As a long-time comic book artist, fan, and professional, I have experienced firsthand how comics collectors travelled long distances to meet up with others who shared these passions. In the 1990s, the Internet condensed time and space to bring people with common passions together virtually. These days, the virtual real estate where people come together online to discuss mutual interests is commonly referred to as an online community.
A lot has happened in the field of online communities since the late 1990s. Back then, a company’s online community was simply the group of customers that hung around online forums chatting about a product or service after they exhausted their initial reason for showing up.
Those of us managing these 24-hour conversations mostly kept the trolls at bay. At first, online community professionals encouraged companies to let the community rant, hoping it would help with search engine optimization. But then we worried: "Make them stop! They’re bringing the wrong kind of attention to our brand!"
Fast forward to 2007, when I became director of Zynga’s global community department. The growing games company needed me to prove once and for all the true value of their online community and how it drives their business model.
Fortunately, Zynga has one of the business world’s most powerful analytics engines. Within a few quarters, my team delivered reports proving how much revenue our social community drove back to the company. We set quarterly revenue and engagement targets and optimized our methods. We more than doubled our global fan base to 300 million. Our quarterly incremental revenue contribution grew three times in two quarters and became a predictable annual contributor to the bottom line, offsetting millions in customer support costs. The bankable core customers were our most highly engaged—the most retained—and we focused our strategy on serving them.
So, how can other companies achieve more with their communities, thereby locking in their most devoted customers? Here are five ways to start:
Tucking away community as a corporate function under cost centers like customer support is a huge mistake. Community is a business driver—learn what motivates the community, and the community will pay you for it. Polyvore is taking this approach with user-curated tear sheets. Lyft plans to win the transportation category with its community. Honorable mention in this category goes to Yelp—the user-created, theme-based guides are indispensable.
"Listening" has become a rote hallmark promise from corporations since market research in one-way glass rooms was invented. Companies who are really listening release products that are good for the bottom line and the community. The Internet allows customers to see inside like never before—let them power the machine and they will buy what comes out!
The most dynamic example of this kind of listening today is Modcloth. Modcloth’s Be the Buyer program allows the company’s crazy passionate community to vote designs for sale into production.
When working right, a community team can provide real-time, course-correcting feedback to the product organization. This means locating the community folks with the product folks in the floor-plan.
It’s a virtuous cycle: Through social channels and forums, community hears about a problem first. They report it to the product team and the problem gets fixed. Now the community team reports it back to the community.
EBay’s Voices program was an early and meaningful way to literally invite the customer inside to preview new features and offer customer-eye-views of the product overall. This community-product loop is being reborn in today’s exciting mobile crowdservice apps like Directly, which uses an army of product experts to reply to questions using smartphone push notifications. Elegant, simple, scalable, and cost-saving.
At Zynga, we taught our community folks how to write product specs so each person became as empowered as any product manager when it came time to prioritize the build. The right community personnel can be taught to act strategically. Get these folks out of the basement. Bring them on sales calls, into the business development process, and give them veto power at road-mapping meetings. Send the ones who resist back to the moderation pool.
When companies put customers in the spotlight internally and externally, empower them to be part of the product conversation, and elevate community handlers into strategic weapons, good things will happen. Companies see retained, engaged customers and passionate managers coming back for more.