Digital Community Building
In many organisations (I would argue most), sales is not just about closing an individual transaction with a buyer. Even when a sale is structured around a single product with a defined price, organisations that embrace the art of sales are focused on building a relationship with the buyer. They want to sell the product today and they want the buyer to come back and purchase more tomorrow. They are adopting an affiliated sales model based on building a long-term (rather than single point-in-time) relationship with the buyer.
Building Relationships with Buyers
Building buyer relationships makes good business sense. Buyers, whether they are acting as an individual consumer or as the representative of an organisation, don’t always want to just buy a product or service. Often, they want to buy the experience associated with a product or service. They want to engage with it. And engaged buyers are more open to repeat purchases and upsell/cross sell of tangentially related products and services.
The buyer desire for an experience is good news for marketing. It means that (in many instances) the top buyers are naturally predisposed to building a relationship. Of course, building relationships is easier said than done and involves cultivating three things; time, reciprocity and intensity.
Organisations that can tap into time and reciprocity are 80% of the way towards cultivating solid interactions with buyers. Organisations that add intensity into the mix will be positioned to truly develop mutually beneficial and enduring relationships.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a formula for creating time, reciprocity and intensity. Organisations need to take advantage of (or build) interaction opportunities that are appropriate to their unique set of circumstances. The skill comes in how different channels are balanced so that interaction is optimised.
The Value of Digital Communities
One channel that should always be considered is digital communities.
The basic concept of using communities to promote and sell offerings is nothing new, in fact it’s an approach that businesses have used for generations. Digital communities also aren’t new, and some of the oldest have been around for more than 20 years. But, technology advances and ‘always-on’ mobile connectivity is new, and it means that digital communities are becoming increasingly relevant to people’s lives. A growing portion of society relates to electronic communities as much (or even more) than physical communities.
Digital community participation is one aspect of social marketing. As digital communities proliferate, their importance to commercial success grows. Those organisations that do not actively embrace them leave themselves exposed to having buyer relationships stolen by those that do.
Digital communities have several unique attributes, but there are three that stand out for the marketing professional.
These three key attributes of digital communities create both opportunities and issues.
Compression of time and distance means that a greater diversity of participants can be active in a digital community (than a physical community), but also increases the potential for misunderstanding due to language or cultural differences. Increased noise means that the information density of digital communities is high, but also makes it challenging to distil intelligence from the information. Reduced social standards means that (unvarnished) dialogue can be highly insightful, but also raises the emotional temperature of interaction and creates an environment that is susceptible to over-reaction.
The potential for misunderstanding, high noise and emotional over-reaction is an explosive mix. It’s a genuine cause for concern since communities are open to becoming melting pots for vitriol, disagreement and complaint. But, take a step back and think about it for a moment. There are two very good reasons to accept the dangers and embrace digital communities.
First, there are lots of digital communities and they are frequently (usually) outside of the control of an organisation. It’s generally better to know what is being said and participate in the conversation than to be voluntarily excluded from it. It’s the old adage of “keep your friends close, and your enemies closer”.
Second, it’s worth noting that communities frequently rise to defend those organisations with which they’ve built a good relationship. When an organisation is trusted, buyers are considerably less likely to believe negative comments when they hear them. Taking the time to utilise communities to build relationships within them and thereby build engaged buyers, is time well spent.
Options Around Digital Communities
Organisations are faced with two options when incorporating digital communities into the marketing mix – participate in an existing community or build a new one.
At first glance, participating in an existing digital community appears to the easiest option since fundamental structures of the community are already in place. It will have a location in which to operate, a set of participants and some underlying basis for interaction. At the other end of the spectrum, building an entirely new digital community can seem daunting. After all, if the community doesn’t exist today perhaps that’s because there isn’t any demand for it, or it’s too difficult to bring all of the relevant constituents together. “If you build it, they will come” is a notoriously dangerous axiom in the business arena.
Neither perspective is entirely accurate. Joining existing communities isn’t always an easy option and building new communities isn’t always an insurmountable challenge.
When tapping into existing digital communities, the big challenge is to build participation without disrupting the existing balance. Most ‘independent’ digital communities are naturally sceptical of a commercial organisation joining the conversation. They assume that involvement will be overly partisan and it’s a valid concern. After all why would any organisation invest time and effort in a community if there were no benefit? But, it’s a biased and short-sighted perspective since the same is true for all community participants. Everybody is seeking a benefit of some kind, or they wouldn’t be there. The trick for both individuals and organisations is to demonstrate reciprocity and ensure that the community gains from participation. In essence, being a good citizen within the community.
