Talk about online communities is everywhere lately. This is good news to those of us who have been building online communities as the core of our profession for many years – sometimes quietly in the shadows of marketing. Recently, community has come to the forefront of customer retention, customer research and other operational functions in ways never before realized. We community builders celebrate this market change and have high hopes for the future. But the question, what will the future look like, dominates our conversations.
Recently I spent some time with a fellow community strategist; Jane Hiscock, CEO of The Farland Group. We spoke at length about what the future may hold for companies, the profession and community’s impact on the companies they serve. This lead to a invitation to participate in a blog series on the topic of the future of online communities. Here is a recap of the conversation ….
Perspectives on the Future of Community: Vanessa DiMauro’s View In this post – one of a new series on the future of community that we will be featuring on this blog in the coming months – we are delighted to have as our guest Vanessa DiMauro, CEO of Leader Networks, a leader in creating social strategies and online communities for B2B businesses. We talked to Vanessa recently about how the concept of community for businesses will evolve and how marketers, strategists and community managers and leaders should think about community in their strategies to connect with customers, peers and others.
Here are the insights Vanessa shared in our conversation.
What are your overall observations on the future of community?
The future of community is definitely an exciting topic and one that has been a long time in the making. As online communities have only recently become popular, many people don’t realize that they have been around and thriving for more than 35 years! Primarily used to support virtual knowledge sharing in professional settings (academics, IT executives, research), they have a proven strength in supporting information exchange and collaboration. So, I believe the history of community will continue to influence their future. The biggest trend I see on the horizon for online communities is the advent of specialized private online communities
In my view, the specialized online community’s day has come! The last 2-3 years have been awash with social network launches and the race for dominance. For most, even the phrase ‘online community’ currently evokes mass professional networking tools, as those tend to be most professionals’ first exposure to online community. And while Twitter, LinkedIn and Quora, for example, are not going away anytime soon, there is an increase in the demand for specialized private online communities which has emerged in part from the success of the broader social networks.
While these large professional networks have been fun and productive to experience, they have grown to unmanageable sizes if they are to be used as a learning environment. This can be noted as LinkedIn has recently launched groups for more targeted connection, and Google’s claim to fame is the ability to create context circles so you can organize your network into different categories and offer them different levels of access and information to your profile. Clearly open communities and large networks are not meeting all the needs of professionals. And this is understandable, as professionals need to engage with peers around specific topics, seek pointed information about those topics and are selective in their collaboration efforts with those peers.
Instead, it is within the gates of private, smaller communities where meaningful peer connections, idea exchange and collaboration can truly take place. Not surprisingly, this mirrors the utility of a strong, intimate in-person meeting versus a large industry conference. Specialized online communities are now coming into their own because more professionals have evolved their requirements through experience with large networks. And there is certainly a growing trend of organizations to create private gated online communities to service the specialized needs of their customers.
How are communities driving the future of marketing?
That is an interesting question – today, I see that people often confuse the role online communities can play as a marketing strategy with a place to market to members. The true business opportunity for online communities to serve marketing is as a channel for customer engagement and as a thought leadership platform with and for the community members. What this means is that when well done, online communities can serve marketing to discover information, trends and opportunities with customers that marketing (as well as other lines of business) can leverage. From gathering information and feedback on new trends, discovering an issue with a product or solution that needs to be addressed, to even identifying unmet needs that could be tended to, online communities can serve all of the functions and more.
Communities also offer a new and more sophisticated opportunity to develop and showcase true thought leadership from the organization that is founding the community and to feature the customers and members who are thought leaders. The goal of using online communities to market to customers is at odds with the expectations of the members who join the community typically in search of information, peer networking, and collaboration – this is especially true in the B2B world. Marketers will need to balance the evolution of how they connect to keep the goal of the community strategy aligned with members’ values and drivers for participating, as well as the company’s for engaging with customers.
What does that mean for marketers looking to the future of marketing innovation?
Using online communities, marketers now have a prolific setting to engage with customers on an interactive playing field. Because of the widespread reach of social media at-large, and online communities in specific, the days where a company can declare victory due to market size are over because customers can now talk and share their experiences publically. Every day brings new challenge for companies to demonstrate their excellence – online. The opportunity to engage customers in a trusted relationship 24X7 is a perfect marriage to online communities.
What is the role of content in creating value in communities? How will that change? Will value come in other ways?
People come for content and stay for community. Access to valuable content (content that people can’t get elsewhere) is the single most compelling driver for participating in an online community. Content serves as the trigger to join, and fuels the community over time by providing contexts for conversations between peers / members. Through the use of social media, and especially online communities, professionals now have the ability to reach, connect with, learn from and influence other professionals who share an interest or a passion in the topics of interest. Thought leadership is the new currency of credibility.
Over time, the role of content and specifically thought leadership content will continue to increase in importance especially for B2B firms as they often use thought leadership platforms to establish and sustain credibility. Many B2B firms struggle to keep up with growing customer demands and more-nimble competitors anxious to capitalize on those nascent needs. Waiting for the annual conference to announce key new-product introductions can now penalize a firm with being very late to market. Holding webinars or publishing journals quarterly or even monthly can risk giving customers information long after others have filled the void. Therefore, these companies increasingly look to real-time customer intimacy channels such as online communities as a new approach to reach and engage their customers.
Will community and social media diverge or converge?
Online communities are the centerpiece of social media. When you think about the goals of social media (or social business as a whole, for that matter), building relationships among people is critical. Online communities are the ultimate manifestation of relationship-building activities. They are the best way to build deep online relationships with the people and organizations that matter to your company – customers, employees, suppliers, shareholders, and others.