The Customer Community

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Image © Leigh Prather

The last few years have seen big brands make extraordinary investments in developing massive “digital transformation” and social media programs. On one hand, these programs have yielded moments of customer connection, advocacy and insight. Unfortunately, for the majority of programs reliant on mass social platforms like facebook and twitter, organic reach has dropped effectively to 0 and companies are now forced to pay to engage sporadically with the “audiences” they worked so hard to build. Companies now realize they have been renting their customer communities on social platforms.
 
The alternative to social media campaigns and digital transformation theatrics? Developing Customer communities. Specifically, online Customer communities that companies build, host and manage. Customer communities hold the key to Customer acquisition, retention and growth. Further, communities can be a catalyst for development and innovation, and will be critical to future business models. Below I explore the opportunity for Customer community in three key Corporate areas: Brand, Product and Strategy.

Community is the Fabric of Brand

What is the nature and value of brand in a hyper-connected world? A recent HBR article asserts that the collective value of  Customer relationships is outstripping the value of “brand. markables_relatoinship The authors of the article nail the point that Customer relationships are incredibly valuable, but may have missed an opportunity to explore the effect of the customer community as a brand asset & catalyst — the line between brand and relationship isn’t as crisp as the authors imply. Further, I would assert that the “network” of relationships represented by the collective customer base of a company is a manifestation of brand, every bit as important and as valuable as the components of brand identity. My primary research and experience has shown connected customers (via community and social) are more valuable than those that aren’t. Third party research by Deloitte has shown that Networked companies (“Network Operators”) perform better, live longer, and are more valuable. All of these points are are vectoring towards a new opportunity and a new frontier in business: Community-Centric Customer Experience — an approach to customer experience design and business strategy that not only strengthens the Company to Customer relationship (1:1), but also strengthens and develops the Customer to Customers & Company relationship (1:Many, a.k.a. the “Community”). and considers development of the Community the primary .

Communities Will Infuse Product

Customer communities are an essential part of most technology products now. At the very least, online support forums are expected as part of the offering (more on that in a bit). Many companies are experimenting with customer communities as a means to raise product awareness, convert trial customers and retain existing customers. A radical new business opportunity is emerging where the community (both the people and the platform) are the actual product. Purchases are artifacts or a gateway into the community experience, and the real “product” is the collective experience, knowledge, content and means of collaboration with the community. There are many early examples in the gaming world, from MMOG’s like World of Warcraft to the new “build and explore” virtual worlds like Roblox. Software companies are attempting to build communities that address the “whole customer”, and focus on experiences well outside of product support. Adobe (Behance), Autodesk (Instructables, Fusion360, AREA), Intuit (OWN It) and Sephora (Beauty Talk) are actively investing in the community space.

Opening the Aperture on Strategy

There is an unfortunate tendency to view Customer communities as “cost saving” vs “value producing”. This thinking leads to strategies and outcomes that fail to realize the full value of customer communities, and is rooted in a long standing dependence by some companies on customer support communities. In extreme examples, this sort of strategy breeds resentment with valuable customers and leads to a dangerous dependence on an unsustainable resource. When the Corporate mindset shifts to “value producing”, the aperture of community strategy widens to a rich set of possibilities: community advocacy programs, open innovation, peer to peer mentoring, complex content sharing, customer co-design and much more.

Moving forward, Customer communities will be the medium by which value is co-created and exchanged between Companies and customers. To have any chance of long term success with Customer communities, mindsets have to evolve beyond a fixation on cost savings to a more enlightened view of communities as a valuable catalyst for innovation and growth.

The Bottom Line:

Customer communities are the “fabric of brand”, the medium in which the network of customer & company relationships develops and thrives. Companies that create modern communities with their customers will be more innovative, realize more value and have more resilient businesses than their competitors who don’t.

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