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Nearing the end of 2021 and gearing up for 2022, brands have been searching for ways to create more engagement and connection with their customers. This should be no surprise, especially after a tough couple of years, in which people focused largely on maintaining connections with friends and family in the face of global upheaval. The answer that many brands are finding is to serve their customer needs by investing in online communities. But how can we continue to support this trend? How can brands make those relationships even stronger than they are now and drive real change in their business moving forward? The answer has a lot to do with trust.
With the surge in e-commerce following 2020’s pandemic, people used their phones and computers to replace the stores they loved. But it’s tough to replace the confidence of in-person shopping via a phone. At the same time, trust in brands and social media was declining. As a consequence, trust in peers and desire for peer recommendations increased. People were 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 to buy it). They were looking for communities focused on their interests.
Fortunately, we’re getting back to in-person interactions when we eat, work, shop, and more. But the importance of trust has only increased in the wake of COVID-19. 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%).
One of the best ways to drive trust is an online community. In this blog, we’ll offer a definition of online communities, talk about the benefits and disadvantages of different types, and go over some best practices for brands looking to choose a community vendor.
An online community is any digital space where people come together around common interests or goals. When most people think about an online community, they think about free social media channels: Facebook (soon to be Meta), LinkedIn, Reddit, Discord, Twitter, and others. But as we’ll see in the next section, these platforms have their drawbacks, especially as they are designed to monetize participation and keep people on the site. Brand communities, on the other hand, offer spaces for people to find knowledge and help from employees, partners, current customers, and peers for any question or need they have. The goal of these communities is to get people to create a relationship with the brand after they get help. On these communities, time on site doesn’t matter because brands are making money on products and services, not ads.
Online brand communities are also much more versatile than public social networks. They usually start with forums, but can quickly evolve into spaces that include reviews, Q&A, ideation, events, subgroups, contests, and much more. They are spaces that the brand invests in to keep them well organized, useful, safe, and vibrant. In return, the brand gets better access to authentic customer conversations, reduces support needs with a self-service knowledge hub, and the trust that comes from hosting a helpful online resource without direct compensation needed — AKA providing a public service.
The main program that nearly every brand runs under the “community” umbrella is public social media management. Household name social media sites like Facebook, Reddit, Quora, Youtube, Twitch, and TikTok make up over half of internet traffic today, each with over 100 million daily active users. 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.
There are two main challenges with these public communities: the data and the experience.
This past year alone, 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’s typically 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.
We won’t dig into the issues of filter bubbles, polarizing content, or ads here. For this article, we’ll just focus on the challenge that these platforms have in serving the best content for a person’s need across their entire lifetime with a topic.
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. 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.
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.
As trust in companies and traditional social media channels declines, brands are scrambling to build it back up. However, trust is hard to build and easy to lose. Community is something that people inherently trust — whether it’s your neighbors or a group of people with shared interests. 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 ambassador programs, developer relation initiatives, user groups, digital meetups… the list goes on.
An online brand community can solve the challenges that separate communities on public social networks cannot. A brand community can connect and centralize all of these “communities” for greater efficiency and to maximize the connection between these passionate groups of people.
Organizations looking to provide that connected, trusted experience can rely on a custom built community — but there are certain capabilities that are required to run a top class community that many people new to the space might not be aware of.
First thing first — this is not a feature list. While it’s important to be able to create the interaction types your customers want, such as forums, groups, events, and more, these are not the most important factor of any successful community. Success requires knowledge of what not to do as much as it requires certain features. Here are the top four factors to consider.
We’re not here to sugar-coat anything. Building a community is hard. To begin with, it’s not always easy to get buy-in from leadership, making this project vulnerable from the outset. And even when you do, you’ll still need to create relevant content, grow membership, and adapt to any growing pains during the first few months. Then, once you’ve built a thriving community, you need to maintain it in a way efficient enough to make it worth the investment.
The good news here is that all this is totally doable — as long as you have the right partnership. It’s a community vendor’s job (not just an option) to make sure the communities they build get off the ground in the right way. That means offering counsel and partnering with a brand’s community team to make things run smoothly. Don’t think that just because a community platform is powerful that you won’t benefit from expert advice when running your community. That partnership is indispensable, especially for a team that’s just getting started.
