Want to convince your company to start an online community?

It helps to have a list of top business communities that you can reference. Communities that are differentiated and stand out amongst their peers. Communities that generate revenue, lower costs or in the best situation, do both.

In fact, I won’t sugar coat it. If you are planning to build a community that does not have revenue or cost reduction as its main goals, then you are wasting your time. At least if you are in business for profit, and most of us are.

The majority of the 10 communities listed below are using social approaches to encourage participation and sharing. While they may not all be the most aesthetically pleasing, these communities are notable in several ways. I want to explain why.

(NOTE: not in any particular order)

1. Microsoft Answers

Microsoft Answers

Ask a question and the community answers. What is the ROI of that? There’s remarkably little involvement from Microsoft, just a platform and social currency system leveraged to encourage participation.

I asked Toby Richards, general manager of Microsoft’s Community and Online Support, on the reason for Answers success:

We certainly see the benefit of social as being something that really helps drive the long-term productivity of the site as they continue to interact with people like them. We have what I’d call ‘badges,’ in terms of recognizing your activity in the social support area. Then we also have awards, which we offer at the, what I would say, the highest levels of contribution.”

Why it’s important: Using gamification principles to drive high value behavior to support a cost reduction goal is smart. Moreover, the cost is minimal since the currency are badges, awards and recognition.

2. Dell's Facebook Fan Page

Dell's Facebook Fan Page

Coupons, ideation, polls and customer support all supported in one community? Yep, Dell masterfully captures the holy grail of revenue and cost reduction objectives in a community of 610,000-plus people.

I asked Jason Duty, leader of Dell’s Social Outreach Services, how he works with the community for product launches:

Social media needs to be embedded throughout the entire product launch process. We’re using social media as the key component. That part was a turning point for Dell. As a result, we’re seeing a rise in customers coming to us through Facebook.”

Why it’s important: Leveraging communities to launch a new product or update an existing one is smart. Especially if the community participated in creating it. Picture offering coupons to community members in order to accelerate purchases, followed by a survey to determine reaction to the product, then finally using the community to support it. Dell does that and more.

3. Intuit's TurboTax Advice Community

Intuit's TurboTax Advice Community

Free tax advice from CPA’s, accountants and tax experts? Doesn’t that defeat the purpose of selling more of Intuit’s TurboTax software?

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The first thing you notice when using the community is how many of the questions are answered. It is also incredibly intuitive and easy to use. Like Microsoft Answers, Intuit uses social currency to reward participants.

I’m told a lot of these participants use this banked social currency to obtain consulting engagements and connect with community members with complicated tax issues. So in theory, Intuit is providing a community where competitors are allowed to poach Intuit customers at will.

Why it’s important: But what’s actually happening is that these experts are building a huge knowledge base on Intuit’s behalf -- a niche, social knowledge base that is driving a tremendous amount of search traffic, which is then cleverly converted to TurboTax users. Sure Intuit may lose a few, but the volume more than makes up for it.

(Editor's Note: You may be interested in reading Communities We All Want to Belong, Or Do We?)

4. Booz Allen's "Hello Community (Internal)

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Hello represents what SharePoint should be out of the box. Hello is one of the best SharePoint communities I’ve seen. In fact, it is has become a tremendous sales tool for Walton Smith and the Booz Business Development team.

When asked about the competitive advantage of Hello, Walton Smith said:

We have 480 communities up there for everything, from parenting to cyber security to SharePoint. And for us, the fact that we can connect the dots with people who are around the country or around the world is a huge benefit.”

Why it’s important: Imagine the ability to leverage your organization’s collective knowledge to complete projects faster, find the right experts, and close more business because you have the right information and people at your finger tips. I’d bet you’d say Hello to that. Moreover, Hello is one of Booz Allen’s best sales tools.

5. 7-Eleven's Yammer Community (Internal & Private External)

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(Note: not actual 7-Eleven site)

What do you do with 3,000 geographically dispersed field operations team members when they need access to critical information to do their jobs? And what if some of those people are in the field using mobile devices? How do they share best practices and gain access to information in real time? Do they pick up the phone? Search a knowledge base?

No, use a Yammer community of course.

When I asked David Sacks, founder and CEO of Yammer, about 7-Eleven strategic use of Yammer, he responded:

7-Eleven chose Yammer to unify its distributed workforce, drive consistency across franchise locations and foster better communication among employees and leadership. Many organizations share the same challenge of connecting a workforce that is dispersed across different geographic territories or business units, and this example demonstrates how enterprises can leverage Yammer to bring together their employees to share best practices and new ideas."

Why it’s important: Connecting field personnel, partners and suppliers with the right people to solve a business issue is challenging. Having a social solution that connects employees and non-employees to further business objectives helps ease those challenges while increasing revenue and decreasing costs. This is an example of a social extended enterprise. Expect more developments in this area.

