Insights on Marketing & Technology

Online community management

According to a 2012 IBM Global CEO survey, 57% of CEOs plan to invest in online communities. But what are online communities and what is the potential value for businesses? This article is a guide to working with online community management in a business context.

  • By: Ronni Tino Pedersen
  • Published: 13-02-2014

Now you probably want to get right into the hard figures and how to accomplish them through social media, but let’s pause just briefly and ask ourselves:

What is a community?
Communities were once offline and defined as groups of individuals who were close in regards to physical proximity and thus had good reason to have shared experiences and life conditions. Telecommunications and the internet in particular changed this narrow definition. Online communities are now global, our shared experiences are no longer limited by location and neither are our interests or experiences with brands. Chances are we as individuals probably have more interests in common with people scattered across the globe than those in our immediate surroundings.

Are online communities then more significant than offline ones? Will they have a significant positive impact on the relationship between customers and companies and in creating mutual understanding across cultures? Yes, they might if they are managed properly and if we start to build them instead of just talking about it.
Amy Bruckman, researching online communities at Georgia Tech, is quoted to have said: “much ink has been spilled trying to work out which online communities are really communities” and suggests that a more productive approach may be to accept community as a concept with fuzzy boundaries defined by its membership.
While sociologists, social psychologists and other professions might have different opinions on this, it seems indeed to be true in the age of Facebook and other broadly used social networking platforms. Here a community feeling is less connected to the technology itself (e.g. Facebook) or to a single topic (e.g. football), but a sense of community can be momentarily perceived in a single conversation that we engage in.

No, we don’t become core members of a cooking community by just once commenting on a friend’s shared recipe, but for a short while we connect as individuals, state our interest in this topic and influence a conversation around a social object: The cooking recipe. This activity mirrors our everyday lives when we have face-to-face conversations and negotiate our ‘membership credentials’ within different communities of interests.
The World Wide Web is fuzzy – ‘small pieces loosely joined’ in the words of David Weinberger – and this influences our memberships of online communities too.
For the purpose of this article, however, let’s not waste ink on further definitions of online communities, but narrow the scope to look at the value of online communities for brands and customers alike.

The value of online communities
According to a 2012 IBM survey, CEOs believe social media will become one of the top two ways to engage customers within five years, mainly at the expense of traditional media. 57 % of 1.700 CEOs, when asked about their company’s response to the connected economy, say that they plan to invest (or invest more) in online communities over the next three years.

This is good news for customers and for brand managers alike! Justifiably CEOs are often the most concerned about the business value of online communities. But this recent survey shows that the C-suite is now recognizing that customers find value in engaging with products and organizations more and in different ways than previously – and it also shows that we, the social evangelists, have become better at demonstrating the bottom line values.

If your CEO is already among the ones in favor then don’t hesitate to start building your online community and shifting those dollars from paid to more earned and owned media. If he still needs persuasion then let us look at some steps to consider and reasons to get started.

Step 1: Listen and align your objectives
When do we choose to invest ourselves in a conversation? Even with the most trifling small talk, we engage in conversation because we find it somehow personally valuable to offer our own perspectives on a topic. The value derived can be any of a handful: Practical, economic, cultural, symbolic etc. – and the same logic works in online communities for individuals as well as for corporations.

So before building a branded community it’s a good idea to listen inward as well as outward and align your business objectives with the objectives of your customers:
What do you need for the community to be successful and what do the community members need from the community to get value?

Social business is after all just business, so you need to define by which KPIs to measure your success. But you also need to get an idea of which kind of engagement your community is open to. Even if you have business intelligence at hand, it can be a good idea to start your online community ventures by listening (just like before joining a conversation). Spend some time monitoring brand relevant conversations online and consider which types of conversations are taking place around your line of business. Which kind...
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