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What to look for in an online community platform

by Jacob Borgeson | Dec 09, 2020

In 2020, it’s all about trust

With in-person restrictions requiring everything to be purchased online, people need to replace all the information and trust they use to make a purchase in digital ways. At the same time, trust in brands and social media declined this year. As a consequence, trust in peers and desire for peer recommendations has increased. What this means is that people are trying to find ways to connect with each other not only to overcome loneliness during isolation, but also to help make decisions about what to buy and when. They are looking for communities focused on their interests.

Trust in a brand is a driving force behind brand loyalty for 58% of consumers. This makes trust the second most important factor in brand loyalty, behind only price, at 59%.

Building brand trust and loyalty
N = 1,059 / Q3. Which of the following factors would you say make you likely to become or to remain loyal to a brand or company? (Select all that apply)

The primary place we see this is in social media. Facebook now has over 10 million groups with over 1.4 billion members! But Facebook and other social sites are losing the trust of the people through various scandals.

This is why many marketers have now started calling other customer marketing programs “communities” in an effort to give them a more organic, human feel and make them more attractive to customers. This has accelerated the creation and usage of many different types of “community” programs: online forums, social networks, customer advisory councils, loyalty programs, brand ambassadors, developer relations, user groups, digital meetups, and more.

As these programs expand they start to overlap — Facebook group members also join loyalty programs, ask questions on forums, and join product feedback groups. What most customers don’t realize, and don’t expect, is that all of these programs are run by different people in different departments who don’t coordinate that much. That tends to produce a fragmented customer experience, where customers have to share the same information multiple times, get treated differently in different interactions, and don’t get rewards that match their motivations for participating.

So, what does all this mean for brands? First, most are looking for a more efficient and connected way to manage disparate programs. First, let’s talk about social networks.

The challenges with public social media as an online community platforms

The main program that nearly every brand runs under the “community” umbrella is public social media management. Social media sites like Facebook, Reddit, Quora, Youtube, Twitch, and TikTok make up over half of internet traffic today, and many are household names. Building a community here makes sense because there are so many people spending so much time there - and they are already talking about your brand in groups, forums, posts, videos and so much more.

Logos of social communities

There are two main challenges with these public communities: the data and the experience.

Data challenges on public communities

Over the last few years, there have been several scandals around the world related to the way personal data is gathered and sold to advertisers and third parties. When you share data in a public community, it typically is packaged and used to send you targeted ads and content. Many people do not like this experience, and the data has also been used for political and social engineering purposes by bad actors. This has led many people to distrust these platforms - contradicting the entire reason people started using them in the first place; to get information from people they know and trust.

User experience challenges on public communities

The experience challenge is a bit more nuanced. Think of the last time you learned something new. Many of us took up a new hobby when quarantine started in March 2020 — think about how many of your friends posted Instagram stories about their homemade sourdough bread. If you were one of those people, you might have been inspired by a friend’s post on Instagram or Facebook. Then you probably watched a YouTube video. Then read a Wikipedia article. After that, you may have gone to a bread-focused website and looked for some specific information. Finally, you might have even reached out to friends to ask them how they got educated.

The trouble is that none of these public communities talk to each other. If there was shared information across these sites, or perhaps with local bakeries, then someone could have created a specific guide just for new sourdough bakers in the area, linked all the various articles and advice, and created a more effective community. But this didn’t happen.

Fractured user experience

What should an online community platform be?

So, the practice of using public social media platforms as communities has its pitfalls. Forums, events, and social media are great places to start building community, but they are not true communities in themselves. A true community can educate anyone at any level, incite passion, and entice people to help others because real communities focus on connecting people and building relationships.

The best solution to the original problem of this blog — how to combine customer programs to break down silos and create a unified customer experience — is to build a true community. Build a place that your brand owns, where you integrate programs, customize user experience, overcome the challenges of social networks, and protect your customer data.

A brand community is a specific, brand-sponsored site that combines the personal connection of social networks with the knowledge capture of sites like Quora, Reddit, Wikipedia, and Youtube. The big difference between brand communities and social media is that brand communities offer a single place to have all the social experiences of learning, asking, and connecting, but do not sell user data. The brand uses that data instead to improve their services and products. Brand communities are designed to build one space with a unified experience to serve all the needs a customer may have because happier customers stick around!

Khoros has been in the online community business for a while — even before we became Khoros. When we were known as Lithium, we helped build the community market in the early 2000s and grew during the rise of social media into today. We've launched over a thousand brand communities, most of which are still around today. We’ve worked with charities, governments, tech giants, health care companies, retailers, startups, and global financial organizations. We can help you build a community that can build stronger connections with your audience.

New online “community” platforms muddy the waters

As brands try to recreate the connections found on social sites without the inherent trust and experience issues, community software has become a rapidly growing industry. There were over a dozen online community vendors that received funding from venture capital or private equity in 2020. And several more established enterprise software companies also added “online communities” to their list of offerings in the past 12 months.

The problem is that many of these new offerings only replace one of the aspects of a community. Theys generally fall into the three categories:

  1. Advocacy: Turn fans who are active online into advocates, AKA Influencer Marketing
  2. Knowledge: Create support forums to help customers find their own answers and build knowledge quickly
  3. Events: Host events to connect people to their peers and the brand

Support forums are great, but they don’t build connections between people, foster brand advocates, or generate product feedback for innovation. Social media followers and influencers are wonderful for spreading the word about a brand, but they don’t help onboard new users, build knowledge for how to use the products, or expand a pool of experts. And events are excellent for connecting people, but it can be difficult to turn that connection into knowledge or loyalty without a way to create lasting relationships between attendees.

So, where can you start?

Each community customer has their own specific needs, but they all have the same general goal: to connect people with a shared purpose. Start by identifying your purpose.

Our communities have saved billions in support costs, empowered hundreds of millions of loyal customers, and produced millions of new ideas. Through all this work, we’ve built a platform that anyone can use to fulfill the definition of community that's most important to them — and many times, multiple definitions at once.

Here are some tools to get started on your online community platform:

The Khoros community vision template

RFP checklist

Contact us for a demo

Atlas communities discussion board


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