Building a Powerful Customer Online Community

“The most powerful way a company can add value is to provide a place where prospects, customers, and the company itself can interact.” – Online Community Playbook

Going by the quote, it is obvious why building a customer online community would be beneficial for a company. Given that today most of the world ‘lives within’ the confines of digitization, building an online community is a powerful, effective, and extremely beneficial way for like-minded people to engage with each other and with your business. People within such ‘communities’ double up as enablers and accelerators to propel a business forward, affording unparalleled success.  From the perspective of those part of the customer online community, it is a great way to feel empowered, be heard, and express their unrestrained views and opinions on myriad subjects. Customers of today simply love having a voice and prefer companies that allow them to use that ‘voice’ as and when they please.

Building a powerful customer online community is great, but by no means an easy task. It takes time and effort. Companies of today know that creating and sustaining customer relationships is one of the cornerstones of a successful business, and since almost everyone is hugely dependent and involved in the online world, an online community is a great way to foster durable and strong customer relationships. This is one of the positive ways, by which technology is serving to change the face of customer-company relationships. A customer online community offers a straight and clear path to companies to interact directly with their customers – existing and potential, blotting out all the distractions and ‘voices’ of the market place.  Customers get the opportunity to understand and associate with a brand and business, gaining a deeper recognition of the strengths and benefits of the company.

In the frenzied pace of life today, meeting people face to face, and having personal interactions is becoming increasingly tough. For customers, this becomes extremely frustrating since they would be unable to share their thoughts and opinions with companies, and for companies too it becomes challenging to understand the mind-set of their existing and potential customers. By building a customer online community, a company creates an avenue for their customers and like-minded individuals to connect directly and build relationships. For a company, it is an opportunity to gain direct feedback about itself, learn from industry leaders, understand its customer, and attract new customers – all aspects that would accelerate its business and keep it competitive.

Given the challenges of building a customer online community, it is important for a company to assess whether it would want take on tasks associated with building and maintaining such a ‘community’. In addition, a company must also decide whether it would want to use the existing systems to build such a community or create it from scratch. A company must have the resources, time, and be willing to invest in the creation and sustenance of such a community long term, while remaining patient till customers and visitors begin joining and interacting within it. Building a customer online community is hard, but it is possible to do – as long as a company ensures that it takes the necessary precautions, avoids the pitfalls, and remains patient. Building something as complex and dynamic as an online community would be an on-going process, requiring consistent effort and focused attention. In addition, a company must have a robust plan on how it would attract people into the community – since the amount of ‘traffic’ would determine whether the effort is a success or failure.

It would be imperative for a company to gain feedback and buy-in from its target audience, incorporate their ideas, and select the most popular and appropriate means and frequency of connecting within the community. It is important for a company to know where its target audience prefers to interact online, such that it can create a space for itself on that particular site, while creating a connection to its established customer online community. Being able to attract and sustain the interest of ‘members’ in the community is something that a company must decide on from the beginning. If there is doubt as to the success of the customer online community, a company must first gain popular opinion through a communiqué or an email or even a blog around the topic. Allowing your customers and readers to provide their comments is a great way to pave the way for interactions, which would further encourage them to be part of a larger and more interactive customer online community.

We cannot emphasize enough – as with every business initiative, building a customer online community requires dedication, resilience, and tenacity. It is important to plan a strategy and remain confident that it would work. In addition, building the community would not suffice – it would need to be nurtured and monitored, possibly with a team dedicated to its growth and success. If a company can afford to, it would be a good idea to hire an expert in this realm, and allow the person to guide the customer online community in its formative time. For the community to begin interacting and ‘conversing’, a company must ensure that a member of its senior leadership be part of it – someone who would lead ‘conversations’, guide others, and set the tone for how interactions should happen. Very often, the most well planned customer online communities fail to kick off for want of someone to lead – hence it is vital for a company to put someone in charge.

Given that a customer online community is a business initiative, it should also be governed by certain guidelines and rules. Without such rules, you could be headed for disaster, since visitors and customers could misuse the forum and use it without restraint. While you would want to empower your customer community to share, talk, and interact, it would be important to set some ground rules from the beginning such that everyone understands what behaviours would be acceptable, and what would be disruptive. For a company, it is important to remain open-minded, especially if it may have committed a blunder. Customers are most likely to speak about it – venting their frustration and even becoming angry. It is important to pay attention and manage such ‘conversations’, since that would prove to the customers and other ‘members’ that your company is focused on doing its best for its customers. Staying positive, open, and proactive would garner positive reactions towards your company.

Building on the point of negativity, there would be certain customers and visitors, who could get aggressive and overly critical. It would be necessary to keep calm, and respond in a polite and controlled manner. Responding to angry customers in the same vein, could easily anger them more, and reflect poorly on your company from the point of view of casual visitors and member. Of course, it would be necessary to know when to exclude them if they become overly offensive and abusive – without being rude.

It would be a great idea to involve some of your best employees to be part of the customer online community. This would make it more diverse, lively, and bring in fresh and new perspectives. An active community is essential if it is to affect any changes, and add value to its members and the company that builds it. Building and sustaining a customer online community is hard work, but it is also hugely beneficial and rewarding for all those involved.

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