You already have a community and you might not even know it. No, those damn developers didn't go creating something under the covers (well ok, maybe the did but that is a different discussion). If your company has an annual conference or customer summit, gather customers for insights, you have already exerted the power to convene. And, through your successful events, your customers relish meeting with each other and with your organization's thought leaders. How often have you heard customers say they wish they didn't have to wait until next year to connect again? They share stories and business cards and promise to stay in touch.But, they often don't because the busy work-a-day life gets in the way. And sales vows to do a better job managing their relationships throughout the year. They do the LinkedIn thing, but really only show up at the customer's door when it is time to sell again.
It does have to be this way.
Online communities offer traditional businesses an opportunity to bridge the gap with customers and keep them connected to your company and your services through out the year. This is a benefit that customers appreciate because it allows them access to their peers and to the information they need in order to support their purchase around the clock.
Through the use of an online community, customers can be provided with a superior level of support. Especially with big ticket items or those that have a complex deployment environment, such as with technical products or consulting services, the customer needs more than just the annual conference to make the most of their purchases. Community creates ongoing opportunities to learn about the future and from those on-staff experts you pay so well to demonstrate credibility. Community offers a ready-made platform for thought leadership. Also, by having access to their peers they can tap into coveted hand-on experience when their projects encounter difficulties and learn a better way from others like them.
But what if no one participates?
Effective planning cycles can ease the fear of failure. Just as you wouldn't hold an event without inviting people, creating marketing materials and buzz, lining up speakers and content and booking an event venue, you wouldn't just launch a forum software tool and hope for the best. Through the use of proper planning, which includes asking your customers what they want and need from each other and from your organization, you can ensure that the online community will be used and valued by customers.
But an event only happens once a year, and then it is over. Community may take too much time.
Chances are your company is already investing time and resources in creating thought leadership content - and if you are not, well maybe now is the time to start! And, chances are your marketing department is already using a multi-channel approach to connecting with customers. Wouldn't it be more efficient to gather them together in order to reach them in a single place? How much did you spend on focus groups and customer relationship management programs last year? I would bet my bottom dollar that your customers would rather receive access to a lyceum of information than another bag with your company's name on it. And, it is likely your customers do talk to each other and about your company in person and on the social web. Perhaps it would be beneficial to tap into that activity?
Online customer communities are not a foreign idea after all, they are customer events on steroids. All that is missing is the virtual aspect to extend your power to convene online!