Rethinking the Customer Community Concept

A community, aka “community of interest,” is usually thought of as a large group of people with some common reason for associating. These days, that usually comes down to the user group, but in practice, a community can be any group that is passionate about a product or service and wants to improve it.

Communities are as old as the hills, and I have often cited the informal gatherings of enthusiasts for the steam engine that sprang up spontaneously in the English Midlands in the middle of the 18th century. In a short time, these enthusiasts helped turn an unwieldy contraption into the heart of the Industrial Revolution.

How Do I Get One?

Not much has changed. Today, the idea of community is making a comeback for many good reasons.

First among them: Communities work. Also, with social media all the rage, communities have become very affordable, and computing technology has amplified their impact, making them a great vehicle to drive innovation and growth. It’s no surprise, then, that lots of vendors are elbowing each other aside to claim the mantle of community and, at this point, a confused public might well ask, “What makes a community anyhow — and how do I choose a partner?”

Below is my unscientific summation of what to look for when trying to select a community.

Rules of Engagement

Make sure that they understand what a “community” is. Many suppliers use the word community because it’s “hot,” but they aren’t actually building a community. For instance, if the supplier builds a Web site and invites 5,000 people to “join,” and if the “members” don’t know each other and don’t interact with each other, it’s probably more of a panel rather than a community. The difference is important because a community proves its value when members examine and share ideas. A panel is just a fancy survey mechanism.

Understand their specific capabilities. There is a wide array of objectives that communities address. Find out where the supplier has expertise. You might want to look at the Forrester construct for the types of objectives for different communities: listening, speaking, energizing, supporting and embracing. Ask the supplier what they are good at, then match your requirements to their strengths. If they say “everything,” assume that they aren’t being straight with you.

Get clear on their engagement metrics. Any community vendor should be able to specify three numbers for you that describe an engagement pyramid. At the base is the number of members you’ll have; in the middle, the number who will come in and read, but not actually participate and create content; and at the top the number who actually will participate. The higher the participation numbers, the higher the engagement — which is really where the gold is.

Popping In

Make sure you understand what you are getting for your money. Will the supplier recruit members for you? Will you get weekly reports? Will the supplier monitor participation and interact with your community members? How often? Will the supplier do some work for you, or will you have to do it yourself? “Self-service” often sounds good, and it’s very profitable for the supplier, but you might not have time for that option. Furthermore, managing a community is a skill that you might not have in-house, and your community’s success is dependent on that skill. Remember, if it was easy to do everyone would already be doing it.

Get references. It never hurts, especially in a new market like this. Ask the supplier for the names of three clients they’ve worked with for at least six months. Call those clients and ask about their experience. Would they do anything differently? Focus especially on what happened when there were problems or when service was especially important.

Visit the supplier’s offices. If you are spending a lot of money and a significant portion of your budget, you should kick some tires. Meet the management and prospective members of the team that would manage your account. Talk about your needs and your vision and see if there is overlap. Make sure you feel that they will be able to build confidence with executives in your company. Ask for biographies of their staff and make sure that you have partners with experience that is relevant for your company and industry. Lastly, understand whether there is depth in the organization, and notice whether you feel more or less confident after that visit.

The ROI Question

Ask if they’ll work with your partners. If you have an ad agency or PR firm or other interactive partner, find out whether they are willing to integrate their efforts with that firm.

Find out what’s new. Ask about their future plans, their innovation priorities, how their solution will change over the course of your relationship, and so on. If you are working in the community arena, you want a supplier who has ambitious plans for the future and who will keep up with you.

Understand their experience. Ask for case studies of companies they have worked with in the past. See if they can talk about their lessons learned, their mistakes, and how they have improved as a result. Organizing a community is as much about methodology and service as it is about technology. Beware of companies that just seem to have good technology, but who lack the real-world experience to handle your complex needs.

Ask the ROI question. Many emerging companies do not have good ROI numbers because it’s hard to calculate, and our research shows that customers often don’t take stock of their situation before plunging ahead with an implementation. In that case everyone is left to wonder what the real ROI is. So if the prospective vendor cannot give you an ROI statement, don’t be put off, but weigh it in relation to the answers to all the other questions.

Picking a community vendor/partner might not be easy at this stage of the market’s evolution, but remember, it’s the early adopters that get the biggest returns on their investments in new technology.


Denis Pombriant is the managing principal of the Beagle Research Group, a CRM market research firm and consultancy. Pombriant’s research concentrates on evolving product ideas and emerging companies in the sales, marketing and call center disciplines. His research is freely distributed through a blog and Web site. He is working on a book and can be reached at denis.pombriant@beagleresearch.com.


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