It used to be that transactions were the trigger for relationships.

You walked into a local store to purchase something, and if the transaction was pleasant, you were more likely to return. Organizations tend to view relationships primarily through the lens of transactions: how many times has someone purchased a product, used support, emailed, etc. In this world, the transaction was the beginning of the relationship and opened up access to connect with individual employees and other customers.

Social media changes that. Now the relationship triggers the transaction.

Relationships First

With social media, a prospect or customer can easily find a wealth of information about a company, its products and its other customers. The transaction more often comes only after they feel like they have a solid understanding of what they are getting into and have built a degree of trust with the organization. The bigger the purchase, the more this is the case. 

This has huge implications for the way we plan for the conversation, the transaction and the value exchange -- in ways organizations are only beginning to understand. They invest in social media, but they may not be investing in becoming a social business. Public social media networks like Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn can help start the relationship-first engagement pattern, but you need more to create a seamless customer experience that recognizes the value and purpose of the relationship for both the business and customer.

This is the opportunity and value of owned communities: spaces that can be designed to generate value for participants and encourage rich collaboration. When organizations approach their market from a relationship first perspective, organization and customer work in partnership, and transactions happen more organically. Sales become the natural extension of engagement and collaboration, and the cost of marketing and sales melts away.

So is community a tactic to generate leads or increase sales or is it a strategic shift in customer engagement philosophy? Yes -- and yes.

The debate has bubbled up recently about how a community approach should not be a tactic, but a strategic choice for an organization’s customer engagement philosophy. I think this is a false choice. Community has to be both a strategy and a tactic.

I understand why people say communities shouldn’t be used as a tactic. They are not short-term solutions and if a "campaign" approach is applied they will fail at delivering results. I also agree that communities serve to fundamentally shift the way an organization thinks about building relationships with its customers and its market. Instead of an extractive posture, the organization is providing its market with a valuable place to convene and connect -- creating a positive sentiment around its brand. By doing so communities also smooth out and address gaps in the customer experience, giving prospects and customers a centralized place to get information and answers. In that way communities miss a huge opportunity if they are used solely as a sales or customer support tactic.

Learning Opportunities

Finding the Shared Value

However, if communities don’t address any functional outcomes and are only intended to create a brand experience they miss a huge opportunity and are likely to be abandoned. Stakeholders lose interest in investing in something that doesn’t generate direct value.

We see this as the sweet spot of shared value. When communities address this sweet spot both the organization and the community win.


So what is an aspiring social business to do? The answer is to not overemphasize “success” metrics early, but to pick metrics that demonstrate the growth and nurturing of relationships and how behaviors are changing as a result. Examples of this are prospects and customers:

  • Comfortable enough to ask specific and challenging questions -- rather than vent elsewhere
  • Happy to engage in a complex conversations with other customers, helping them solve a problem
  • Willing to share, in detail, how they use and get value from a product or service
  • Comfortable enough to discuss the pros and cons of your product/service relative to a competitors

As so many industries change, as organizations evolve, and as technology reduces the amount of time that any product can maintain a unique differentiating characteristic, it is those organizations that have built the strongest relationships that are likely to maintain a long-term advantage.  


Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License Title image by  Alan Cleaver