Building Online Communities — 7 Ways to Corral the Crowd

Building Online Communities — 7 Ways to Corral the Crowd

Jul 24, 2012

The key to building an engaged fan base is using experts to answer questions and provide an insider’s view of the company, instead of just relying on a PR team. 

If you do award prizes, then it is best to make them relevant to your product – think branded merchandise rather than cold hard cash.

Those words of advice come from some industry experts with experience in the care and nurturing of digital communities.

The Girardbrewer.com team thought we’d share these insights into building online communities.

Verizon Creates ‘Idea Exchange’ Community

The first opinion belongs to Verizon’s Laurie Shook, offered in a recent interview with Andy Sernovitz — “Andy’s Answers: How Verizon is using a customer community to make better products.”

It’s important to give community-generated ideas time to mature independently before the company steps in, and also to remember that members of any given online community aren’t necessarily representative of your broader customer base, Shook says.

Verizon created Idea Exchange and the community helped shape the user interface.   Shook’s advice:

1. Give ideas time to develop. When customers submit ideas and feedback, Verizon gives them time to grow or die. The company doesn’t immediately respond — that could artificially affect community opinions — and instead waits to see whether ideas take off.

2. Always use a personalized response. Verizon uses subject-matter experts to respond, not the public relations department. When the director of product management responds to feedback, for example, he’s doing it by sharing his inside perspective of how products are developed and the reason certain decisions were made.

3. Don’t assume this community represents your customers as a whole. Shook cautioned that it’s important to understand that while your forum participants are a special group of customers, they don’t necessarily represent the opinions of most customers. These users tend to be early adopters, so it’s still important to properly test their ideas against your mainstream users before implementing any sweeping changes

Conjuring a Community

The opinion about what sort of swag to offer appears on WhatGreatLooksLike.com, the personal blog of Jeremey Donovan, Group Vice President for Research Marketing at Gartner Inc.   In his post “Building Digital Communities,” Donovan states that if you are seeking to develop deeper relationships with clients and prospects, then you will benefit from fostering a digital community.

“Conceptually, this is not new, as forward thinking companies have maintained high touch client advisory councils for years,” says Donovan.  “What is new is that a digital community ups the game on both your ability to influence clients as well as your responsibility to learn from and react to user needs.  Moreover, digital communities foster mass collaboration with participants, providing everything from ideas to functional products.”

Here are the concepts that Donovan says you can immediately apply to become great at building digital communities:

4.  Recruit Community Members.   First and foremost, people will be drawn to your digital community if you establish a concrete, shared value proposition.  Moreover, the value proposition should provide a compelling need not met elsewhere.  Start offline to be successful online.  In the early phases, begin with a small, in-person advisory group of core enthusiasts.

5.  Cultivate Community Members.   If seeded properly with a concrete value proposition, a core set of influencers and adequate infrastructure, your digital community will be off to a strong start.  As the group evolves, you will need to review and enhance the value that members receive.  You can approach this in the same way that you approach product development — by exploring complementary needs of participants.

6. Create a community operating model.  To thrive, digital communities not only need basic care and feeding, but also need an operating framework that is adaptive.  People, of course, are at the heart of the model.  The advisory group, or a complementary set of trusted participants, bear the responsibility for guiding the community.  In addition, this core group should be expected to handle exceptions to processes.  Systems should be modular, reconfigurable, and editable.  With this capability, the core group of community leaders will be able to react rapidly to changing requirements.

7. Deliver Value.   It is possible to create communities where some degree of value is delivered in tangible economic form.  A common approach here is to create friendly competition with real prizes.  If you do award prizes, then it is best to make them relevant to your product – think branded merchandise rather than cold hard cash.