I hear the word "community" from many marketing managers these days. I hear it so often it would seem every business should strive to have a community. As if community is becoming a common business objective or goal.
While the concept of community -- and assumed relationship to WOM and customer loyalty -- is attractive, the realized business impact of community is a far reach for most companies.
I launched a community of baby boomers back in '97. Chat and forums made Thirdage.com a community, but even within these environments, unpredictable sub-communities around topics of passion formed. That's when I realized that a community has to be founded on common interests, passions and goals.
A company can create a thread of passion and community where one seemingly does not exist. Fiskars created a community around scrap bookers. Makers Mark created an effective "Ambassador" community for their bourbon whiskey that other liquor companies covet. However, as worthwhile as these communities are, I assert the vast majority of their customers neither heard of, nor participated in, nor heard from members from these communities.
As such, you have to ask yourself questions before venturing into a community. How strong can your brand or products yield community? And then, how will the mechanics of that community yield significant business results? Will participation be high, or is it ok with you to host a nice online place for 500 of your most loyal customers to become members, in which only 20 participate regularly? How close is the behavior of that community to the needs of prospects for your company?
Facebook is a community or a container for communities. Three years ago it was closed to university students only, and I was managing Dell's higher ed marketing. Facebook sales execs came in to sell me advertising, and they explained the primary activity was a guy trying to 'connect with' a girl in class through profile matching. I asked myself, and then asked them, "How does that activity align with the search and need for computing technology?"
In my opinion, for most businesses there is far greater opportunity for business impact by facilitating and amplifying mere customer contributions. Participation at some level by a user, visitor or customer is a worthy goal, and likely to yield far greater impact than a lightly treaded community.
Here are three reasons why contribution > community...
Contribution = volume. Ask yourself, is the # of contributions you've made across many sites greater than the number of online communities / networks you're actively involved with? Most customers, visitors and users are busy...like you and me. Most visitors are not going to 'get involved' in another community or social network. But, you can get many to simply interact and post something. Bazaarvoice has clients with up to 40% of customers posting reviews. The sum value of these small contributions is greater than the handful of in depth community conversations. The volume of useful content, data, and action [see "commitment" next] becomes your new marketing working capital [see "asset" below].
Contribution = commitment. Even if contribution is a onetime event, that is worth something. Commitment is a foundational principle of influence. Get someone to say "yes" in a sales call and they're likely to say yes to the next question. Get someone to sign a petition, and they're likely to volunteer at the next asking. If you get someone to contribute content to your site, you get them involved. The customer that leaves a piece of content with the intent to help your company or others has made himself unconsciously committed. And you have the opportunity to lead them to another action.
Contributions = usable marketing assets. A review, an answer, a story... These types of contribution -- unlike unbridled comments and forum posts -- are reverse-engineered to be useful to the majority of prospects and customers who are not contributing. These contributions (a.k.a. user generated content) will be your most powerful marketing asset that can be used over and over again throughout multi-channel marketing programs. SEO, email copy, top rated merchandising, common questions, customer service training, catalog copy, advertising campaigns, and so on. Remember this tongue twister: A community of conversation commentary does not lead to conversion. But crafted contributions can create credibility.
I'm not suggesting online communities are futile or irrelevant. The community generated the majority of page views at ThirdAge.com. Dell Support forum, which I managed for nearly a year, is the foundation for Dell's online support efficacy. And I could argue that many contributions of product reviews have generated a sense of community among thousands of customers on PETCO, JTV and QVC. However, many "forum/blog/wiki/comment" company communities are marginal. So do this simple conceptual equation to evaluate the opportunity of impact of community for your brand:
The passion associated with your brand or product
X need / utility of customers connecting with customers
X likelihood of contribution / interaction volume (both % of customers and number of interactions)
X usefulness of community content to transactional prospects and customers (non participants)
X saliency and amplification of community content used in marketing programs
Alternatively consider how to facillitate transactional and structured contributions from your customers in ways that are relevant, salient and impactful to your prospects and your company.