Too often a firm creates an online community, purchases software and designs a site—and then spoils all this hard work by failing to monitor, manage or staff it over the long term. Sure, everyone paid attention in the beginning, but then the focus waned. Everyone assumed that the mythical team mate named “someone else” was looking after it. Now, fast forward to the present. The result is a spiffy looking community and multitudes of unanswered questions–posts that draw plenty of eyeballs, but no replies. Or, even worse, a forum taken hostage by spammers, who feel they can hawk knockoff purses on your dime.
Wondering if your company falls into this category? Take a quick look at your “community” and ask yourself: Is this the experience I want a prospective customer to have? If your answer isn’t a firm, confident yes–this is a problem you need to rectify!
Most firms who have neglected their online community have a vague sense of the problem. “Yah, we know. We should be doing a better job with the forums, but … [Insert excuse. No time, limited staff, etc.]. They tend to think about it as an underutilized software application, not the customer-facing virtual experience/support interaction/pre-sales activity that it is. In addition to being harmful (Yes, harmful!) to the firm’s revenue potential, it is also detrimental to customer retention. Digital negligence teaches the customer that their needs will not be supported, that their requests for help will fall on deaf ears, that they, along with this virtual village, have been forsaken.
To get started fixing your online community, take baby steps. Pay attention to the nature of its primary activity. Delete all the spam. Or, after refreshing the content, start a newsletter that, by highlighting new and popular members, suggesting questions to be answered, and showcasing questions that have been resolved, reinforces the community’s value. And if “somebody” isn’t available to focus on this, we can do an online community health check for you to get your community back to being the highly interactive space that it once was or is envisioned to be.
Why is Participation so Important to an Online Community?
Participation is the most crucial component of a successful online community. While it requires continual effort, it is important to realize that your customer-facing footprint deserves the same strategic attention that an event or whitepaper would receive. Because, chances are, more customers have seen your community than any other support or thought-leadership asset you have produced.
In order for the community to be valuable and productive, it needs to be a two-way street where people can give and get answers, share and take away ideas. A one-sided conversation is rarely sustainable or educational! And, while most people are happy to converse freely in person, they need examples online. In order to feel comfortable in this space, they need to feel that the environment is open and welcoming, need to see conversations being expertly facilitated, need to know they will get a response if they go out on a limb and post.
Inspiring people to share ideas online is one of the most difficult aspects of getting an online community to succeed. But, when it does happen, it provides significant value for the members and the sponsoring organization. If you can get conversations to flow, then the value of the community grows as it passes from the early/beta stage to the mid-development and established phases.
Why Do Communities Often Struggle with Engagement?
There are many reasons why a community doesn’t naturally garner engagement. A lack of staffing, failing to nurture community members, and an inconsistent reward system for those who do take the plunge are among the most common. And, despite the critical importance of creating a fertile environment for discourse, few communities intentionally design processes that support and encourage a wide range of opinions, engagement and multidimensional learning.
Social and technical aspects are crucial to the design of an online learning environment. To be useful, useable and engaging, a community must offer a meaningful suite of features to the members, providing high value in exchange for their engagement. By offering members exclusive content or connections that they can’t get elsewhere, they will be able to see how visiting your community will help them do their jobs better. The community also needs to be supported well enough to ensure that those who do take the participation plunge are acknowledged for their efforts and get the feedback they seek in a timely manner. If the customer feels comfortable, rewarded and prioritized, it’s a good bet their experience is going to be a positive one.
Your firm is already invested in a customer community–think of the time, money and effort expended while planning, developing content, and, yes, purchasing software for it. So, before you throw in the towel and take down that online community (or, even worse, continue to ignore it), consider what can be done to reinvigorate your community and set it back on track. Chances are the original vision was powerful – otherwise the initiative wouldn’t have been funded in the first place – it’s not too late to make it great!