Four tips for growing your customer community

Barb Mosher Zinck Profile picture for user barb.mosher January 6, 2016
Customer communities can create shared value - but that doesn't mean they are easy to build. Fortunately, the methods for building community and measuring ROI are maturing.

Communities are a key element of customer experience. They enable organizations to engage with their customers at a scale that isn’t possible for most. But creating and managing a community isn’t as simple as purchasing software, plugging it in and inviting your customers to come.

According to Dion Hinchcliffe, an organization’s stakeholders are all continually connected to it and attempting to engage, so the more the organization engages with them, the more shared value is created. And it’s this shared value that helps drive an organization’s success.

This idea is supported in the Community Roundtable’s 2015 State of Community Management. In the report, Rachel Happe states that organizations that align their success with the success of their customers (and employees) by developing an ecosystem of individuals who are committed to and engaged actively in their success, can generate long-term competitive advantage.

There is no one way to develop a successful community, but there are things you should do to ensure your community is both useful and engaging for your customers and, in turn, beneficial to your organization.

Establish a community team

A community manager is a critical role for your community and for many organizations starting out, this may be the only role you employ. The community manager should act as a bridge between customers and the organization, so they should be knowledgeable in the business, have strong relationships with different areas of the business, and play a key role in dealing with customers.

But a community manager can’t do it alone, especially as the community grows. Think about the kind of team you want to manage your community and the different role each team member will play. Think about how you will train them and support their ongoing development in their role, and how they will interact with different business groups.

Document your strategy and roadmap

What is the purpose of your customer community? There are many different types of communities ranging from marketing-based advocacy communities to community-based support and so on. Each type of community creates shared value for both the organization and the customer, so define what that shared value is and how you expect to create it. Each type of community also requires unique functionality and support. Once you understand the purpose of your community, you can develop a strategy around how it will be set up, managed and measured.

Along with your strategy, you need a roadmap that specifically outlines how to implement your strategy. You can compare this to a project charter and a project plan - it’s a great idea (charter), but unless you outline how it to do it (project plan), it’s “all talk and no action.”

The Community Roundtable takes it a step further and says you need a “resourced roadmap.” In its State of Community Management study, the CR found that 63 percent of organizations with an approved strategy do not have a corresponding resourced roadmap. A resourced roadmap takes into consideration the people needed to manage a community as it grows over time.

It’s possible you start small with only a community manager, but as your community grows you’ll want to look at growing a larger team to support it. Your roadmap should show where additional resources need to be, how you will find them and onboard them into the team, as well as how the team will operate.

Secure a defined budget

Every community needs a budget to cover the costs of software, community management, content and programming, and other community plans (moderation support, outside expertise, etc..).

In the CR State of Community Management report, most budgets are approved by a C-level, VP or higher. For external communities - which is what customer communities are - 33 percent of the budget goes to tools and software, 26 percent on content and programming.

Once you know what you want to do, incorporate a budget around that plan and get buy-in from management.

Develop a set of measures and KPIs

Like anything you do in business, you need to measure its success. But establishing ROI for a community is not easy. However, there is progress in how you can measure the impact of a community on your organization.

Hinchcliffe says that success measures and KPIs are maturing. Most beginners at community management measure basic things like the number of logins, pages viewed, active users vs. total users, the number of contributors, the number of contributions and so on.

But as a community matures and the organization sees the value in integrating the community across the entire company, measurements become more mature, and start demonstrating value in the areas of process improvement, customer satisfaction, retention, advocacy and so on. As per Hinchcliffe:


What Lies At The Cutting Edge of Communities | Keynote at FeverBee SPRINT 2015 SF by Dion Hinchcliffe

The State of Community Management survey found that ROI was still tough to define for a number of reasons. Every community is different, and the organizational business objectives that establish it are different for each organization, so finding a formula that everyone can follow is pretty much impossible. The study also found that community teams may simply not have the knowledge and analytics to figure it out, and work needs to be done to supply them with training and tools to determine it.

From the report:

What we do know, however, is that those who know, specifically, from the beginning what value they are looking for are more likely to be able to realize and document it. Instead of it being one of the last things a community program owner thinks of, it should be one of the first.

My take

Customer communities can do as much for a business as they do for the customer if managed well. The software that supports community development and management is also maturing. We are starting to see more connections with backend systems that enable organizations to tie a range of functionality together in one seamless experience for the customer. One of the vendors I work with is doing just that with customer support  - although they aren’t referring to their technology as community software.

Customer communities have been a hot topic for a few years. As customers continue to demand more interaction with the organizations they want to buy from, and at the same time want more self-service capabilities, communities could well be the key to successful customer experience.

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