Developing Online Communities

Companies looking to learn more about their customers, drive more return visits to their sites, capture a greater share of consumers’ time online or elevate their brands through word-of-Web have determined that social media deserves development.

“Two thousand eight is going to be a year that sees exponential growth from the market” in branded social networks, said Dan Neely, founder and CEO of Networked Insights, located in Madison, Wis.

Among the common features to branded social networks launched by enterprises for external audiences are customer-generated content, games, blogs, image downloads, polls, viral videos and small group discussions in a larger bulletin board community.

The technology behind this dynamism pulls data into CRM applications, CAD software and vendor relationships. The interface developed and designed for the community requires insight into current product and service influencers and buyers.

“Companies are ultimately trying to get customers in an environment where the stimulus is all other customers,” Neely said.

Important to building a context in which customers can have conversations is including features that lend fame to customers by giving them “a soapbox and a microphone,” he said. Neely added that it’s also important such environments “have a stickiness element,” a quality that leads a visitor to stay when they visit and return on subsequent occasions.

Social media also need to enable personal choice, such as the communication platform through which customers will receive and present information to the company or one another. These include bulletin boards with company-initiated discussion threads, community-selected chat rooms, product review invitations, an amateur video area, e-mail, text or instant message communications, a photo gallery, podcasts and a community diary.

Social media also should reach out to existing, like-minded communities through online or offline marketing, link sharing, etc. “It is not a case of ‘if you launch it, they will come,’” Neely said.

Social media should be moderated by lead members of the community. A customer blog is an example. It also should recognize participants for their roles in the community. Rewards may be gift certificates for branded offerings, partner benefits or personal recognition in a public way.

Another important feature is to allow members to invite others into the network. (Neely said 60 percent of online social network members have never been to the brand host’s corporate Web site before invited to join the community by a friend.)

Through these described methods, social media extend ownership of the discussion to the end users rather than keeping control in the hands of the company.

“The initial taxonomy is developed by the company, but the network is designed by the customers, depending on the interactions they have,” Neely said. This means new content, tools and creative widgets are driven by customers both in how frequently they appear and the functions they perform.

Constant change in the engagement platform is more than reskinning the application or introducing new technical bells and whistles.

“A community is not a technical problem,” Neely said. “The goal of the interface is to allow technology to get out of the way of customer engagement,” to make the user experience friendly enough that the technology is seamless yet still sophisticated enough to ask questions specific to individual users, for instance.

Guild.com has become more relevant to its customers and understands its role in their lives as an interior design resource rather than an art collector’s online gallery. The categorization of the e-commerce site also gave it reason to build a community not based on product and purchase experience reviews.

“We almost went down that path, but because of the nature of what we sell, we didn’t want to do anything to damage [our] relationships with artists,” said Toni Sikes, founder and artistic adviser. “We deal with that at the return level — the softer side a social network, the broader information-sharing among older baby boomers interested in decorating their homes with unique pieces by professional artists.

“When you let people talk to each other, there’s a freedom there that I don’t even think you can get in a focus group,” Sikes said. And understanding the company’s demographic, community designers put priority on an easy-to-navigate interface with frequent introductions of discussion threads to attract the widest possible participation among the “artful community.”

“My first concern was to put something on our homepage that no one would use,” she said. “It’s very valuable real estate.

“I don’t spend a lot of time on Facebook or MySpace. It’s not my milieu when I’m online,” she continued. “What if we put all of this time and money into it and no one came? But they do.”

Kelly Shermach is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, N.Y., who frequently writes about technology and data security. She can be reached at editor (at) certmag (dot) com.

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