Customer communities are now an active part of your marketing funnel -- how you nurture them is a choice you must make. 

I recently had the opportunity to write about Customer Experience Management (CXM), a small contribution to the general zeitgeist around the subject, as found here on CMSWire and throughout our industry.

What’s clear from what’s being written is that one of the primary corporate drivers for focusing on the customer experience is the need to create advocates within a customer base. People that are willing to provide that public testimonial that will tip a prospective buyer, who is using your customer community for research, to press your buy button or engage with your services or board your airplane.

This all means that your community -- the people that have you, your brand, service or product in common  -- are now an active part of your marketing funnel, either a small stone lodged in there clogging up the process or they are actively taking your prospects by the hand and leading them to you.

So, how do you engage with this community, how are they created, grown and supported?

Your brand, product, service, government department, blog, book, train company, TV program -- whatever it is you do for a living -- has a community, or as Seth Godin refers to them, a tribe. People already talk about you and share their opinions and today it’s online and it’s social.

Online communities are not new, with bulletin board systems (BBS) of the early 90’s predating the adoption of the mainstream HTML filled, HTTP web we now know. The social web today has given our consumers easier access to these tools, to find what other people are saying, join the conversation and share their experiences. 

Where is My Community?

One of the things I have done when thinking about community engagement is to apply the persona work you would do as a marketer: to think about who is your audience, where they already hang out and why.

Take into consideration the aspirational nature of the community when you think about the location or platform for your community. Do people aspire to be part of it, do they want to be seen sharing on it? The place that a customer gets advice can lend some additional credibility.

This is obviously tied into the aspirational value of your brand; we are not all Apple, but people’s aspirations to be seen as an authority inside a community or even being visible on the community platform itself elevates them in their industry.

shutterstock_37487182.jpgFor example, let’s say some of the constituents of your audience are developers -- do you think they want to exchange code snippets, hints and tips on stuffy old LinkedIn, or the uber-geeky Stack Overflow and kick off their project in something called Area 51? I mean AREA 51, I don’t know about you, but if I wore a T Shirt that said “There is no place like” that would set my phasers to stun.

Similarly sharing on Twitter may collect credibility (or dare I say Klout), a LinkedIn group gives you a badge on your profile, being seen as the authority on a particular brand of network router on a discussion group on a support site may have positive career or business benefits.

I also mentioned “different constituents” earlier; clearly there are probably several different communities you need to engage with, depending on your audience and audience personas.

Build It and They Will Come?

So, we've established that your community is already able to get together online.

The old saying “build it and they will come” does not always apply to throwing up a site that offers the same functionality as Facebook or LinkedIn, but with your logo across the door -- and then calling it a community.

Is it going to lure your audience away from where they already hang out?

Maybe you'll discover that your community does need a platform, they are looking for you to help and this is how you can grow your community. The value of a community run by you to them maybe is its authenticity, its direct line to your support team and implementing your own walled garden Facebook-like experience is a sure fire success.

In either case, in the “build it and they will come” model, the “build it” phase does not stop with the cyber bricks and mortar of a beautifully engineered commenting system. That shiny new platform is not a community, the people that come are. The platform is a very first baby step; the life blood is going to be participation -- regular, consistent, good quality, honest participation.

The persona approach is also good for this: who do you aim to attract and serve? What content do they need? Who do they want to connect with? Who from my organization should be engaged on this project to provide that? Is this the only community we need to support -- or do we also need to be where my personas are?

If you do have a community already hanging out -- what’s in it for them to come to your community platform? Their friends aren't there, people like them aren't there -- it’s just you in your branded polo shirt, like your Dad at a school disco trying to hang with the cool kids.

So, I'd encourage some due diligence on where your community is today, it’s likely there are communities out there and the first task could be to find them.

Be There

Once you have discovered that you have a community, then it goes without saying that you need to be there.

Maybe not you exactly.

But the folks from your organization that the people in this community want to hear from, the engineers, the support staff, the designers -- not just sales and marketing. I wrote about this a few years ago, on a blog called “Engaging Times” in a post called “Be yourself or find someone else who is.”

At this point I risk straying into the theme of last month’s CMSWire editorial -- this requires Employee Engagement -- something like this needs everyone’s help.

No-one in our developer community wants to hear from me on Stack Overflow (especially when I make jokes about phasers), when they really want someone to help them develop a web page using responsive design. On the other hand, if you are reading this, perhaps there is a community for what I do hanging out here on CMSWire.

Sound a Bit Like a Social Media Strategy?

Why yes -- what’s the difference?

Isn’t the social web about communities?

Could the very notion that you need to create a community be outdated?

Content Management Pros Experience

As you may read in my bio, I am a Director of a Content Management Professionals organization. An organization who's charter was to bring people together, share and collaborate.

When the organization started, before the social web, enabling a community to collaborate on the web was hard and required a bespoke community platform. Collaboration and shared ideas also had a value and our community had a subscription model.

Then we created a LinkedIn group and everyone moved there, not just existing members but the number of people that identify themselves with our tribe grew incredibly and continues to grow today. People moved for the functionality, the little badge on their LinkedIn profile and (I’d like to think) the lively discussion and great conversations that go on over there.

How did we react to that? Get all sniffy and insist that the party was at our house?

No, the party had moved to a new location and we adapted.

I share this story as a real example of the point of this post; yes, you may need to build a community platform and I expect lots of advice on that from other folks that contribute to this month's editorial theme.

However a community is a group of people; it’s not a software tool or a website that brings like-minded folks together, they were already like-minded. If your community is already out there, you need to be there, helping it grow and encouraging participation, providing the contribution, content and insight people want.

So, do you build it and they will come? Or move to their house?

Image courtesy of  TerryM (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: Ian's shares some great insights into the customer experience, phasers and all. To read more, see his Navigating the 3 C's of Customer Experience - Step One: The Customer