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Brand Communities, 20 Years On

Lithium Alumni (Retired)

For the latest installment in Lithium’s “Thought Leadership Series: The Modern CX,” I was interviewed by a colleague and got into how and why brands are adapting to the evolving landscape of social and community technologies. Here’s the Q&A. Enjoy! 


Q: In your recent piece for Marketing Mag Australia, you show how return on investment (ROI) is there for social and community. If so, why is it still so difficult to convince upper management of its importance to the business?

First, you need to take a look at how you are quantifying ROI. In that piece, I also talk about some of the barriers that exist in measuring ROI. Those barriers have nothing to do with social or community.  They are about good business measurement practices, and also about access to data.  If you can’t find a way to navigate those barriers, you’re not going to succeed. So put the numbers together first. If you don’t know how to do it, ask your vendor or your peers in other organizations for help.


But even with the numbers in hand, the battle isn’t won. I find that the awareness of this stuff among executives is relatively low.  With communities specifically, I often describe it as the biggest secret in social. Hundreds of millions of people use brand communities every month, but how would you know?  I don’t see anything about this in Fortune or Forbes or the Wall Street Journal. Don’t blame your executives – they have little opportunity to learn what’s going on, outside of what’s the latest hot social network. So you have to educate. Use examples. Find out what your competitors are doing, or others in your industry.


Q: Any other secrets?

Yes, one big one. Because social and community channels today are new, they are often smaller in volume than other channels. And because they are small, it can be easier to discount their importance. And sometimes social and community managers aggravate the problem with flawed measurement and reporting practices.


 If you are managing a social or community effort, you need to make sure the numbers you report don’t underestimate your impact. I’ll give you an example: for communities, it’s common to report metrics like registrations, active users, topics, replies, etc.  But since most community use is passive rather than active – in other words, people reading rather than posting – all those metrics radically undercount what’s really happening.  To me, the most important metric is monthly unique visitors. I’d start there.


Another thing: you should get in the habit of is putting your ROI calculations in the content of potential future growth.  For example, let’s say you save x costs today at y level of usage. What will this look like at z usage levels? When will you get there? What will it take to get there sooner?  Most social channels are generating a small fraction of the value they could generate if the brand focused on driving adoption. If you paint that picture, you can escape that danger of being “too small to matter.” 


Q: We hear a lot about cost savings and sales. Are there other benefits from community and social that you think don’t get enough attention?

Customer insights. It’s on everyone’s radar screen – companies will often say it’s one of the reasons that they are doing this stuff in the first place. But you don’t see it highlighted very often, and you certainly don’t see it quantified as part of an ROI exercise.


Among the things I’ve heard more than once: “In our community, we hear about issues weeks or months in advance of when we hear through traditional channels.” In part this is because of the ease and speed with which customers can share their opinions online.  But there’s something else happening here too.  I often say that a customer will wonder before they will complain. Is it just me, or is something wrong with this product? Have I just not learned how to use it? Is this happening to anyone else? A customer may spend hours, days, or even weeks in this “wondering” stage before they would ever pick up the phone or drive to the store. Many of our customers very intentionally make communities part of an “early issue identification” process, so that insights are promptly spotted and escalated to the right people inside the organization.  An effective program can have a big impact on call volumes, complaints, product returns, and customer sat issues.


Q: Why can’t you do that with call center data?

You could, but the reports from traditional call centers often don’t end up at the executive’s desk until a month after the problems emerge. With communities, you can just go on the website and see what issues are customers are having in real time.


Q: Ok, here’s a question community managers often ask: how do you find the balance between an employee responding to a question and letting customers pitch in with a solution?

It’s funny, we never got this question 20 years ago. That’s because the attitude used to be, the community is where customers to help customers. If you need an answer from us, you know our phone number. Brands didn’t think customers wanted them to participate in the community. Of course, that was wrong – if it’s your community, your customers expect to see you there. I think those expectations are even stronger today than they were even two or three years ago. That’s because customers are now seeing brands answering questions out on social channels. So if you’re not doing that in your community, you’re going to be disappointing some people.


 To figure out whether you have the right balance, look at the metrics. If it’s taking you a day and a half on average to get a first reply, then it’s not the time to pull back yet. In fact, maybe you need to participate more until you can cultivate more active customer-contributors. But if you’re already providing a reply in 30 minutes on average, maybe you have some room to step back a bit and create room for customers to respond first. Other relevant metrics are response rate (what percentage of questions get replies) and satisfaction (what percentage of users say they are satisfied with the experience they are getting in the community).


Q: Any final tips on how you inspire those customers to help out?

A robust and active group of customer “superusers” is the product of doing many things right. It starts with getting enough users to the community. Remember that only a small percentage of users have the potential to be superusers. It varies by community, but can be as small as one out of every 200. So to have superusers emerge, you need to have lots of people coming in the first place. The other benefit of having lots of visitors is that you’ll also get lots of questions. Questions are the oxygen that superusers need to grow.  Keep in mind too that you have to remain worthy of their support – which means that way you manage the community, deal with issues that arise, and even behave as a company can have a positive or negative effect on people’s willingness to help you. So a large part of the superuser challenge is building a healthy and growing community and company to begin with.


 The next layer is recognition, privileges, and rewards. Early on, it’s enough to just have a good gamification system (ranks and badges) and also some one-on-one communication with those who are emerging. That’s all recognition – letting them know that you know they are there, and letting everyone else know too. At some point you want to formalize the program, with criteria, privileges, and even rewards if you choose to do that. That formal structure will allow you to grow your superuser group more efficiently. 


Q: Thanks for your time today!

It was my pleasure!