A Case for Community: Why Brand Communities Are the Best Customer Engagement Hubs

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Last Updated: April 7th, 2021

Guest Post by Nick Hill

What exactly is an online brand community and why do you need one? 

First, let's start with some definitions. To begin, what's an online community? Put simply, it's a site where a group of people who have a common purpose interact with each other online to share knowledge, build solutions, and get help. There are countless familiar examples: Reddit, Yelp, Facebook Groups, or even threads on a company's Twitter. 

While many of these forums host vibrant communities, they can also be fragmented experiences, rife with information accuracy issues, data privacy challenges, toxicity, and abuse. And many rely on volunteer moderation. 

For a company, investing in its own online community — or an online community that is owned and managed as a brand’s own digital property — solves these issues for their customers and grants them unparalleled access to customer experience data that can unlock phenomenal growth. Outstanding examples include the Spotify Community, lululemon’s Sweat Collective, and Sephora’s Beauty INSIDER Community

By creating a brand-owned community, you bring together people from all walks of life (customers, partners, experts), who share a set of common goals but don’t know each other. Here, they can safely interact and build relationships around a shared hobby, profession, cause, or brand — like yours. Now you have a place where customers are more than just likes or followers, they are contributing members to your community and part of your brand. 

Starting an online branded community can sound like a daunting task. It certainly requires participation from many areas of a business — from the development work and strategy to employing the community moderators who will monitor it. However, when you take a deeper look into some of the many benefits of a branded community, the goal becomes obvious.  

Benefits of online branded communities

Valuable customer insight

Communities can be an excellent source of data for your company. Let’s say you have a huge product update, but on the day it rolls out, it comes to light that a certain aspect of it is causing extreme confusion for customers. This was the case for one of our customers who released a mobile device software update to tens of millions of customers globally. In East Asia's morning hours, several early users found a major bug in the update and posted it in the brand’s community. With engineers engaging in the community, they could quickly pause the rollout of the update before the rest of the world woke up. This resulted in only a few thousand people encountering a negative experience, instead of millions. 

You can also set up your community to help you avoid this altogether. If you have an established community, chances are you have a few users who are already active brand advocates. Use those people as a test group before you officially roll out your update, new product, or service. They are some of the best resources to understanding where the snags might be and what is important within the community.

Not only do these interactions provide valuable insights, but they make sure your customers know how much you value them and their opinions. When your customers feel appreciated and heard they are more likely to stay loyal to your brand.

Better customer service 

Another major benefit to having an active brand-owned community is that it can better your overall customer experience, including the ability to foster customer self-service and peer-to-peer connections. 

The demand for self-service is increasing among all audiences. When people ask and answer questions in a community, those conversations are recorded for everyone to find in the future. Furthermore, peer-led conversations offer a more positive experience than being on hold with a customer service agent, and it also helps people feel more connected. 

It's not just the people who ask questions that improve the experience. Answering questions also fulfills people's intrinsic motivation to help fellow humans. By fostering peer-to-peer collaboration, a branded community allows your customers to feel like they're more than a digital transaction. These interactions strengthen the connection within your community and allow you to build more human relationships with customers, leading to a positive customer experience.

Financial benefits 

Communities can actually save you money. The more questions that get resolved in your community, the less time your customer service agents have to spend answering the same questions. This is usually called “call deflection” or “prevention,” and there is a helpful model to help you calculate the value easily. 

The self-service customer care model offered by a brand-owned community allows you to strike the balance between being helpful and not spending valuable human resources answering repetitive questions. In other words, when the answers to simple problems and questions are housed in your online community, customer service agents can focus on more complex queries. Not to mention, your employees will likely thank you for reducing the stress that comes with these types of redundant interactions. 

As an added benefit, the knowledge shared in an online brand community supports other customer service platforms, providing a resource for customers reaching out via social or a brand's contact center. The reusable, living knowledge base of the community improves other customer care initiatives to expand on its direct financial benefits.

For example, SAS, a leader in business analytics software and services, utilizes its branded community for global customer care as well as engagement. In a 12-month period, 74 percent of customers using the SAS Community were able to find the answers they needed, powering an estimated $7 million in cost savings to their tech support team. 

In addition, the average brand community sees about 70 percent to 85 percent of traffic coming from public search queries. This means these people are coming to your site organically and getting questions answered there instead of submitting support tickets, sending emails, or getting frustrated with long response times or lack of information and going to a competitor’s site. 

How to establish a successful branded community 

Now that we’ve covered the major benefits of having an online branded community, let’s talk about what makes one successful.

Measurement and value — Establish a shared value statement between your community members and the brand. Focus on the metrics that effectively tell that story, like traffic, content, members, liveliness, interaction, and responsiveness.

Promotion — Communities require awareness on the part of your potential customers. Ultimately, SEO will drive a significant amount of traffic to the community but embedding community on your .com and promotion via email and social sets you off on the right foot.

Structure — Your community needs to be structured in a way that invites participation. This extends to an architectural structure, like making sure your community is mobile-friendly, as well as to topical structure. You want people to discuss the topics that matter.

Motivation — All successful communities bring into alignment their members' reasons for participation with a rewards and recognition program that highlights and amplifies their contribution. In fact, if you encourage and showcase your ‘superusers’ (significantly active community members), they can become one of your greatest assets — from testing opportunities to resourceful community content that helps other members and customer service reps be more successful.

Take Microsoft, as an example, which has one of the world’s largest superuser programs. Because of their engaged MVPs (Most Valuable Professionals), 65 percent of forum questions are resolved through peer responses. What’s more, Microsoft’s community has also resulted in over $1 million in support costs savings each month. Many of these MVPs also leverage the community to grow their own businesses and networks, which helps further Microsoft's impact around the world.

Moderation — Communities do require care and feeding. Part of that is ensuring all members have a safe and respectful environment to talk to one another in.

While there are plenty of other important community features to consider, I highly recommend considering these five areas when strategizing how to build your community properly. 

Creating your community 

It might seem like a heavy lift at first, but ultimately, an online branded community brings a lot of benefits to a business. From creating peer-to-peer collaboration and valuable relationships to cost savings, a community improves customer experience on all fronts.

If you are excited to get started on creating your online community, the first thing you should do is find an appropriate partner to help build it out. Then, I suggest perusing some well-established company communities for inspiration, so you can host your own successful community to help create customers for life.

Nick Hill is General Manager of Khoros Communities where he focuses on helping companies leverage their community to grow their business. Nick started his career in Communities when he joined Jive Software as a Software Engineer. He developed the first version of the Jive Platform with a few engineers and helped grow the company from a startup to a publicly-traded company. Nick’s passion for creating quality products comes from working in leadership across Engineering, Design, and Product Management.

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