In many instances, a company-created online social community for current and potential customers is a recipe for disaster. For instance, here is a good four-part series outlining the many reasons online communities fail by Joshua Paul. However, in certain circumstances, a company-created online social community can be a positive resource and provide both customers and the company with what they are looking for.
Before delving into the reasons a private community can benefit a company, it is important to note that communities created by businesses are judged critically from the start. Customers are getting keen on the fact that businesses want their business, and will do almost anything to get it. Therefore, businesses that build a community with the sole purpose of getting sales will fail miserably.
Companies that see a need for a place for their customers to get together– companies that are just as passionate about their products as their customers are — are the ones that need to build communities. Coincidentally, these succeed. After all, passion is the greatest fire.
Niche Interests Grow Communities
Does your company create materials for miniature landscapes? What about one that manufacturers scissors? This is how Fiskars reached out to the very demographic that uses their scissors: They created an exclusive community called the Fisk-a-teers. (Note: Jason Falls first turned me onto the Fisk-a-teers when I saw him on his No Bullshit Social Media book tour this year).
Screenshot from the Fisk-a-teers website taken on 10/25/2011
The Fisk-a-teers community gives crafters and scrapbookers a place to talk about what they love. The community is exclusive (requiring an invitation from one of the four crafting ambassadors) but has grown past anyone’s expectations, especially the team at Fiskars.
Jason talks more about this case study in his book, but it is just one example of a private social community that is flourishing. There are several others — just check out ning.com and other social networking site builders. However, companies don’t need case studies to prove they can succeed at building a social network. They just need understanding, genuine compassion and the commitment to build a community for their customers, not for their own focus group.
The Importance Of User-Generated Content
From a self-serving standpoint for businesses — besides user-generated content benefiting the users themselves, it also provides SEO value to the business’ website, building more internal backlinks and more content overall, which will be picked up by the search engine spiders. In addition, content that is driven and created by the community members themselves, not the business, is a great place to research customer sentiments and interests.
However, going back to the first few paragraphs, it’s important for users to connect with each other on their own, not because of pushing and prodding by the company running the network. Your customers are not cattle. They do not want to be pushed into a social network that doesn’t have content generated by their peers. They don’t want company employees forcing them to answer questions.
It is key to always keep this in mind. Company employees need to be silent spectators — helpful when customers need them, but otherwise letting the network grow organically.
Unless a company has the passion about, the commitment to and the understanding of how a social networking site can flourish, they are destined to be cautionary tales. Do research, ask the customers what they want and concentrate on building a cohesive and fully-functioning social network.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land.