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. 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.
Most organizations are well into the process of incorporating social media into their day to day business – and many are starting to wrestle with the challenges and opportunities of being “social” over the long haul: the resource commitment, the necessary changes in leadership and culture, and the responsibility to engage in conversation, collaboration and community with customers, prospects, partners, employees and other stakeholders.
Many rubrics have emerged over the last few years to try and provide a context for the transformational phenomenon that is partially expressed by social media: Enterprise 2.0, Open Leadership, Social CRM, Social Business… the list goes on. By listing these terms, I don’t mean to dismiss any of them. I like and find value in all of the concepts I’ve listed – I love Charlene Li’s book “Open Leadership“, and find a lof of value in the recent discussions about Social Business, especially Stowe Boyd’s writing on the subject, and particulalrly, his defintion:
“A social business is an organization designed consciously around sociality and social tools, as a response to a changed world and the emergence of the social web, including social media, social networks, and a long list of other advances.”
With all of the good thinking and conversation happening around the topic of business transformation via “social”, I do feel like we are all describing different parts of the same elephant. I would propose the larger context – and the north star – for social initiatives is really about Sustainable Business. Think more Senge’s “The Necessary Revolution” than Open Leadership (which is still important, but a component).
A Sustainable Business (or organization) is a business that creates generative (net-positive) value in the form of:
- Social Capital – Stakeholders are engaged and help shape the business, products and policies.
- Financial Capital – The business is profitable.
- Ecological Capital – The business has a net-positive impact on the ecological resources it uses.
How does “social” fit in to the concept of Sustainable Business? At least 3 key ways (and there are many more, this is a big topic).
- Stakeholder Engagement: Connecting to customers, prospects partners and employees has never been easier or more impactful than today, via social technology. Social media, online community and collaboration tools offer a high bandwidth and near-real time opportunity to communicate, discuss and share. Further, managed properly, social tools allow organizations to communicate and manage relationships at scale.
- Leadership and Culture Change: The process of adopting social tools, like hosting an online community or offering support via Twitter, is a forcing function for culture change in an organization. Business culture has to evolve to have an honest dialog with customers and prospects, and leadership has to support this honest dialog, or the investment in social tools won’t pay off.
- “Social” is Generative Asset: This is the key point – social sites, online communities and collaboration spaces, when done correctly, produce net-positive value in the form social and financial capital. Claiming ecological capital is a bit of a stretch here, but one could argue that the impact of conversations and collaboration online vs. in-person favors online from a positive impact perspective.
In short, I’m proposing that we collectively acknowledge that there is a larger and more important context for the activities we generally refer to as social media, that the call to action around leadership and culture change is rooted in creating sustainable businesses, and that the term “Sustainable Business” may be a more helpful way to describe the macro trend we are collectively involved in.
I would love to hear what you think, and discuss via comments.
The next Online Community Roundtable is Thursday, December 16th, at Yahoo! in Sunnyvale, CA.
I’ve been hosting the Roundtables since July of 2005, gathering community and social media strategists to discuss real world problems, opportunities and techniques to create successful social strategies.
The format is conversational – the first hour is social, and the next 2 hours are a facilitated discussion about topics the group surfaces during the social hour.
If you work in the online community field and are in the neighborhood on the 16th, I encourage you to join us.
Please RSVP here:
This post is part of an ongoing series about developing an online community strategy. As a reminder, all posts will be tagged #ocb2b
Define Business Goals and Objectives
As I mentioned in my previous post, the recommended first step in developing (or refining) your organization’s online community strategy is to answer the question: What are you, as an organization, trying to accomplish? I acknowledge that this is a simple, but loaded, question. Answering the question of Organization intention is 1/2 of the equation for a successful community strategy. The other half of the equation is understanding community member’s needs and predisposition, which I cover in the next post in the strategy series.
Generally, an executive taps a strategy lead to help develop online community initiatives at an organization. In some cases, the strategy lead actually rises out of the ranks to propose direction to the executives. In both cases, there are two essential roles:
Said another way: The Sponsoring Exec has the financial and political capital to fund the community initiative, and the Strategy Lead executes research and planning necessary to create the community strategy.
Next, the Strategy Lead forms a core team to facilitate discussion with the extended stakeholders around the following topics:
Identifying and Engaging Internal Stakeholders
The current definition of stakeholder on wikipedia describes the role of stakeholder as “… a party that affects or can be affected by the actions of the business as a whole.” Given the inclusive nature of many social media and community efforts, an argument could be made that everyone in the company is a stakeholder in the strategy, and in a sense, that is true. In order to actually get work done, you need to trim the list a bit, down to relevant and representative stakeholders that represent key roles and departments affected by, or expected to contribute resources to the community.
