Increasingly it is occurring to major marketers that in order to "play" in social media they must adopt a "holistic" approach, which means not simply launching a twitter channel or facebook page, but looking beyond the channel strategy to an online community that they can, at minimum, initiate and in most cases, own.
(Social Media Today is creator of online communities of influencers, but our model is different in that our clients sponsor, not own, the communities that we build.)
In its May 2010 report of 309 marketing executives from companies of $500M or more, Forrester found that that 24% have some form of online community either in pilot or fully operational. That's not only a significant number, but also shows how much growth potential there is for this approach. An additional 31% are planning some form of community to launch in the next 12 months.
No company has been in the business of developing and hosting online communities for big clients than Lithium. We've been big fans of this company since our own inception, and recently I had a chance to catch up on where the community state-of-the art resides with Katy Keim, CMO of the Emeryville, California-based company.
RFC: For online community how much of the market does Lithium have?
KK: It's hard to estimate this since it's not a mature market where everyone knows the boundaries. But the Gartner and Forrester reports show us in a leadership position, and we are the only leader in the market that is entirely focused on customer-facing communities.
RFC: What are 3 things (or more) essential to building vibrant community?
We've built a metric that answers this. We call that metric the Community Health Index. This index measures six factors, three of which predict how healthy your community likely will be down the line, and three of which show you how you're doing today. The three that are good predictors of where you'll be tomorrow are:
· Responsiveness - People are impatient. If others don't respond pretty quickly to what they say, the community will not be vibrant in the future.
· Interaction - People need to be involved. If it's always the same people talking to each other, you don't have a community, you have a park bench with two old guys on it.
· Liveliness - People go where the action is. If you walk by a restaurant and it looks empty, you don't want to go in. If it looks "happening," then you want to check it out. So suppose you only have 10 diners. You want to make sure they're in a small area, not spread out all over the place. Community works the same way.
There's actually a lot of complicated math behind this, but these are things that you want to make sure you have to create a vibrant site.
RFC: What do you tell clients are the things to avoid?
KK: There are a few things.
First, we try to encourage clients to avoid the fear factor and make their communities open. If you want to have a successful customer engagement program, you need to attract a lot of people. If they need to sign up in order to see anything, you're going to attract fewer people. This doesn't mean you can't have closed areas of the community, and in fact that's really important. But you need to have an open door.
Second, we tell clients not to let their community fragment at first. A lot of people when they're starting out build a big restaurant when they only have 10 diners. You don't want to do that. We counsel people to keep their rooms small so they look busy. You can always segment once you have a lot of people.
Third, we tell clients to not to think like employees. In a social customer engagement program, everything customers do is voluntary. Employees have to do their jobs. So you cannot assume that people will participate. You need to create incentives, and you need to make it fun, and you need to make it easy.
RFC: Is it just about crowd-sourcing?
KK: No. Crowd-sourcing is definitely an element of social customer engagement, but it's not the only thing. In fact, a lot of what our clients are trying to do is not so much crowd-sourcing as crowd-capturing. That is, they don't assume that they already have a crowd - they're really trying to make the crowd aware of what they're doing and have that crowd bring in more people.
That much said, sometimes people get the wrong idea about what crowd-sourcing can do for businesses. People used to say, "Make your customers work for you for free!" I think that gave "crowd-sourcing" a bad name. One of the things we tell our clients is that your customers know more than you do. So engaging customers is not just about cutting costs out of the equation, it's actually about figuring out how to do things better.
RFC: What about wikis, are we way beyond that as a community product?
KK: Wikis are fine, especially for employee collaboration, though as a customer engagement tool they suffer from a couple of problems. First, people don't deal well with a blank page. They're much more apt to participate when they have an impetus to do so, like a question from someone else. Second, in customer communities, people like to be rewarded for their participation. Most wikis treat content as though it came from on high, and as a result it's hard to get customers to participate in them. We've got a product that takes the collaborative editing concept from wikis but gives it some soul. You have to have soul!
RFC: Also, can you give me some stats which support your phenomenal 10-year growth history?
KK: Lithium has over 500 customers. We served around 100 million unique visitors in the past 12 months. We doubled bookings in 2009 over the prior year. We have identified over 50,000 "superfans" in our communities. We are leaders in two Gartner Magic Quadrants and in the Forrester Wave.