Building a Business Case for Customer Community

One of the biggest issues we see today with branded customer communities in the enterprise is the creation of digital islands failing to foster an engaged community.  We often find this issue is due to lack of careful planning that accurately illustrates the level of commitment required to build and sustain the community.  Many companies dive right into building a community before realizing just how time- and budget-consuming such an initiative will be.  Building a branded community ain’t cheap, ain’t easy and ain’t fast. Take the time to plan for success and build a detailed business case for community.

  1. Intimately know your customers:  Really get to know the customers the community will potentially serve.  Leverage in-depth interviews in addition to surveys.  What do customers need?  What problems do they have?  What communities do they belong to and how do they participate?  What do they like and not like about those communities?  Ask how a community sponsored by your company can enhance their experience.  Don’t overlook asking customers if they even want to participate in a community sponsored by your brand.  Ask customers their opinions about what role should the brand play in the community.  We have found customers typically expect the brand to play an active role – it’s a matter of how active.  Is there an interest a large group of your customers share that can be leveraged as the foundation for bringing together a community?  Conduct a conversation audit to know what consumers are saying about your brand online.  Leverage this listening data to anticipate the types of conversations that will occur in your community
  2. Define the target audience:  Based on customer research, which customers will benefit from community the most?  Will the community serve different types of customers?  Are certain customers the focus of key business objectives?  Map this out on a whiteboard to understand all the options and determine where to focus the community.  Once the target audience is defined, figure out how to best reach this audience and the type of community it prefers.
  3. Connect community to specific and timely business objectives:  This seems like a no-brainer.  Still, so many businesses are blinded by ‘all of our competitors have a community.’  The community is mistaken as the end when it is really the means to an end.  What are business objectives and what type of customers are the focus?
  4. Review competitive communities:  Determine what communities already exist that target a similar audience and solve for a similar problem.  Join these communities if possible to assess their strengths and weaknesses.  Determine how your community will differentiate.
  5. Build to solve both a customer and brand problem:  Branded communities are the bridge between customers and organizations.  Communities have to serve the needs of both in order to survive.  What are the unmet needs of customers?  What are the biggest challenges for the business?  Where do customer issues and businesses challenges intersect?  What problems can a community realistically solve for?  What processes need to be in place to support the community is solving these problems?  For example, a community to gather customer feedback on products and services without the feedback loop and processes to support the business in acting on this feedback will turn into a branded community of haters.
  6. Design for desired behaviors: Many companies make the mistake of launching a community out-of-box before thinking through the desired customer behaviors the platform features need to support in order to achieve business objectives.  A good exercise I recently conducted with a brand is to outline in detail the required community features and functionality based on customer preferences and the online behaviors we wanted to see exhibited in the community.  For example, if you want the community to persuade customers to buy more product, how will the platform encourage and enable this behavior?  If you want the community to promote word of mouth, how will the platform support sharing within and outside of the community?  How will these sharing behaviors be tracked?  Launching a community with all the bells and whistles without a plan for how the features and functionality should be used is a recipe for failure.  Customers will not use the tools without guidance for what to do and what’s in it for them.
  7. Develop a measurement plan:  What are key performance indicators for the community?  What are the community health metrics?  How will these measures prove achievement of business objectives?  Are there dependencies on other groups and websites for measuring success?  For example, how will you integrate web analytics to know where community members go when they leave the site?   How often will you analyze and report on these metrics?  Will the community reporting be incorporated into a larger customer analytics dashboard?
  8. Create a content plan:  Community is about its members, but great content is what it takes to attract them and keep them coming back.  Creating engaging content can be the biggest challenge for brands.  This is mainly because companies put the community manager in charge of creating content.  Community content creation should not be taken lightly.  It’s a huge task to constantly create new content for a community and get it approved by Compliance – one best assigned to a person or team that already specializes in content creation.  (Tip: Content creation can be outsourced.)  The content plan needs to define the purpose, tone of voice, style and formats for community content.
  9. Plan for promotion:  How will you promote the launch of the community and attract your target audience to the site?  Think through all possible channels, both on and offline, to socialize the existence of the community.
  10. Sell the community internally to garner support:  Customer communities require the support of the entire organization.  No one can predict exactly what a customer will say or do here.  It’s safe to say customers will post a complaint or ask for help – issues that the community manager cannot and should not handle alone.  It’s best to gain buy-in from other internal groups and educate them on the commitment of time needed to support the community before it launches.  A major component to selling the community internally is learning to speak the language of each external group approached to support initiative.  The community sponsor should translate how the community will help achieve the goals of other departments. We recommend enterprises create a community task force that includes a representative from Marketing, PR, Research, Analytics, Content/Production, Customer Service, Legal, Compliance, IT, and even from Agencies or Consultancies involved in customer initiatives.  (Tip: Meet with Legal as soon as possible because this is where most of the community project delays occur.)
  11. Determine the platform provider:  Picking the platform provider to host the community should be one of the last things you do in the planning process.  While most of the providers appear to support similar features and functionality on paper, how they support these features and functionality is what differentiates them.  Will you consider an open source solution or use a full-service, third-party provider? Do certain providers have more experience serving clients in your vertical industry?  Do certain vendors have a culture and style you prefer?  Do certain vendor platforms require more costly customization to meet your needs than others?
  12. Scope the business requirements:  The community sponsor needs to take the time to think through all of the business requirements to support the community.  Define the FTE staffing model, internal processes and workflows, professional services, and technology required to support the community at its various stages.
  13. Forecast the budget required to build and sustain community:  The budget includes technology platform costs (setup and ongoing maintenance), technology systems integrations costs (e.g., single sign-on, CRM integrations), FTE people and agency costs, content costs, marketing and advertising costs (to promote community), and more.  To understand the ROI of community, the sponsor needs to meticulously track exactly how much budget is allocated to support such an initiative.

