There are a number of ways to market your products, serve your customers and improve your products or services. But rarely do all of these functions fall under a single platform – until you consider setting up a customer community.

How to Start & Utilize a Customer Community

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In this guide, we’ll explore what customer communities are all about and the reasons they’ve become an important tool for businesses. You’ll be able to understand why your organization should start and utilize a customer community. Finally, we’ll examine the keys to starting a customer community.

WHAT IS A CUSTOMER COMMUNITY?

Before we venture deeper into the ways to utilize and set up a customer community, it’s important to examine customer community as a concept.

The definition of a customer community

Customer communities are places where customers, experts and partners talk about the issues surrounding the company and its products or services. The communities are often online-based, as the Internet has made it easier for different groups to collaborate and communicate.

The aim of an online customer community is to bring the different players together – the customers, the employees and other partners – and to provide a better experience for the customer. These communities are therefore helping to improve and develop the product or service, in order to enhance the customer experience.

The issues discussed by the community include:

  • Solving problems with the product, the service or the company
  • Reviewing and analyzing the product or the service
  • Brainstorming new ideas
  • Engaging in discussion about the product in a general level

It’s important to understand the distinction between a customer service platform and a customer community. Whilst customer community aims to improve the overall customer experience, it is not a customer service platform in the purest meaning of the word. Customer communities are interactive platforms for collaborating about the product and the service, instead of a platform designed solely for solving customer problems.

A number of companies have dedicated customer communities, although these platforms are not often evangelized to the public. Some examples of customer communities include:

You should also watch the below video of Ustream co-founder and CEO, Brad Hunstable, explaining how the organization used and benefitted from implementing a customer community:

 

Why the rise of customer communities?

While customer communities are not often publicly talked about, the number of them has been on the increase. Two separate forces have largely driven the trend: the rise of the Internet and the age of the customer.

The technological revolution and the emergence of the Internet have been a major force in the increase in customer communities. Organizations have been able to set up these online platforms easily and the investment has been kept relatively low. Furthermore, social media has helped to connect with customers and the use of mobile phones has driven the success of many of these platforms.

The Internet hasn’t just made collaboration and communication easier, it has also given the customer better anonymity. As these platforms enable the hiding of the customer’s identity, customers feel more relaxed to discuss the pain points of the product or service, as the information won’t be attached to customer profile.

The other major driver of customer communities has been the evolution of the age of the customer. Customers have gained increasing power in the dynamic partnership over the seller. Since the options for ‘taking your money elsewhere’ have increased, the negotiating power of the customer has increased.

Information is democratized, meaning customers are able to seek information about a product or a service more easily. It’s not also simply information provided by expert sources, but direct experiences from users that are just like the customer.

THE REASONS FOR STARTING A CUSTOMER COMMUNITY

Organizations should look into customer communities as a means to improve the organization and develop customer relations. These means, such as customer communities, are important in today’s connected world because they enhance the business’ ability to engage with customers and to keep them happy.

The benefits and the best uses of a customer community are aligned. Therefore, an organization should aim to focus on ensuring it achieves the best uses, as it’ll also help them achieve the benefits. The focus should be on:

Providing more value for the customer. Customer communities are perfect for value-improvement and this aspect should be the focus of a customer community. Organizations should ensure customers have easy access to information through the platform to improve the user experience. Responsiveness of the community is also important, as you can provide more value by simply responding faster.

Value creation shouldn’t be purely focused on the company’s own products and services. The role of the customer community is to open the doors and ensure the customer makes the most of the product or service. This could include things such as introducing other products that work well with the product or solving issues by directing the customer to another service. The key should solely be on value for the customer.

Improving the product or service. A customer community is focused on bringing together the different elements of the organization, from the employees to the customers. This can provide a deeper insight into the product or service and help drive product development.

