Online communities come in many shapes and sizes, and serve a wide range of needs. Not surprisingly, the performance of an online community will also vary widely. One reason some organizations do not achieve the results they would like from their online community is a mismatch between the style or focus of the community, and the type of interactions between the members and the organization. There are four styles of online communities: Marketing Megaphones, Lead Generators, Customer Hugs and the coveted but often elusive Innovation Center.
These online communities spend their days broadcasting messages to their members. Yes, there is an occasional discussion, but their primary mission is to share new developments and latest accomplishments with prospective and current customers. This community is chock full of new product announcements, product and service plugs, and an occasional thought leadership article thrown in for good measure. This kind of digital soapbox caters to SEO measures but often fall short on actual member engagement.
Online communities whose mission is to generate sales leads are the Trojan Horses of the digital landscape. The conversations occurring in these communities are designed solely to increase sales in this new, new economy. While the interactions are intended to stimulate discussions about new products and services, the messages are usually poorly-masked self-promotion. And when the unsuspecting prospects join the discussions, the sales team will pour out of their online wooden horse to press the sale. Active at first, the badgered members quickly figure out the plan of attack, activity wanes, and the community goes dormant, awaiting the next wave of unsuspecting new members.
These online communities have all the right intentions. They are staffed by knowledgeable customer service employees seeking to assist a member in need, answer a technical question or shed light on a problem. The number of “closed tickets” becomes their well-worn banner of success. While serving genuine customer needs — for all the right reasons – the glow of cost-savings achieved through reduced customer call center traffic begins to dim. In the C-suite, the “so what now?” question isn’t answered, and the community is relegated to a nice-to-have cost center.
These online communities have star power. Dedicated to achieving deep collaboration with customers and partners, they seek to share information, glean insights and put into action the ideas revealed within the exchanges. Innovations come from many sources, so these centers of excellence seek continuous engagement around the ideas, concerns and hopes their members have for the products and services offered. These communities identify areas of improvement and growth for the company, and provide ongoing feedback to members about their contributions. Staffed by a dedicated internal team, the information garnered through the conversations is threaded throughout the organization. Positive outcomes are shared across all levels of the organization to maximize the benefits and impact.
Organization integration of an online community is a leading indicator for success. Communities aligned with an organization’s core operations tend to deliver the greatest long-term impact. Insights sourced from collaborative online communities and shared across the firm offer the greatest rewards, insights and innovations. Letting customers speak, share and connect can open the door to valuable outcomes for both the members and the organization.
Successful online communities often combine aspects of each of these four styles: sharing marketing information (Marketing Megaphone), identifying future customer needs (Lead Generation), reducing problems and increasing customer intimacy (Customer Hugs) and collaborating on innovation opportunities for both members and the organization (Innovation Centers). An online community’s initial style will shape the online interactions in powerful and long-lasting ways. Isn’t it better to reach for the stars of co-creation than settle for (another) broadcast megaphone?