The Community Concept Isn’t to Blame
You should know I’m not anti-community. I’ve been involved in “community” my entire career. In 1995 wrote a book on marketing with computer user groups (the analog to today’s online communities). In 1997 I launched and managed the ThirdAge.com community (chat and forums for baby boomers), I led product management for Dell Support Forums, and I’ve been a participant in Compuserve, eWorld, AOL, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, etc. From these experiences I’ve concluded that communities succeed if they solve a need, share an interest/passion and/or connect me with people I care about. Facebook works because most of your and my friends are there — it solves the need to connect and stay up to date, thus carrying more weight as a “social resume.” Dell support forums work because they allow asynchronous conversations to solve a technical problem for a frustrated computer user. The ThirdAge community (chat and forums) worked in certain topics where there was passion and birds of a feather could discuss that passion.
From a marketer’s perspective, the idea of a brand community sounds great. The expectation is that it will be a petri dish which will virally grow customer engagement, and this type of engagement will lead to sales. The problem is, few customers jump into that petri dish, fewer still will stick around, and the community interaction usually has no contextual bridge to purchasing. That’s three strikes. Most brand communities serve a very, very small set of customers (in relation to their customer base or market size) with either a lot of passion or a lot of time on their hands. And let’s face it, not every brand has the potential to inspire lasting passion and sustain a Facebook-type community. Exceptions are cult brands that have passion and community built into their product ethos, such as Harley Davidson or Apple. But you can’t create that by putting up a community. That starts way upstream, with the product and the brand.
What’s a Community For?
Brand communities are configured to create social interactions between customers, allowing them to share opinions and interact via blogs, wikis, polls, forums and private messages. There are a lot of technological bells and whistles that the product manager can get excited about, but let’s look at it from the customer’s point of view. I’ll repeat what I wrote earlier…the reason people participate in communities is to:
- Solve a problem / need (or help others do so)
- Share an interest or passion
- Connect with people of interest (develop social capital)
#1 is the reason support forums exist, and these reduce support costs, but don’t drive sales. #2 and #3 are usually what Brands are looking for, expecting community to drive engagement and sales. But when visitors are not passionate about the topic, they are less likely to jump in. If the community audience is small and unfamiliar with one another, a prospective visitor’s motivation to build social capital or help others dissolves. In both cases, the vibrance and participation in the community are next to go. This causes the next visitor not to join, which in turn decreases the passion and audience size of the community. This domino effect leads most brand communities to turn into a ghost town.
A study from Deloitte reports that two of the top three obstacles to making communities work have to do with getting people to engage or visit — and the remaining issue doesn’t help solve this problem:
- Getting people to engage
- Finding enough time to manage
- Attracting people to the community
The solution may lie in reframing the objective. A fully-developed Facebook-like community with thousands of regular participants is probably an unachievable — and in some cases undesirable — goal for many brands. I say undesirable because the resources required to build and maintain such a community may not be in line with the returns that they produce. Something smaller scale may not be as glamorous or provide as many opportunities to brag to your digirati friends on Twitter, but it may be just right for your brand and your customer base.
There are a few potential ways to go small. Ask yourself some questions. If you have a million customers and there are 100 community members posting occasionally, is that success? Or is it a ghost town? Gartner may be reporting that the community sticks around, but how much impact can those 100 people, or the few thousand that “watch” the interactions, have on your business? And even if those few thousand are more engaged, is the conversation related to your product or service leading to sales influence? Or is it unrelated?
Research from Communities
There’s nothing wrong with creating a community with the purpose of interacting with the few. A hundred or a thousand participants in a community may not make a sizeable impact on your sales, but they can provide valuable insight. If your objectives are for research or product co-creation, then a community that facilitates that interaction between your brand team and your customers can be very successful. Customers are much more engaged when they know the purpose of the community is for the company to listen to their ideas. A very focused version of this is Dell IdeaStorm or MyStarbuckIdea.com, where customers post an idea and others vote it up or down. Simple. The measures of success there are insights gathered in a much more scaleable and frequent way than traditional market research.
Communities like this have their place, but they don’t necessarily have a direct impact on sales. At least until that product co-creation happens — and most marketers probably have a shorter time-horizon to show ROI, especially in the current economy.
Sales from Social Commerce
It’s a challenging time in the social media world. Marketer interest — fueled by hype over Facebook and Twitter — in community-building is rising, just as consumers begin to tire of joining yet another social network. Rather than spending time and energy developing something that’s destined to be the next brand ghost town, consider smaller ways to use social media techniques on behalf of your brand. Perhaps you want to build a community of brand loyalists to act as a focus group for product development. If you’re looking to drive immediate sales, incorporating a user contribution system — reviews, Q&As, and storytelling — around products on your own Web site is the path to success (especially in the eyes of your CFO!). The trendy Facebook-clone route, however initially exciting and attention-getting, may lead to crickets and tumbleweeds, while a more measured approach may result in a thriving little settlement.