Insights on Marketing & Technology

A little more conversation...

Brands are topics of conversations on social media. No surprise there. But online conversations are less about the actual brands and more about the interests of people. There are conversations taking place within communities of interest – and brands are part of those community conversations whether they are taking active part or not. It’s time to focus on online community management and reap the long-term benefits of an engaging social strategy.

  • By: Ronni Tino Pedersen
  • Published: 20-12-2013

Now you probably want to get right into the hard figures and how to accomplish them through social media, but let’s pause just briefly and ask ourselves:

WHAT IS A COMMUNITY?

Communities were once offline and defined as groups of individuals who were close in regards to physical proximity and thus had good reason to have shared experiences and life conditions. Telecommunications and the internet in particular changed this narrow definition. Online communities are now global, our shared experiences are no longer limited by location and neither are our interests or experiences with brands. Chances are we as individuals probably have more interests in common with people scattered across the globe than those in our immediate surroundings.

Are online communities then more significant than offline ones? Will they have a significant positive impact on the relationship between customers and companies and in creating mutual understanding across cultures? Yes, they might if they are managed properly and if we start to build them instead of just talking about it. 
Amy Bruckman, researching online communities at Georgia Tech, is quoted to have said: “much ink has been spilled trying to work out which online communities are really communities” and suggests that a more productive approach may be to accept community as a concept with fuzzy boundaries defined by its membership. 
While sociologists, social psychologists and other professions might have different opinions on this, it seems indeed to be true in the age of Facebook and other broadly used social networking platforms. Here a community feeling is less connected to the technology itself (e.g. Facebook) or to a single topic (e.g. football), but a sense of community can be momentarily perceived in a single conversation that we engage in.

No, we don’t become core members of a cooking community by just once commenting on a friend’s shared recipe, but for a short while we connect as individuals, state our interest in this topic and influence a conversation around a social object: The cooking recipe. This activity mirrors our everyday lives when we have face-to-face conversations and negotiate our ‘membership credentials’ within different communities of interests. 
The World Wide Web is fuzzy – ‘small pieces loosely joined’ in the words of David Weinberger – and this influences our memberships of online communities too. 
For the purpose of this article, however, let’s not waste ink on further definitions of online communities, but narrow the scope to look at the value of online communities for brands and customers alike.

THE VALUE OF ONLINE COMMUNITIES

According to a 2012 IBM survey, CEOs believe social media will become one of the top two ways to engage customers within five years, mainly at the expense of traditional media. 57 % of 1.700 CEOs, when asked about their company’s response to the connected economy, say that they plan to invest (or invest more) in online communities over the next three years.

This is good news for customers and for brand managers alike! Justifiably CEOs are often the most concerned about the business value of online communities. But this recent survey shows that the C-suite is now recognizing that customers find value in engaging with products and organizations more and in different ways than previously – and it also shows that we, the social evangelists, have become better at demonstrating the bottom line values.

If your CEO is already among the ones in favor then don’t hesitate to start building your online community and shifting those dollars from paid to more earned and owned media. If he still needs persuasion then let us look at some steps to consider and reasons to get started.

STEP 1: LISTEN AND ALIGN YOUR OBJECTIVES

When do we choose to invest ourselves in a conversation? Even with the most trifling small talk, we engage in conversation because we find it somehow personally valuable to offer our own perspectives on a topic. The value derived can be any of a handful: Practical, economic, cultural, symbolic etc. – and the same logic works in online communities for individuals as well as for corporations.

So before building a branded community it’s a good idea to listen inward as well as outward and align your business objectives with the objectives of your customers: 
What do you need for the community to be successful and what do the community members need from the community to get value?

Social business is after all just business, so you need to define by which KPIs to measure your success. But you also need to get an idea of which kind of engagement your community is open to. Even if you have business intelligence at hand, it can be a good idea to start your online community ventures by listening (just like before joining a conversation). Spend some time monitoring brand relevant conversations online and consider which types of conversations are taking place around your line of business. Which kind of conversations should you join in order to add to your customers’ brand experience – and where – and what should be avoided?

STEP 2: BALANCE YOUR CONTENT AND YOUR EFFORT

Social is not just another marketing strategy. It’s a business critical channel of customer care and insights. You wouldn’t answer all customer inquiries by sending your latest sales catalogue, so don’t fill your social content calendars months in advance with glossy marketing messages or generic content. You will tire your community before it gets started.

Instead consider, based on the learnings in Step 1, what are some topics to address in order to build better and more meaningful brand experiences? Plan your content in advance but in such a way that it balances marketing related activities with problem solving and content created by the community.

In general try to think customer service in everything you do or say. Will a given piece of information add value to the community or detract from it? Are you as a brand being interesting or annoying? Are you glorifying your own products and services or are you enabling your customers to be the heroes of the story?

You don’t become a social business by exposing your brand on social networks. Online community management is a lot about listening and acting in a friendly and timely fashion. So put some effort into real-time response and be smart about your creative marketing. Some things are better left untold – while some exchanges might demand your wise attention and pro-active care.

STEP 3: LEARN FROM YOUR DATA AND ADAPT

In the previously mentioned IBM report 72 % of surveyed CEOs are aiming to improve the understanding of individual customer needs and improve response time to market needs. Online community management can be an invaluable source of insight to these effects.

Whether you create a proprietary community platform or build on one of the existing social media services you have access to heaps of data about the actions and reactions in your community. By analysing these data in a structured fashion, you are able to track patterns of activity in your community. What are the topics that gain most interest? Who are the most active ambassadors in your community? How often do they come back? When do you grow your community most efficiently? If you lack a particular piece of insight and have a healthy community, just ask and you will get the answer.

By regularly tracking online conversation and community development you refine the blueprint for business development. Sometimes social media drives sales, but it should always drive understanding of customer needs – which in turn should shape how the social tactics evolve over time.

THE FUTURE IS COMMUNITY-BASED

The internet is inexorably linked to branding but in the next 3-5 years we can hopefully look forward to a lot of relevant and well-managed branded communities that add value to both companies and individuals. By opening our eyes and ears and learning from our collective experiences, our online communities can become invaluable assets to brand management.

Three to five years is now. And as a fellow community strategist, Richard Millington of FeverBee, recently noted, we need to move much, much faster and fail forward in order build successful online communities.

So just get started. Your CEO is already 57 % convinced.

Ronni Tino Pedersen 
Ronni Tino Pedersen has a background from the University of Copenhagen, Film and Media Studies, and has been working strategically with online communication and online communities since 2006. In 2013 he founded Untold, a Copenhagen-based agency helping businesses to build and manage better online communities. His clients have included Superligaen, Bacardi-Martini, L’Óreal, KMD and the World Organization of the Scout Movement.

3 facts about CEO’s and online communities

  • 57 % of CEOs, when asked about their company’s response to the connected economy, say that they plan to invest (or invest more) in online communities over the next three years. This equals a triple investment in relation to 2012.
  • 61 % of CEOs believe their future success, on a personal level, hinges on customer focus. This is top answer in the study.
  • 72 % of CEOs are aiming to improve the understanding of individual customer needs and improve response time to market needs.

Source: IBM Global CEO Study 2012, http://ibm.com/CEOstudy

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