Organizations are not only able to learn directly from the problems customers might have with the product, but can also attract ideas the organization might not have thought of. Customer communities can drive development and innovation, especially if this is encouraged and supported by the organization.

Boosting marketing. Organizations should also use customer communities for marketing purposes. This should be done by two approaches.

First, the company should use the platform for marketing new products and services to the community. This could include providing early access and giving exclusive content for community members. An organization should also encourage the sharing of new information and tips among members and the wider target market. Customer driven marketing can be a beneficial tool in the era of social media.

Organizations are also able to learn from its members. Gathering and analyzing data generated by the community is an important tool for improving marketing strategies. It’s beneficial to test content or marketing strategies within the community and then use the information in public campaigns.

Second, the company can use the costumer community as a tool for branding and marketing. A customer community is great for highlighting how the company looks after its customer and therefore attracting more people. With a strong customer community, an organization can establish itself as an industry leader and become an authoritative organization within the sector.

Learn how customer communities are boosting word-of-mouth marketing.

 

Enhancing the organization’s ability to control its online reputation. In today’s online-driven world, information spreads fast. For companies, this can sometimes mean a single bad online review can damage its reputation if the situation isn’t handled properly.

But a customer community is another tool that could potentially help manage the online conversation. The organization can direct the social media conversation surrounding it and control the way reviews and responses to them are handled.

Customer community can help the company improve its product and service in the event of ‘bad publicity’. The ability to learn from each experience, as well as to get direct feedback from customer can be an important part of improving damage control.

Cutting costs. Finally, customer community should be used for cutting costs, which will be an essential benefit for any organization. Most of the above points directly cut operational costs in an organization.

For example, an organization can discard unnecessary product development, as it’ll hear directly from the customers. The feedback from the community will help direct resources to improve the aspect of the products the user wants changed.

Furthermore, you’ll also be able to create better marketing strategies, as well as use user generated content and user sharing/reviews as part of your marketing. This is another big cut in operational costs.

HOW TO CREATE A STRONG FOUNDATION FOR THE CUSTOMER COMMUNITY

When setting up a customer community, the above benefits should guide the focus of the community. Furthermore, there are specific elements, which will make the above advantages easier to achieve and guarantee the organization’s approach to customer community is on the right track.

The five cornerstones of a good customer community, and which should be at the heart of your operations, are explained below.

#1 Creating a strong internal support structure

Your first priority should be creating a support structure around the community. This is mainly down to the Internet being quite a murky place to operate in. In short, your organization will not always attract good comments and customer created content might be tricky to handle. You therefore need a team that’s able to respond to these situations efficiently and who feel supported and appreciated by the organization for doing this important work.

First, it’s important to draw a clear set of procedures for dealing with customer community related issues. Have a line of commands in place for negative feedback or content within the community, as well as for dealing with community-related problems. If everyone knows how to approach these sorts of problems, they will be able to deal with them more effectively.

You don’t want to restrict the directions customer communities take, as it can lead to stronger customer relations and innovations. Nonetheless, you should have clear guidelines of the appropriate behavior to ensure the community understands the rules.

Second, you should consider recruiting a team of volunteers to run the community at first. Perhaps there are people within your organization who would love to do some blogging, or who wouldn’t mind answering customer questions. Having a volunteer for these jobs guarantees you have passionate people involved with the community.

In this video Salesforce explains some best practices for running your own customer community.

 

#2 Ensuring accountability

Your customer community must also have a strong accountability system in place, both internally and externally. For things to run smoothly, a community manager is definitely worth assigning. The community manager can be the final piece of the puzzle guaranteeing your community doesn’t start to run riot.

The manager’s role is to keep everyone in the community in line, whether they are the organization’s employees or the customers. Furthermore, the manager can ensure focus and objectives are being achieved within the community.

If you have a suitable candidate for the role within your organization, then appointing them can be a great idea. On the other hand, you shouldn’t be afraid of hiring an experienced community manager from the outside.

