I have been researching and building online communities since 1991 – a seriously long time. One of the great outcomes of honing a skill for a decade or two is the ability to notice patterns in research. Recently, I have been building case studies about B2B online customer communities, which I will be sharing through this blog in the coming weeks and months. This intersection of ability and activity – experienced observer and in-depth, measured research – has helped me spot some early success indicators for B2B customer community builders.
Pattern #1: I Need To Know What You Know
When customers have a deep need to exchange information with each other about products, services or issues addressed by the organization, the communities tended to have the greatest vibrancy and fastest adoption rates. Common characteristics include:
- Customers had a burning need to communicate with each other
- Customers used a platform or a process where the information exchange was rooted in a shared experience
- Customers demonstrated a willingness or need to convene in-person or by other means. These customers had user groups, attended conferences or subscribed to a mailing list to keep connected.
In this scenario, the customer problems may repeat frequently — think technical or product support — or there are complex issues the constituents must grapple with over time, such as law enforcement or health care benefits administration. Signs a customer peer group needs to share information include ongoing industry conferences, trade publications, associations dedicated to the profession, industry or topic. Instead of “collaborate and evaporate” in-person knowledge sharing, the B2B customer community enables serious information sharing over time, based on building sustained relationships between customer peers and between the organization and the customer.
Pattern #2: It’s Always Something But It’s Never the Same
The customer’s problem is evergreen, but ever-changing and of business significance. In our early examples of successful B2B customer communities, the customer problems are:
- Ongoing, ever-changing and critical to business efficiency and success
- Information used for solving problems becomes obsolete quickly
- Experience and information from other customers is valuable
- Urgent need to share experiences to resolve problems
Palladium Group’s XPC community is an example I have written about before. This private, gated online community serves professional strategy practitioners. XPC provides research, resources, discussions about the practice and access to members online. The problem is evergreen; the art and science of linking strategy to operations is not going away anytime soon! Best practice is continually evolving, and the strategy professional’s success depends on how well they master this complexity — the future of the company rests on their success.
Pattern #3: Helping You Will Help Us
The company is invested in helping the customer solve problems with the company’s product or service. Usually the product or service is changing frequently, and there may be renewal period or upgrade decision point facing the customer. Common factors are:
- Company offerings solve important problems for its customers
- Company must supply continual product enhancements to meet customer needs
- Company revenues depend on product/service upgrades or renewal decisions by customers
The key aspect of this pattern is the company’s need to talk to the customer, learn about customer satisfaction and solicit customer insights on future product and service enhancements or explore new business activities. Even today, in some industries and organizational cultures, the company may not have a deep understanding of their customers.
Just as important as a willingness to listen is the company’s ability to respond to what it is hearing. A firm that lacks the institutional or operational capabilities to act upon the information it gathers from the community exchanges undermines the purpose and value of the contributions, and can lead to customer disengagement from the community.
Companies can and do use social media tools such as Facebook and Twitter to “take the pulse” of their customers — with good success. But a Facebook “Like” does not equal an informed exchange of views about a complex B2B product, where decisions have serious implications for the company and the customer. Companies which seek to use customer needs, requests and feedback to enhance current offerings or create new products may find an online customer community the most effective option.