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Sponsoring Communities To Promote Thought Leadership

Build an Online Community in Four Easy Steps

Sponsoring or facilitating user forums and online communities can offer an outstanding method to promote thought leadership. Thought leaders at both major consumer brands and entrepreneurial start-ups are implementing interactive online communities in order to acquire customer insight, grow customer advocacy and support business development objectives.

Online communities offer diverse but strategic benefits. Some thought leaders, like pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline, leverage online communities as standing focus groups while others, like Hitachi Data Systems, use them to deliver customer support. Chip maker Intel uses an online community to gather technical feedback for contribution to its next-generation technologies and online broker TradeKing has successfully engaged communities to acquire new clients and expand its brand, resulting in increased revenue growth.

A 2010 Aberdeen Group research study illustrates how branded customer communities can create a bonding experience between customers and the brand, giving customers a seat at the strategy table and a sense of ownership in the ideas that the company implements. By listening to customers and responding to their needs, the community can also drive customer loyalty as well as help expand market share through word of mouth.

Community Objectives
Table 1, Source: Aberdeen Group

Despite diverse purposes, online communities and the thought leaders who champion them achieve results which are measurable, sustained and strategic. For example, clothing retailer Burberry engages customers, prospects, fashion influencers and others on its “Art of the Trench” community web site. In only eight weeks Burberry had 330,000 visitors from 191 countries that spent 5.5 minutes on the community portal, and grew trench coat sales by 85%.

However, despite the growth and popularity of social networks, the Web is saturated with communities competing for member interest and participation. If you are considering sponsoring a new community as part of your thought leadership strategy, it’s critical to first purview the online landscape as it is quite likely at least one similar community already exists for the niche you’re considering. Nonetheless, community success can still be achieved as long as your community is unique, relevant and active. As with non-virtual groups, the community strength is most influenced by the volume and quality of its members. Self appointed evangelists, active contributors and engaged participants are the success factors to a fruitful community.

Consider the following four step approach to tap into the power of social networks, sponsor an online community and promote your brand as a thought leader.

  1. Identify where your target market communicates online. Where do consumers, prospects, customers, advocates, buyers and others talk about the products and services which your company delivers? There are conversations already going on that you should be aware of and be a part of. The first step is to know where these conversations are happening – not just to monitor sentiment but to understand where your company can be adding knowledge and value to the discussions.
  2. Launch your branded community. Assuming you can deliver a unique, relevant and active online community that will win the attention, trust and participation of your target market, move forward with an online presence that permits customers and interested parties to exchange ideas, develop peer groups, engage your organization, create social relationships and be recognized.

    To grease the skids, kick off an active invitation reach out program. Recruit and cross promote among other social networks such as LinkedIn Groups, Google Groups and Facebook fan pages. Offer incentives for early participation and create a welcome pack for new members.

    Community members participate at different rates – which leads to the frequently cited 90-9-1 rule. The community contribution rule suggests the following:

    • 90% of all members are lurkers. They read, search, navigate, and observe, but don't contribute
    • 9% of all members are editors and occasionally contribute, and
    • 1% of all members are creators and account for most of the community content

    Once members begin to congregate, make member introductions, prompt participants, shine the spotlight on advocates and reward top contributors. While motivating and rewarding members is helpful, avoid asking users for anything. Requiring registrations, peddling for donations, pitching a product and the like are all actions that will deteriorate recruiting efforts.

    It’s important to be aware that what people really want is the ability to connect to each other, not to companies, however, participants will first permit, and then endorse companies to enter the conversation if those companies are transparent and promote the conversations, without overtly promoting the company or its products.

  3. Promote the community. To promote engagement, community sponsors need to continually create methods to motivate, empower and reward members. Some community sponsors offer new members charter membership in the community as it is launched. One company interviewed in the Forrester research report created a private 'embassy' for the 40 most active and influential members. These members share a private forum from the rest of community and are given advance or exclusive information.

    Staffing is critical to facilitate interaction and keep the community active. Executives must make the time to share company vision, contribute product ideas, publish blog posts and respond to members. Customer service reps must monitor forums and know when to respond to complaints, problems or misinformation. According to David Cooperstein, VP at Forrester Research, marketing leaders will also begin adopting two additional roles to fully harness the power of online communities. Brand Advocates are generally marketing team members who understand and engage with communities. Brand Strategists then apply the data and feedback provided by the Brand Advocate for messaging, promotion and brand building endeavors.

    Notwithstanding your team’s active contributions, it’s critical to remember that the website belongs to the community, not the company. According to a study released by Jeremiah Owyang of Forrester Research, if companies don't relinquish control of an online community to its members, they risk brand backlash, which could result in online bad-mouthing of their products or services. "Many companies have a hard time being successful with their community if they want to control it too tight," he noted. "The most successful companies let go of the control and act more like a host, rather than a policeman.”

    Most companies have lots of smart people capable of representing the company and making a contribution to the community. However, unless those staff are allocated time and properly incented, competing interests will consume their time and the community will fall by the wayside. It’s also important to develop a set of policies to help define how staff should participate in terms of tone, content and conditions that could trigger an escalation of the conversation to a person who has more knowledge or authority within the company.

    It’s interesting to note that people come to the community for content and social reasons, however, they stay with the community because of the relationships they’ve made (their friends are here and people here know them), they believe they have influence, their data is here or they’ve heavily contributed.

  4. Measure, Adjust and Improve. As with any project, sustained success can only occur with measurable results and continuous improvement. Customer advocacy and word of mouth peer promotion are perhaps the most powerful marketing delivery available. Find the methods to correlate renewals, new sales, referrals and increased customer share back to the community site. Tracking the conversations and understanding how they are influencing sales, loyalty and other bottom-line results is critical to the long-term success of the strategy, because it allows the thought leader to modify aspects that aren’t working and to replicate things that are working.

A branded community intended for your customers and administered by your company can give participants a place to come and talk about your products, its uses, best practices and possible new features. Online communities allow members to write product reviews, post comments on the reviews of others, participate in peer discussions and post ideas for the community to vote on. This interaction then gives the company an opportunity to draw from the wisdom of the crowd, to understand customer service issues and present solutions, and to build greater affinity, and later loyalty, by actively participating and fostering conversations.

While successful communities take thoughtful planning, resource allocation, ongoing labor investment and continuous improvement, successful communities clearly offer a proven way to connect with customers, market their brands and demonstrate thought leadership.

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By Kevin McKee
It seems odd, and even dangerous when 1% of the community contributes the majority of the input. Do you recommend this lopsided contribution?

Response: The participation inequality isn't a recommendation as much as it is a principal garnered from years of research and review. It's also not entirely accurate across communities types, however, it does fairly represent the disproportionate member input. Concerns about the influence of a tiny but vocal minority over a larger but more silent majority are certainly not unique to online communities. Further, proactively engaging the most active creators can position them as evangelists as well as encourage the broader audience to increase their contributions.

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