A community, by definition, is a group bound together by common interest. In your case, it’s an interest in your brand, products and services. And as in any relationship, there are steps you need to take to make your community grow and flourish.

There are four chief reasons we see customers coming together today around their shared interest in a brand, roughly corresponding to the four key use cases we see for customer communities. Customers gather around their shared interest in your brand in order to:

  1. Ask for help (support communities)
  2. Provide help (support communities)
  3. Share their experiences/thoughts about your brand, products, and services (marketing/advocacy communities)
  4. Rate/review products (e-Commerce communities)
  5. Share ideas/ways to improve products (idea exchanges)

Matching Communities to Objectives

The way you create, grow and support your customer community depends upon its underlying purpose. As you plan the launch of your customer community, ask yourself which of the above types of communities would mean the most to your business. Aligning your community’s purpose to your business objectives from the start goes a long way in helping to drive ROI, so think carefully about what you are trying to do.

Here’s a rough guide to how each community use case maps to business objectives:

  1. Support Communities -- operational efficiency, cost reduction, increased customer satisfaction and loyalty
  2. Marketing/Advocacy -- communities increased reach, awareness, SEO
  3. e-Commerce -- communities increased cart size, repeat purchase, customer lifetime value (LTV) growth
  4. Idea Exchanges -- accelerated innovation, more customer-centric products, shorter time to market, reduced cost of bringing new ideas to market

The great news is that you won't necessarily need a separate community for each use case you want to tackle. But your strategies for growth and innovation under each use case should map to your business goals, which are separate and distinct, so you’ll need separate and distinct strategies for each.

Relationship Building as the Focal Point

There are a few key things that you really have to get right no matter what kind of customer community you launch. When growing and supporting any customer community, the first task at hand (actually, it never ends) is to strengthen community relationships -- both brand-customer relationships and customer-customer relationships.

Whether it’s to drive awareness and reach, enable peer-to-peer support, accelerate innovation or drive revenue, ground your community strategy on the following relationship-building pillars:

1. Time

Time spent together increases relationship strength. Not the duration of the relationship, but time spent during the relationship.

Strategy: Know when your customers want to spend time with you and be there for them.

2. Intensity

The intensity a customer feels for a brand will never be what they feel for things like friends and family. Don’t expect to change that. However, when you tap into what your customers want -- over topics they are passionate about -- your chances for creating that intensity are far greater.

Strategy: Appeal to greater causes -- things that have meaning for your customers.

3. Trust

Your community must be based on trust and that means transparent communication -- both business-to-customer (your outbound messages), and customer-to-customer (community discussion forums).

Also, because people trust themselves, they tend to trust brands that co-create with them. Co-creating with your customers means anything from listening to them and collecting input, to actively crowd-sourcing ideas and rewarding contribution.

Strategy: Create transparent and authentic communication to, and among, customers and co-create with them.

4. Reciprocity

Reciprocity means two-way reciprocal services -- again, both from brand-to-customer, and from customer-to-customer.

Strategy: Reward your customers for behaviors that benefit the business (e.g. helping other customers, trumpeting their enthusiasm for your brand, submitting product ideas).

Giving Customers a Voice in Your Business

mic_shutterstock_115560481.jpgCustomer communities offer a huge opportunity to drive reach, reduce costs and accelerate innovation. More importantly, they offer your customers a chance to play a new role in the business -- which they actually love and want to do.

For many organizations, this can mean a sizeable organizational culture shift toward more customer-centric thinking. Fears, uncertainty and doubt about the “bad news” your customers “might” bring to the table when you give them a greater voice in your business and the marketplace must be discarded.

Customer communities make for fast, smart, ongoing innovation on the customer experiences you deliver because they’re where you have the greatest control over that experience. There are a plethora of tools, apps, platforms -- and approaches -- available for making that happen. (Remember: social success = technology + strategy + process). At a minimum, your community needs a strategy and technology infrastructure for:

  1. Listening -- actively listening to what your customers have to say, spotting trends, identifying passion points
  2. Engagement -- an owned hub for creating and strengthening customer relationships
  3. Enlistment -- reward levers for encouraging behaviors that benefit the business
  4. Intelligence -- robust analytics
  5. Integration -- connecting community with other social channels (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube) and other business systems (e.g. call center, CRM).

Image courtesy of MPFPhotography (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: To read more by Bonnie, check out How Much do Service Experiences Matter to the Customer Life Cycle? Ask USAA