Branded customer communities have been around for years now, helping to connect customers and creating a direct line into customer needs and more for companies. Here are six ways customer communities provide a customer experience advantage.

1. Improved Customer Engagement

The best way to think about customer communities is to look at each facet of your customer strategy and the role that customer communities play in development and execution of the strategy, according to Jeb Dasteel, founder of Dasteel Consulting.

“The most obvious customer communities role is in service of customer engagement and product adoption,” Dasteel explained. “There is no tool more powerful than the involvement of your customers in promoting successful use of your products. Consider: user groups; beta programs; customer councils; focus groups; online communities; customer references; conferences; and advocacy programs. Customers get more value from dialog with other customers than from you.”

The ultimate objective for your customer communities is to provide a framework for them to engage with each other, DaSteel added.

“If the output of that engagement is criticism, then make it constructive. If it’s praise, then make it valuable for them and for you. If it’s guidance from one customer to another, then take credit for that and encourage more. All this, properly executed, will only help your business.”

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2. Better Customer Insight

For too many companies, their customers are just numbers in a spreadsheet, according to J. Paul Neeley, head of design at Parlia. Customer communities can change this, allowing you to meet and interact with the very real people who use your product or service. Customers Communities can be a critical part of learning about and improving an organization's CX.

“I've used customer communities at Unilever to better understand personal care product experiences,” Neeley said. “We set them up at Mayo Clinic with patients to get feedback on improvements to our care delivery models. And we have a strong virtual community at Parlia that we interact with daily to gain valuable insight on the changes and improvements we should be making to our product.”

"The bottom line is that the better you know your customers, and the closer and more open your interactions are with them, the more insight you'll have on how best to improve their experience. Customer communities are a brilliant way to get to know the real people behind the numbers and build an open interaction that will help you create new value for everyone."

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3. Enhanced Customer Journeys

As customers dictate their own buying journey, the traditional linear sales funnel no longer works, according to Shellie Vornhagen, Astute chief experience officer.

Today's customer is digital first. They engage with brands across a multitude of channels regardless of where they are in their journey, Vornhangen explained. Brands can only enable and influence journeys and this is done by leveraging insights, behavioral data, customer feedback and technology to make sure they provide the best experience at each touch point on the customer journey.

“A customer community brings all your potential customers, current customers, previous customers, ambassadors and partners to one place,” Vornhagen said. “Basically, all your stakeholders with a common interest so that you can get the most out of the relationship. The customer community is a powerful way to engage and keep your brand front of mind. It’s also the ideal environment for feedback and sourcing and testing new ideas.”

Learning Opportunities

The best setting to build a customer community is the company website but there are other avenues as well, from social media, to WhatsApp, online and offline events, Vornhagen added. “It’s important to remember that providing value to the customer should be at the heart of everything you do with your community. At the end of the day, customer experience matters and many say it is as important as the products and services.”

Related Article: Customer Journey Mapping: A How-To Guide

4. An Alternative to Customer Support

The streamlined digital interface begins with the prospect point until the prospects become customers, said Bram Jansen, vpnAlert chief editor. “Prospects can locate your group in search results whether it is open or partly open. When they look for a solution to a problem, they come across your group post. They could also set up an account and begin engaging.”

Once they've become clients, the community becomes the go-to spot for all customer concerns, Jansen added. It's a place where they can reach other clients, inquire about best practices, and learn about new products. They will go through your information base, look up product documentation, and ask other customers questions, all of which encourage complete product acceptance and ensures a happy customer who gets the most value out of their order.

As customers gain experience with your organization, they will begin to offer their own suggestions and advice, Jansen said. Even if they don't, it's a great guide for product acceptance and self-service. Customers will use the user forum to leave product reviews and help other customers (and prospects) evolve with your business as they grow and become champions. It's where they upload help passes, make product suggestions, give other customers tips, and discuss their own thought leadership and best practices.

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5. Enhances Customer Acquisition

The most powerful sales tool is a customer who is realizing value and happy to talk about it with your prospects, according to Dasteel. Brand advocacy strategies relying on customer communities do exactly this, whether focusing advocates on marketing programs to create brand awareness and generate demand or on a consultative sales process for your advocates to candidly talk about their experiences and outcomes.

6. Mutually Beneficial Relationships

Successful communities address many ongoing challenges that organizations face, according to community strategist and author Carrie Melissa Jones. “Organizations struggling with the speed and success of new innovations, customer turnover, and breaking through a noisy and crowded market can all benefit from community investments. The most common ways that these investments serve organizations include enhancing and supporting customer experience, marketing, and retention goals. In turn, communities enhance and support customers as they progress toward their goals as well.”