Adrian Speyer knows digital communities. As head of community at Higher Logic and working for more than a decade in the online forum space, he has experienced the communities of the early internet and is even now excited for the Metaverse. 

Along with the obvious visual changes of these virtual environments, attitudes toward their sophistication have also changed. Understanding audiences and building easy-to-use platforms are of utmost importance; and creating the ideal community is not as easy as it looks. 

Higher Logic LLC is a SaaS community platform company based in Arlington, Va., and a sponsor of Simpler Media Group’s virtual Digital Experience (DX) Summit. To follow up on their session regarding community experiences, SMG spoke with Speyer about the past, present and future of online communities. 

Communities Now Part of Total Customer Experience

Simpler Media Group: You’ve been involved in online forums since August 2013 or earlier. What are the biggest changes you’ve seen to digital experiences from 2013 to 2020 and more recently? 

Adrian Speyer: I’ve been doing communities for a long time. What was interesting was I went from being a practitioner to going to the vendor side. I think it’s amazing to see the differences around that. The more interesting thing has been the adoption of community as a practice in more traditional businesses. 

Early on, only the most forward-thinking, cutting-edge companies were thinking about community, and now what we’re seeing is that it has moved from a nice-to-have to a must-have. Even further along, I would say communities now become part of this total customer experience. The thought is that community is kind of the entry door that any customer would have. 

The best brands have also realized that you can’t have your junior intern running the community. Now, you’re seeing the companies that get it are being very strategic in the people that they’re choosing to run the community, and they’re building these community teams, and the investment is there. 

That’s best in class. Certainly, we still have a long way to go. 

SMG: Why are digital experiences so important?

Speyer: There was a time where if you needed to know something, you could go look in a book and if you were lucky, you could ask the smartest person that you knew. “Hey, go ask George. He knows all that stuff.” And then we could go online and get that information. People didn’t really think about experiences. But quickly, it was those best experiences that won. Now it’s almost an expectation for brands to have these experiences. If you’re not creating great digital experiences, people almost go, “Oh, I don’t trust this brand.” 

We did a survey of consumers, asking them about experiences and customer support. 75% of the respondents basically said that if you’re going to do a bad job of this experience, don’t even bother. You’re just going to frustrate us. What’s interesting is that in the same survey, over 80% said they expect this kind of space to be able to get answers and talk with one another. 

People are now spending so much of their time interacting digitally that there are certain expectations, and it’s really important that we get it right. There’s not as much leeway as there maybe once was in the early web. 

Crafting the Ideal Digital Experience

SMG: What does an “ideal” digital experience look like, and why is it ideal? 

Speyer: I think it’s really coming down to getting the right information to the right person at the right time. Right now, it’s about segmentation and persona building and doing the work to understand your audience. 

If you’re a photographer, you don’t need to know about lighting, but maybe a specific lens to use or more advanced usage. For example, I bought a camera from Cannon. How long have you been using a camera? 12 years. Oh, what camera are you using? Then they know that’s a pro model, so they’re going to show me something a bit different than if I’m coming with a regular digital camera. The content I’m being served should be relevant to me. 

The most ideal experiences have done such a good job of knowing who you are that you don’t even see their invisible hand serving you content.

Learning Opportunities

SMG: What are the biggest obstacles to creating and delivering on digital experience goals?

Speyer: The biggest obstacle ends up being silos within companies. I don’t mean this in a bad way. I think larger companies just have communication issues where people may not necessarily have access to the data or the tools they need to create those great experiences, so it takes a special person or culture to break down those silos. I see companies where they’re putting experience as a central theme, and they’re really good about being cross-departmental and breaking down those barriers. 

Qualtrics does a really good job with that. MURAL, Smartsheet, Expensify. These are all Vanilla/HigherLogic customers. These are people that are looking at customer experiences and trying to marry it overall to that community experience and integrating it. If you go to any of those communities, you can see the work they’ve done to go pathwise into what you’re looking to do. 

What’s funny is that a lot of the time people see those and say, “I want that exact community,” but they don’t realize that there were five or six years of work to get to that point. So there’s also that obstacle. People want it now and right away, but they don’t realize that there’s a lot of work that is involved and time and data analysis and planning and trust. 

SMG: What role does content play in the digital experience realm? How can content enhance (or detract from) digital experiences?

Speyer: Importantly, it’s the tailored content. Especially because we’re online now. The access that people have to analytics and behaviors and what people are doing and looking at and user testing and heat maps. If you’re creating those personas and journey maps, you should get it right to deliver content to the right people.

SMG: What are you watching or reading these days? And do you see similarities with how these content creators are using digital experiences to keep audiences engaged and grow new ones? 

Speyer: I’m a big fan of Archie Comic Books. There are tons of people who watch Riverdale and have no clue it comes from the comic books. And recently I read that in India, Archie has signed a deal to do a movie based on their IP. They’ve done web toons, and they’ve got a podcast now. 

To me, it’s really fascinating to see how companies are taking existing IP and reusing and remixing it, which is a lesson that we can all use. There are written blogs or webinars that we do, and we remix them into podcasts or infographics or other ways that things can be consumed in different ways. Not everyone will necessarily want to consume content the way we think they want to consume it.

Watch Speyer’s Community Experience session on demand here