Not sure how to tell whether a community vendor will stick by your side when it matters most? Check out IDC’s Vendor Assessment, which provides in-depth analysis of several vendors in the space.
Communities do well when they are focused on a larger purpose that they share with their customers. For Intuit, this purpose is to “power prosperity around the world.” This purpose is why hundreds of independent, unpaid tax professionals spend hours in their communities answering questions every week. You need to find your shared purpose and set up measurable goals and strategies that align with it. For some brands, those strategies involve helping people learn new products. For others, it’s more about a sense of belonging and trust. Every community has one shared, overarching goal: to build lasting relationships. But more specific goals can vary — a lot.
Let’s look at two Khoros communities as examples: Jawwy’s and Sky’s. Jawwy, a Saudi Arabian telecommunications company, uses their community largely to deflect support volume, achieving over $1 million in support savings (as of the time our case study was published). Sky, Europe’s leading media entertainment company, uses their community more for customer engagement, achieving a 179% year-over-year increase in visits during COVID-19. Both are success stories, but they had different goals and used different methods to get there.
If you’re not sure exactly what your community’s goals should be at the outset, here are just a few of the most common ones that Khoros customers talk about:
Deflecting support volume: probably the most common goal for a community, deflection of volume away from the contact center occurs primarily through peer-to-peer support. This means your users are helping one another find solutions to issues, so your support agents don’t have to.
Engaging users: general engagement is an incredibly important part of any community, and it should be one of several goals you have. Measure engagement by number and growth of users, posts, and activities. You can also use gamification features to increase engagement.
Increasing the chances of a purchase: community users are far more likely to complete a purchase than non-users. If your brand is in the retail or travel industries, it’s a good idea to gear your community toward encouraging purchases.
Creating new ideas and generating candid feedback: customers and employees can be valuable sources of feedback and new ideas for your brand’s products and services. Many brands choose to create an “ideas” or “innovation” section of their community to crowdsource new thoughts.
Encouraging user-generated content: UGC is one of the most powerful marketing tools in a modern brand’s arsenal — especially when it comes to building trust. some of your most valuable content can come from your customers’ comments and reviews — and where better to get that content than a community? Use your community to source testimonials and other valuable pieces of content from your customers, and use that content in your marketing efforts.
Integrating with other solutions: some brands use their communities to integrate with other offerings for customers, employees, or both. If this is your goal, find a community with flexible, easy-to-use API integrations.
Imagine this: you’ve built a great community with awesome features and a moderate (but growing!) base of users and super-users. Now, your ELT asks you why it was worth the investment. You need to have an answer that is fast, simple, and financial in order to increase your brand investment in the community. Fortunately, you are not the first to face this problem.
The right community vendor will have a clear answer (or, more likely, answers) to this question.
The need for measurable impact for communities is so strong that we created a team of Business Value Consultants who adapt our generic analytics and ROI formula for every customer.
As communities get more popular, naturally, the community industry grows. 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.
That’s good news and bad news for brands looking to offer their customers a community experience in 2022 and beyond. The good news is that with more competitors joining the space every year, community technology is advancing faster than ever before. That means better features and consequently better customer engagement for your brand.
The problem, however, is that many of these new offerings purport to be full-fledged communities, but don’t have the full suite of features. These generally offer just on one or two of a few common features:
Advocacy: turning fans who are active online into advocates. Otherwise known as influencer marketing, this is a valuable benefit of many communities, but not the only necessary feature. 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, provide self-service support, or expand a pool of experts.
Knowledge: creating support forums to help customers find their own answers. Again, this is an important feature of many communities, but communities are more than just support channels. A real community should also build connections between people, foster brand advocates, and generate product feedback for innovation.
Events: hosting events to connect people to their peers and the brand. If you’re only looking to host a single event, this feature is probably enough. Otherwise, you’ll want to look elsewhere. 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.
Look for a community provider that can do more than the bare minimum; it will be worth the investment in the long run.
Khoros 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 create a community that works for their brand’s needs. Schedule a demo today to see how a Khoros community can take your brand’s customer engagement strategy to the next level.