While the community manager should be the arbiter of accountability, he or she shouldn’t act like a tyrant. The role of the manager is more like a role of a referee – there to blow the whistle if things get out of hand, but also have his own role scrutinized by the community, and definitely not the decider of the final score.

When it comes to accountability and community management, the customers should have a say in how the community is being run. The community should put the customer first and customers must have a say in how things are run.

#3 Fostering external support

It’s essential to foster a culture of support within the community and external support definitely plays a role. You want the community to help run the show and support each other in making the most of your product or service.

First, it’s important to start rewarding good behavior and community contributions. If you have customers who are actively answering community member’s questions or creating content for the community to enjoy, you want to show your appreciation of this behavior. Community points systems, awards and other such rewards are definitely a good way to foster helpful and friendly behavior.

There are companies that have organized award ceremonies for customer communities and the most helpful community members. In terms of rewarding the ‘best’ community members, you could use different criteria. For example, you can reward members who’ve helped the most by answering questions or you could reward the members who’ve created the most viewed blog post or video related to your product or service.

Furthermore, you can understand the importance of this approach through the example of Amazon. The online platform now designates top reviewers and even has a reviewer Hall of Fame. The consumer trust towards these community-driven reviews has meant the reviews are more valued than those of traditional media reviewers.

You should also aim to create strong peer support networks within the community. Invoke natural social engagement rules and allow customers to form their own groups. Again, it’s important to ensure you encourage to brightest customers to step up and take a leading role in helping other community members. Actively look for these customers, support them in their role, mention them to other community members and reward their good behavior.

#4 Generating quality content

The focus of a customer community should be on content, as this is one of the best ways to ensure customers fully utilize your product or service. In addition, content creation can help yield better results for customer attraction.

It’s crucial to understand content creation shouldn’t be too narrowly determined – the content can range from informal to formal, from the written word to videos and images. The important thing is to ensure the quality remains high and the content is useful for the consumer. You shouldn’t produce content simply for content’s sake.

Furthermore, your content shouldn’t be used for pushing your products and business to the community – your focus shouldn’t be on marketing your business, it’s just an additional bonus. Good content creation within a customer community focuses on helping customers make the most with your products and service. Therefore, your content must be helpful, innovative and answer a real need within the community.

In fact, a customer community shouldn’t shy away from discussing or sharing information or products that might not be related or solved by the organization’s own products and services. Microsoft’s customer community, or customer advisory board, the Interoperability Executive Council is the perfect example of this. The board gathered different technology experts and focused on solving all the vexing business technology issues, even when Microsoft products couldn’t solve them. This nonetheless, gave the company a strong position as a thought leader in the industry and helped develop its brand image.

Finally, when it comes to content creation, it’s auspicious to involve social media to your strategy. You want to encourage social media sharing, as it can help improve and grow your customer community.

#5 Focusing on strong security

Overall, since your company will be sharing information and your customers are involved with sharing personal details, you must ensure the community is properly protected. Therefore, if you collect data or use platforms that require login, ensure you implement appropriate security measures. Create strong security policies, which are transparent and nurture strong security culture within the community as well.

Furthermore, you should also find a balance in releasing new and sensitive information about the product and keeping this information to yourself. Whilst the data can be useful for the consumer and help increase innovation and customer satisfaction, your competitors can also use detailed data against you. You need to identify the information that could be beneficial to competitors and the information, which is more valuable to the consumer.

FINAL WORDS

Customer communities are an effective way to increase sales, develop better products and services, and provide more value for customers. It’s an important part of a comprehensive customer support network and an essential tool for better marketing strategies.

In order to start and utilize a customer community, your organization must outline its objectives and focus on putting the customer first. You’ll need to establish strong external and internal support structures and make sure you create quality content that adds real value to consumers, instead of being purely for promotional purposes.

Above all, use the customer community to engage with your consumers and nurture consumer-led innovation and content creation.

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