online customer communities “messy”. And they can be. This is one reason marketing/branding teams haven’t eagerly embraced community in their brand initiatives – it is hard and you don’t have direct control. But the world is changing, and leading organizations are getting wise to the power of community amplified with social media to harness the passions of your customers, partners, influencers, and broader ecosystem to supercharge your brand.