It is an activity that requires finesse. If mishandled an existing community will (at best) reject an organisation that is attempting to join it. But if handled well, the organisation can enrich the community by nurturing and supporting it. Well-managed participation from a thoughtful and respectful organisation can actually help a community evolve into a more advanced state that’s beneficial to all members.
When building new digital communities, a good way of thinking about it is to imagine hosting a dinner party. The host provides the venue, the table, the food, the utensils, the service and perhaps even the entertainment. The guests provide the conversation but the host provides everything else. In a digital community the host provides (as a minimum) a base of technology (hardware, software and services) and supporting effort in designing and managing the community.
But, there are some clear advantages to building a new digital community. It’s a “clean sheet of paper” and can be moulded into something that best suits the organisation developing it. It can be established along a defined roadmap that is pre-considered to be optimal for growing a strong membership base with the right profile of participants. Rules can be established and (provided that they’re ‘reasonable’) will act as a social framework within which the community can operate, thereby reducing the dangers associated with misunderstanding, high noise and emotional over-reaction.
It should be noted that participating in existing digital communities and building new ones aren’t mutually exclusive activities. Those organisations that most effectively adopt digital communities as an integral aspect of their social marketing strategy will almost certainly do both. Whether participating in existing communities or building new ones, organisations must employ finesse and careful management. Communities are like organic entities, and while they can (and should) be nurtured in their development, it isn’t always possible to map this out clearly. Organisations must be willing to compromise on short-term tactics when necessary so that a longer-term strategy of relationship building and buyer engagement is achieved.
The organic growth of communities means that they need different things at different points in their development.
Brand new communities are in the formation stage. During this period the community has a no real group identity and is an extension or amalgam of the identity of the organisation or individuals that founded it. The primary challenge during this phase is to attract (the right) new members. Participants will be testing the community to determine if it is something in which they want to invest time in, and will be looking to see if they have a connection with it. So the key strategy during this stage is to ensure that the benefits of participation are clear and easily recognised.
Once a community is established it moves into the second stage of development – expansion. During this phase the community begins to develop a group identity that is beyond an amalgam of the identities of founder members and an initial sense of ‘esprit de corps’ develops within the participants. The primary challenge now is to continue to attract new members while creating a deeper and richer environment for existing members. The strategy is to maintain direction and founding principles, but allow the community to morph along lines of improvement. It’s still necessary to provide clear direct benefits to participation, but it’s also important to introduce more subtle indirect and emotive benefits.
Communities that have been established for some time, and are seeing membership stabilise are in the mature stage. During this period the group identity evolves into a community culture and members of the community feel an increased affinity to one another. This is the period when the community tends to be at it’s most productive and this is the time when community participants often derive the most value from membership of the community. The strategy during this stage is to emphasize community reciprocity and cultivate intensity. Direct benefits become less important while indirect and emotive benefits become essential.
At all stages of development, communities are vulnerable to collapse if they are not nurtured. Whether acting as host or participant, organisations must monitor the health of the community, and react appropriately. It’s something that requires a level of attention that is not insignificant.
Although there are many factors to consider during community development, the most basic is participant motivation. In the early stages, motivations tend to be direct and extrinsic – that is, the stimulus to join the community is external. In the later stages of community development, motivations tend to be more indirect and intrinsic – that is, the stimulus to participate is more internal. Community management is all about balancing between extrinsic and intrinsic motivations as the community develops. For this reason, it’s worth looking into the concept of motivation.
Community Participation Motivations
They are lots of scholarly articles about what motivates people, from Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of needs’ to Steven Reiss’ ‘basic desires’. But, for the purposes of this discussion I’ll focus on a handful of motivations that drive 95% of digital community participation.
When nurturing communities, organisations need to identify and cater to the appropriate participant motivations. Typically, during the early stages of development the focus is on attracting people to the community while later, the focus shifts to maintaining membership. Early stage motivations tend to extrinsically focused (and direct) while later stage motivations tend to be intrinsically focused (and more indirect and emotive). The goal is to continually evolve the community towards a stage where the participants don’t just interact, but become immersed within it.
Conclusions - guidelines for digital community management
Digital community building is just one component of the continually evolving discipline of social marketing. It’s a relatively new area and the rulebook is being written as organisations explore it. But, some key guidelines are emerging. Here’s a list of 15 things for an organisation to take into consideration as it develops its digital community strategy.