Online community managers often get asked a critical question: what did you do for the company, today? Whenever budgets get tight or CFOs get in a bind, the online community suddenly becomes cost center, and the response is to cut, cut, cut.
No doubt, part of this is due to a lack of understanding (and advocacy?) on the part of the community team and social media group, whose jobs and impact may not be well-understood by more traditional line-of-business managers. But the underlying problem is the strategic impact of many online communities may not be clear to the larger organization that funds the effort. This is especially common with B2B or customer online communities, where the goal is to engage and serve customers, rather than generating revenue by monetizing programs and features directly. All too often, this nuance is forgotten at the end of a tough quarter.
To demonstrate the strategic impact a community can have on an organization, a number of operational needs must be addressed and tended to clarify the value of the community’s financial returns. To illustrate this point, let’s look at common operational needs across an organization. For example: Marketing as a discipline raises awareness about products and services, defines audience segments and targets to reach new prospects and builds customer intimacy to retain existing customers.
Now, imagine a world where the online community operations were both pro-active and re-active to the needs of marketing. The community would offer up key product and service trends from online discussions, detailed identification of member segments keenly interested in certain topics or products, and an ever-changing vocabulary for messaging about products and services which resonates with customers — created by the customers themselves.
Other examples include product development and R&D efforts. The ongoing challenge for these groups is defining and inventing new products, services and enhancements in anticipation of future customer needs and desires. They are the soothsayers and futurists within every organization. Their success depends on an ability to imagine what current and new customers will want — to read the mind of the market.
Using an online community or social business initiative, the product development team can tap into ongoing conversations — a dynamic focus group — to discern what matters to customers and prospects right now, plus get early warning indicators about products or services which may need changes, or will face new competition. Reading discussions, measuring topic clicks, aggregating site and cloud meta-tagging behaviors all provide a kind of crystal ball into customer and prospect needs. But product dev and R&D already have lots to do. Unless the community team can deliver this information in a timely, succinct and actionable form, these insights will go to waste.
To put it another way, fending off the budget-cutters requires that B2B online communities incorporate customer-centric process improvement strategies.
My friend, colleague and process improvement guru, Brad Power, recently wrote a series of blog posts as part of a Harvard Business Review section on “Creating a Customer-Centered Organization.”
One of my favorite posts in the series gets to the center of the relationship between process improvement and online communities: “Customer-Centric Continuous Improvement.” His shout-out to Leader Networks and the Bloom Group is also a nice touch. Thanks!
Brad argues “Improving customer value continuously is difficult in almost any organization. That’s true partly because so many organizations are still organized around functional silos, which are managed to optimize their own performance rather than to deliver value to customers.” He emphasizes the importance of a holistic approach — successful organizations need to rally around serving the customer, even if it means changing or tearing down silos to do so. We have had long conversations about the role online community can play as a change agent, with the potential — and responsibility — to touch, affect, deliver results to and change all aspects of a business.
Brad suggests that online communities are the ears of the organization; they enable the company to listen 24X7 to their customers. I would add that well-executed B2B online communities can be the heart of a company — where customers come to visit and then stay to learn and share their thoughts online.