Did you know that on average, communities generate a 6,469% ROI for organizations? Amazing, right? Well, this is just the average. The data shows that the older a community is, the higher the ROI. For communities that are 10 years old, there’s a 10,158% ROI.
Many businesses think of customer support as a reactive function. They put agents in the trenches and tell them to solve customer problems as they come in. Sometimes these businesses have completely siloed teams that will deal with other aspects of customer support, like managing the company’s brand on social media. And all too often, businesses fail to understand the importance of online communities and how these communities impact customer support.
Today we’re going to be diving into this issue and offering helpful advice on how to grow your online communities. Let’s take a look.
1. Why Online Customer Communities are Important
The first thing you need to consider is why these communities are important in the first place. Sure, we’ve established that they can result in higher ROI than other areas of business, but why? What is it about online communities that really works?
If you break down the elements of a successful online community, you can make sure that your spaces foster the kind of culture your customers want.
Why online customer communities are important:
- Information exchange – They allow customers to ask questions and receive answers about your product or service. Not everyone wants to reach out to the customer service team. Sometimes people think they’re just missing something obvious and would first prefer to talk to someone in a similar situation.
- Connection – People crave connections and communication with other people. With customer service, you can only connect with someone else for a limited time period. With an online community, you have a sustained connection that you can engage with on your own terms.
- Valuable information – Customers will talk freely about their opinions and experiences with your products and brand. This can be extremely valuable because people behave differently in online communities than they do when talking to a customer service rep. If you call an agent with a problem, you want that problem solved. If you’re also wondering how to change the background color of the app you might not mention this. It doesn’t seem as important as the main reason you’re calling, after all. And you don’t want to take too much of the agent’s time. This is how many customers think. But in an online community, customers are much more likely to ask questions about the small details. This can give you an insight into areas you need to focus on to give a more fulfilling customer experience.
2. How Do You Police Your Online Communities?
You must get this one right! If you create a forum on your website where customers can communicate, then you’ve created an online community. You want your customers to be able to talk about their experiences with your company. You want them to feel comfortable sharing their opinions because only honest opinions are useful when it comes to actioning meaningful change. But how do you stop the conversation getting off-topic? And how do you stop users from being rude to each other? This is what’s known as online community policing.
Here are our tips on how to successfully police your communities:
Establish Rules of Conduct
Set clear boundaries and guidelines for what is acceptable in your online community. This can let your customers know what they are allowed to talk about, and the potential consequences for violating these rules. Here are some examples of rules you might have:
- No discussions about drugs or other illegal activities.
- No profanity.
- Don’t insult other members with name-calling.
- No doxxing – Don’t try to expose personal information about other members unless they have given that information themselves.
The rules of conduct should be easy to find and written in plain language. Don’t be surprised if very few of your users follow the rules if you created a 15 page rule document.
Don’t Over police Your Communities
Remember that while online communities are useful for your business, they are also useful for your customers. Your customers aren’t there to give you helpful tips on how to sell to them, that’s just a natural consequence of the process. Your customers are in your community for several reasons:
- They want to be seen and be heard.
- They are craving interaction and connection with other members.
- They want to have some fun.
- They want to ask questions.
- They want to help other members by answering questions (they want to feel useful by helping others).
If you over-police your communities, then you will get in the way of your customer meeting the above desires. Here are some common examples of over-policing:
- Closing off-topic discussions – If your customers want to ask each other what they were watching on TV last night or if they have any recommendations for new movies, then let them. What’s the harm in having a few off-topic discussions on your forum? These discussions allow members to grow closer. You can also join in these discussions to show off the personality of your business. You should only try to step in and make changes if every topic is unrelated to your business. That can mean that the forum is developing into something different from its original purpose.
- Deleting criticisms of your business – Censorship almost always backfires. If you censor the opinions of your customers too heavily, then they will no longer find your forum useful. What happens then? They might make their own forum on a separate site where you have no control over the discussion. All of a sudden, the narrative is totally out of your control. Instead, it’s better to respond to criticisms swiftly and politely.
- Banning users for small violations – Not all rule violations are equal. For example, if you have a rule against using emojis simply because not all browsers display them correctly, then it shouldn’t be a bannable offense if someone uses one. Using an emoji and talking about illegal activity shouldn’t be given the same weight.
3. How Do You Set the Tone of Your Community?
When you create an online community, you play a part in shaping the culture of that community. Your users will also play an important part in this, and perhaps an even greater part than you. However, you can get the ball rolling by setting the tone. Do you want your customers to chat freely and openly? Do you want them to feel relaxed? Do you want your forum to be an informal place where customers can exchange ideas?
The answer to these questions might depend on your products and also your company culture. If you offer a highly technical product that is used for niche industry purposes, then you might opt for a more formal style of the forum. You can create a few initial posts explaining the purpose of the forum and highlighting a few examples of common answers users have about your product. This type of forum is unlikely to get off-topic because users only visit it when they need specific technical answers. You can acknowledge this and set a precedent by creating concise and technical posts.
Similarly, you might have a fairly technical product that can be used much more flexibly. For example, many types of editing software will be used by your customers for a vast range of purposes. Some people might only need to edit PDF text-based documents. Others might want to edit wedding videos. This type of forum is technical in nature, but you want to encourage a more relaxed style of communication. Why? Because the more relaxed and approachable the other members appear, the more likely new members are to ask questions.
One of the key benefits of online customer communities is their engagement rate. On social media, the engagement rate of followers is between 0.5% and 5%. In an online community, almost 50% of the members are engaged. To cultivate this high level of engagement, you must set the tone straight away. The tone you set will either make or break the community. It will either draw your first members in or turn them away.
Here are some quick tips on setting the tone in your online community:
- Ask questions – You can start the first few posts by asking questions to your members. If you are a more technical forum, you can ask “What is your experience so far using X feature?”. If you want to be more casual you can ask “Hey guys, how’s everyone finding the new X feature?”
- Run challenges or fun activities – If you want to create a more casual culture, you can run challenges. For example, if your product is photo editing software, you could run an editing challenge like “This is where we wish we were today! Edit your background to show us where you wish you were”.
- Sharing photos or stories from your business – This can be a great way to let your customers into your world. Be careful not to overdo this, though.
4. Be Present and Flexible
Being present means being available to engage with your customers in the online community. Here are our top tips on how to do this successfully.
Be active, but not too active
This may seem confusing but it’s really about allowing your community to flourish while still being there to help. For an online community to flourish, the members must be able to talk to each other. They must be able to offer advice and share their stories. If you jump in to answer questions as soon as they are posted, then you might be cutting off the discussion. Other members might see no point in offering their opinions if you have already answered the question. Instead, you should actively monitor the discussions so you can jump in at the right time.
When we say be flexible, we mean to be open to allowing the online community to change over time. If your online community becomes more casual when it started more technical, then take note of this change. You can then engage with the users in a more casual way than you did previously. You set the initial tone of the online community, but the users will shape the continuous tone. This is the users telling you what they want, so pay attention.
Other Quick Tips for Growing Your Online Community
- Make it easy for users to report abuse or rule violations. You never want your users to feel threatened or unsafe in your online community.
- Promote your community using social media.
- Pay attention to other external online communities. Sometimes a community might spring up in a place you didn’t expect. You can’t force these users onto your new forum, but you can engage with them in the external community. If they see how helpful you and engaged you are, they might give your online community a try.