A list of likely internal stakeholders includes:
Process: Kickoff, Work Sessions, Interviews and Synthesis
So, how does all of this actually come together? I’ve used the following process on the job at my former employer Autodesk, as well as in our services practice here at Forum One. The process starts with a kickoff meeting, continues with individual interviews with key stakeholders, includes follow up working sessions with a core team, and concludes with analysis and synthesis of all of the inputs by the Strategy Lead.
Kickoff: A meeting is convened by the Strategy Lead, and usually includes the Executive sponsor as well as key internal stakeholders. The group is generally no more than 5-7 people. The kickoff usually lasts 2-3 hours, and covers:
After the kickoff, interviews with key stakeholders are held to take a deeper dive in to the questions explored in the kickoff meeting, and also to give the stakeholder “airtime” to state requirements, explore ideas and express concerns. The interviews can be done face to face or over the phone, generally last between 30-45 minutes, and are conducted by an interviewer, with backup by a note-taker. Depending on the size of the extended stakeholder pool and the complexity of the project, I generally try to do at least 8 stakeholder interviews. As an augmentation to the in person interviews, I’ve also done an online survey for stakeholders that is based on the interview script. This is a good way to reach a wider audience and get a large set of quantitative and qualitative data.
In addition to the kickoff, there are generally 1-3 work sessions to review and refine key points from the discussion in the kickoff meeting. These additional working sessions are a great place for brainstorming potential community features and engagements, and to discuss examples of online community and social media from competitors, leaders in the industry, or shiny object examples outside of your industry. The outputs of the work sessions are analyzed in the Synthesis phase.
The outputs of the kickoff, working sessions and stakeholder interviews are analyzed by the Strategy Lead, and summarized in to a working strategy brief (typically a word doc). The key elements of the brief generally include:
Next Up: Member Needs Analysis
As I mentioned at the beginning of the post, the Organization’s goals are half of the equation for a successful community strategy. The other half is obviously assessing the needs and predisposition of the community. In the next post in the series, I will talk about how to find and solicit feedback from potential (or current) community members, and what to do with that information.
Are you a community manager or social media strategist or are you in charge of online community & social media at your organization? Are you in the Washington DC Area?
If so, you might find the Online Community Roundtable of interest. This is a small networking group / event that meets regularly to discuss issues, opportunities and trends with online communities, and represents leading organizations (large and small). This will be our first meeting in the DC area, and I’m very excited to be “taking the show” to the east coast.
The format is an hour of networking, followed by two hours of presentation and discussion about online communities and social media. The Roundtable is free, but you need to RSVP.
Date: Wednesday, July 8, 2009
Time: 6:00pm – 9:00pm
Location: Center for Global Development
Street: 1800 Massachusetts Ave NW
City/Town: Washington, DC
You must RSVP to attend:
Please note: even if you don’t have a Facebook account, you can still rsvp to the event.
If you have any questions, please email me .
I gave this presentation at the Geneva Web Meetup on May 1st. The net of the presentation is that I encourage the use of a comprehensive strategy as a lens to evaluate opportunities for engagement in the social media ecosystem.
we are full! Awesome group of folks coming, including:
Autodesk, Intel, Joyen, WebEx, Cyworld, babycenter, Tesla Motors, Cisco, TechSoup and Symantec.
I’ll post a follow up tomorrow with details!
The next Online Community Roundtable is tomorrow (Thursday, 2/28) in Foster City, from 5:30 – 8:30. Jeremiah Owyang and the folks at Forrester will host.If you are interested in attending, please drop me a note. I have a couple of seats open.
Organzations attending include: Cyworld, Cisco, VMWare, WebEx, Joyent, Intel, and Symantec.The Roundtables have been a regular, but intentionally “under the radar” gathering since July of 2005.
The intention of the events is to provide an open and safe environment for community practitioners to share experiences and best practices. It’s also an excellent excuse to have a cocktail and meet other interesting people in the space.
To get an idea of what happens at one of the Roundtables, check out this report back from a previous Roundtable at SAP.
Microsoft is hosting a Roundtable on 3/12 on campus in Redmond. Please drop me a note if you are interested in attending that one as well.