By implementing the following suggestions, you should be able to create a vibrant community that keeps the customers happy, provides a superior support system to the customers and builds trust between the customers and the vendor. As a result of having a vibrant community, you will be able to understand more about your customers: who is happy; who needs attention; identify up-sell opportunities; get valuable feedback for innovation for products and services; and an opportunity to find new customers, including referrals from happy customers.
3 Types of Online Communities
Velvet Rope Private Community
In my opinion, an online community should exist for existing customers only and not prospects, consultants, and others (with ulterior motives). Since customers like to network and meet each other to discuss things they have in common, Velvet Rope Private Communities work well with existing customers. Such a pristine environment where the customer is protected from the outside world and not polluted by people trying to sell them something is a great place where only like-minded people can talk, network with each other, share ideas, ask questions, and help each other. This is an “all about the customer” place that works well as a support system because customers can end up helping each other. The only risk to having a Velvet Rope Private Community is outside prospects aren’t allowed “in” and therefore you need another community that attracts them.
Open Online Communities
These communities are open for everyone to participate – and therefore you attract more people: vendors, thought-leaders, and potential customers. The main purpose of an open community is to invite anyone and everyone to share ideas, as well as provide an opportunity for a vendor to be a thought leader and contribute valuable content. The risk of having an Open Online Community is the possibility of other intruders - such as competition – to have access and sell products to your customers. Another risk is the “junk” that you end up with by being a member of an open community. A good example of the "junk" is the many times I have signed up for an open online community (or group within a community) and received junk email from someone trying to sell something to me whether it was relevant or not to the subject matter. Having a moderator watch over the members, content, and posts can help keep the value of the content and make the community successful.
Although similar to Open Online Communities, where everyone is invited to participate, this type of community is a more educational forum. Many subject matter thought-leaders participate in these forums and provide interesting blogs as a reference. In addition, it is a great place to blog or post comments to promote oneself within the community. A risk of these types of communities is getting targeted by sales people or junk email promoting a vendor’s service or product. Good Industry/Career Forums have moderators that watch the content and participants of the community. It is important to filter the individuals that request to join as well as watch the content. Vendor sponsorship is important for the survival of the forum – but too much selling could ruin the value of the content. All communities can be integrated into an ecosystem for the most optimum and practical use - to form a fully-integrated community that supports the needs of the existing customers and provides the benefits customers are looking for. There should be a plan to invite thought leaders as well as customers into the community to provide good content.
It's All About the Customer
The content that goes into this community - especially private customer communities - has to be what the customers are looking for. As vendors, we are tempted to ask questions concerning what we would like to know, and not what the customers want to know. When vendors post content directed at “selling” to the customer, the community begins to take on the characteristics of a traditional website – which loses the “trust effect” of the community.
Attracting Customers into the Online Community
There are a number of things that can be done to kick-start an online community and attract customers. These include things like rewarding customers for participation and reaching out to customers to personally invite them. A few active customers will snowball into many more on its own. The community will die if left alone. Make it simple and easy for customers to post questions, blog, and consume content. It’s similar to a dance; once you encourage someone to come out onto the dance floor, they usually dance all night. You may want to have a reward system that rewards a customer every time they post a question, answer a question, or sign up for the community. Rewards can be things like coffee cards, points that can be exchanged for services, or any other means which may help encourage customers to “come in” and see for themselves the value of the community.
The "Gaming Effect"
Customers are encouraged by rewards such as gifts or points that can be exchanged for something valuable, but levels of achievement are also a great way to encourage participation. I found out personally through implementing HostAnalytics' MVP points program that customers would initially be intrigued by the ability to exchange points for items or services, but they were also naturally competitive. Host Analytics' MVP program has achievement levels such as Platinum, Gold, Silver and Bronze. And these were all within an elite group of customers that participated in events and programs for Host Analytics. All of the Host Analytics' customers would compete to get within this select group and strive to achieve the Platinum level. I get several emails on an on-going basis inquiring about status in achieving the next level.
Make it Entertaining and Educational
Have regular meetings with creative people dedicated to the community to discuss content that would be of interest to the customers. This can be a single person or a number of individuals that work in the community part-time or full-time. Insert videos wherever possible. Display status levels of elite customer groups such as gold, silver and bronze levels within the community. Customers like the gaming effect and seeing their name listed with the achievement level.
Encourage personalization from the participants in the community using pictures or demographics about themselves, and encourage them to update their profiles, rewarding those that do. Have a contest for the best profile or best picture. Have contests or "resume-valued" awards based on the customers that participate most and spotlight them within the community and possibly a newsletter. The team and the determination is the most important part of making and keeping a vibrant community. There are many things that can be done; it is the focus and constant brainstorming that will keep it exciting for customers, and keep them coming back.