Disclaimer: There are a million different details to planning for a customer community not included here.  This is a high-level outline for how we approach building a business case for a customer community.

Interesting comment to this post on Dachis Group Collaboratory here.


Blinded By Automated Dashboards

In the winter, I am often forced to run on the treadmill.  I notice that while I run, I cannot pull my eyes away from the dashboard.  I’ll look away to focus on something else and before I know it I am back to watching the numbers rise on the screen.  I’ve seen other runners drape towels across the dashboard to avoid this preoccupation.  For me, the rising numbers are comforting.  Each second, the treadmill dashboard shows progress.  I’m mesmerized by the progress flashing on the treadmill. I’ve also noticed I’ll keep running until I have a nice even number – whether that’s a perfect 30 minutes or exactly 500 calories.  The numbers suddenly become more important than anything else.  But at the end of the day, these numbers do not guarantee that I’ve met my goals for improved health because they only capture the activity taking place for the half hour or so I spent on the treadmill.

Community dashboards are not unlike treadmill dashboards.  Both provide metrics as indicators of health.  The treadmill provides this with heart rate and calories burned.  The community platform provides this with number of active members, content contributors, etc. Dashboard metrics don’t lie, but they don’t tell the whole story. The treadmill does not factor calories consumed that day, hours slept, etc., just as community dashboards do not track off-site attitudes and behaviors of community members. Community managers can be blinded by the ease with which these numbers are provided by the dashboard and forget to track other important metrics. That’s why it is important that a measurement plan is developed in tandem with community strategy, not in reaction to the metrics generated by the community platform.

For companies launching marketing communities, I recommend the following measurement approach:

1. Start with the goals of the community

  • Establish a measurement plan based on focused goals for the community.  Is the goal conversion, customer retention, sentiment, etc.?
  • Avoid the trap of borrowing metrics from other marketing initiatives because they are familiar.

2. Identify the desired community behaviors to prove these goals and the associated platforms tracking these behaviors

  • Think broadly about desired community member behaviors (online and offline) that have implications for desired community outcomes.
  • Tracking these behaviors typically means pulling data from multiple sources including the community dashboard, web analytics platform, social media monitoring service, URL shortening service, CRM system as well as community member surveys.
  • Collaborating with colleagues from your analytics, customer insights, customer service, and IT departments will help you make sense of all of these data stacks.

3. Consider all initiatives that support community success

  • Keep in mind all of the paid and earned media initiatives (e.g., promotions and referrals) that will contribute to community success and consider integrating the associated metrics into a community scorecard.

4. Select the best metrics to tell the story of community progress

  • Now that you have considered all of the possible metrics for proving desired community outcomes, refocus the measurement plan with the right balance of metrics that tell the story.  That might translate to three key metrics to support each community goal, for example.

5. Establish a baseline

  • Determine if the metrics that are part of your community measurement plan were collected historically, or if you need to establish a baseline.  Do not establish specific numbered goals (e.g., 15% increase in positive sentiment) without knowing the baseline from which you are working.  Otherwise, you risk setting unrealistic goals.

6. Set specific targets to stay focused while allowing for some flexibility

  • Once you establish a baseline, set specific (realistic) monthly and quarterly targets to serve as motivators to keep you focused on your goals.
  • Maintain a flexible approach to your measurement plan as you discover what works and what doesn’t work for reporting purposes.

Capturing a holistic picture of community health and progress requires a tremendous amount of planning and integration.  Community dashboards provide only a piece of the puzzle.  This is why the marketer’s role involves both art and science.