6. First Round Capital 

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How many companies proudly display their community right on the home page? Not many. In fact, FRC wants entrepreneurs to realize that they not only get a financial partner, but a deeply connected community as well.

Collectively, their partners have helped fund and start over 200 companies. Multiply that by the social networks of those companies and you have one valuable social graph.

Why it’s important: When you are competing in a commodity type industry (in this example Venture Capital), it’s essential to differentiate your company. Like the famous Verizon commercials, FRC wants to leave you with the impression that there’s a community of experts ready to help you become successful. It’s effective.

[Editor's Note: You may be interested in reading The Role of Communities in Social Business - #SocBizChat Tweetjam Summarized.]

7. SAP Communities

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Want to connect like-minded business users? Build your own social network. That’s what SAP did. SAP’s Community Network uses social media tools and their community to enable more than 2 million individual members to interact around the clock in more than 200 countries and territories.

I asked Jonathan Becher, CMO of SAP, about their community:

SCN (SAP Community Network) epitomizes how a Corporate Social Network can evolve into a highly successful community for conducting Social Business. SCN has more than 2.5 million active members -- it’s the largest aggregation of SAP customers, experts, partners and industry thought leaders anywhere. SAP’s goal with SCN is to help customers maximize the value of their IT investments in ways that couldn’t have been done without it -- and for this year, we’re honing in on the aspects of social innovation, social intelligence and social commerce.”

Why it’s important: if you have built your own social network to provide your customers a place to connect and collaborate with employees, partners and experts, then you have done something noteworthy. By controlling your own network, you are not limited by the constraints of a third party platform provider. Instead, you can create the network to suit your revenue and cost reduction needs.

8. Pitney Bowes Customer Support Forum

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How do you efficiently build a support site that works as well online as on a mobile? You follow Pitney’s Bowes’ (PB) lead and select a support solution from Lithium. No sense in duplicating efforts, PB’s support site provides the same solution content online or on the go.

I asked Mike Hardy, Manager, eCommerce Pitney Bowes Inc., for his thoughts on the community:

The Pitney Bowes online customer forum is a powerful extension of our multichannel (including mobile) strategy to manage customer relationships. By creating a platform where engaged customers can help one another, and a much larger pool of customers can benefit from that exchange, Pitney Bowes can provide unique value. Forum participants also benefit from exclusive content we provide through this channel, which gives them an added incentive to visit the site and learn more.”

Why it’s important: Your customers are increasingly demanding access to contextually relevant information when and where they need it. Mobile is an ideal delivery platform for those people that can’t access this information from a laptop. Increasingly, companies with mobile solutions will outmaneuver their less agile competitors.

9. Siemens/WIRED Side Bar Community 

 

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When I first saw the Siemens bar on the right hand side of WIRED Science, I thought it was an advertisement. Curious, I clicked on the “EXPAND TO BEGIN” button and was surprised by the amount of community content embedded within the widget. It also asked me to vote on a poll whose results are displayed in real time in the side bar to attract new readers to click on it.

Part advertisement, part community and part content, this community widget is combining all three into a rich media experience. It has the potential to drive community adoption in the context of an article or other related subject matter.

Why it’s important: I can see many uses for this type of Trojan horse community adoption tool. Siemens is using it to innocuously provide relevant WIRED content to viewers, but they are also encouraging the reader to join their Facebook and Twitter communities -- a clever idea with a lot of potential.

10. General Electric MarkNet (Internal)

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How do you get marketing professionals to be more innovative? You give them a platform to share and expand on ideas. GE’s Imagination at Work extends beyond their products into their day-to-day business practice. GE uses Thinkpassenger’s platform called “MarkNet” to connect Global GE marketers together in order to accelerate B2B marketing.

I asked BahramNour-Omid, CEO of ThinkPassenger, about the community. He said:

One example of GE’s laser focus on innovation is how they have connected 8,000 global marketers together in one community called MarkNet. The purpose of this community is to accelerate innovation and improve knowledge sharing among their corporate marketers and set the gold standard for B2B marketing.”

Why It’s important: It happens every day. In your organization, reusable content is being created from scratch, is trapped on a hard drive or cannot be found. MarkNet reduces the cost of business and increases marketing innovation (which leads to increased sales) because it’s built to solve specific business objectives. It also provides an internal community for a specific purpose and is not cluttered with irrelevant content. Now that’s innovative.

Why These 10?

While this list is in no way comprehensive, these 10 communities are uniquely providing top-line and bottom-line benefits for their companies.

I’ve given you a wide variety of communities to emulate in order to help make the case of starting a community at your company. Remember to tie the value of the community to revenue objectives and you will have a much better chance of success. Communities can be powerful revenue multipliers.

I’m interested in hearing about the Social Business communities you like. In addition, tell me what I got wrong or right in the comments below.

[Editor's Note: You may be interested in reading Employee and Customer Communities: Which One is More Valuable?]