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HigherLogic and Socious

Online Community Blog

How to Create an Online Community That Turns Customers Into Advocates

Posted by Joshua Paul on Tue, Jul 30, 2013 @ 10:47 AM

How to Create an Online Community That Turns Customers Into AdvocatesChief Marketing Officers have a lot on their minds - from nuts and bolts lead generation to brand management to partner development. So, it’s a big deal that customer engagement tops the list of CMOs priorities. According to a Korn/Ferry International survey, customer engagement leads the list of the things that keep CMOs up at night.

Most marketing executives know that customer engagement makes a range of business-level initiatives possible, or at least makes those goals a lot easier to achieve. For instance, your customer engagement strategy makes developing a customer advocacy program possible, one of the most important elements of modern business growth. Customer advocacy is the systematic integration of customers into a company’s sales and marketing process.

Let’s drill down into how companies can increase advocacy-oriented customer engagement using their online customer community.

The Role of Your Online Community in Customer Advocacy

Online customer communities support an array of strategies for companies. These range from improving customer satisfaction while lowering support costs to creating more sellable products using consistent market feedback from your community.

One of the less talked about areas that online customer communities address is its use in marketing. While marketers are often the people that own and shepherd customer community projects, how to use the private social network to achieve tangible marketing goals is not always clear.

Along with differentiating your company and offering, online communities are ideal environments to nurturing existing customer relationships, so that you can eventually bring them into the sales and marketing process.

In his book, The Hidden Wealth of Customers, Bill Lee (one of the world’s most respected authorities on customer advocacy), puts it this way:

“After a customer completes a purchase, what is typically left of the table is a gold mine of ways that firms can increase both the value they provide for customers and the profitability customers generate for the firm. With the new customer value proposition, you essentially reinvent your relationship, transforming customers into what I call customer advocates, influencers, and contributors.”

Customer advocates can help businesses grow in a variety of capacities. These range from sharing success stories in blog posts or videos to co-presenting at events to talking to prospective customers during their buying process.

Creating a customer advocacy corps starts with establishing and maintaining strong relationships with customers. The relationships that your customers form with your company, other customers, and your partners are built on your community. Online customer communities enable your business to maintain close relationships with your customers at a scale larger than traditional CRM communication channels alone.

6 Ways to Develop Customer Advocates Faster in Your Online Customer Community

Assuming that you already have an online community strategy that creates value for your customers and keep members engaged, here are six ways to strengthen your customer advocacy program.

Tip #1) Know Your Big Picture

Great products don’t inspire your market. Great causes do. Apple stands for individualism. Disney believes in making memories. AAPR’s higher purpose advocates for making life better for American’s over 50 years old.

What values run through your online customer or member community? Your organization and online community will attract people who share those beliefs.

When customers buy into your big picture, they will not only fight to strengthen your online community, but they will advocate for your organization’s cause.

Tip #2) Help Customers Connect

Helping customer community members associate with like-minded people is a big part of turning customers into advocates. When a customer is excited about your product and the results that your company has helped them deliver, they are eager to share that experience with people who care. Those who are receptive to these stories are most likely going to be one of two kinds of people:

  1. People who have had a similar experience
  2. People who are in a situation similar to the one the sharer was in prior to taking the action that got them the results

Provide online and offline opportunities for customers to connect with other customers. These could be customer events that you manage through your online community software so that customer engagement begins before the event and extends long after the event.

Online examples include creating subgroups in your online customer community for IT professionals or executives at your customers’ organizations. By making it easy for customers in similar positions to connect, you are teeing up your most passionate fans to find strength in numbers.

Tip #3) Help Customers Achieve Their Goals

The most important job of your online customer community is to help your customers solve their problems and achieve their goals. Aligning your customer community’s strategy, content, and community management tactics with your customers’ most critical challenges is a surefire way to make your online community indispensable to your customers.

This approach will not only maintain high levels of participation in your customer community, which will lead to even more engagement over time, but it gives your customers tangible results that they can talk about in the market.

The equation is simple. Satisfied customers are much more likely to advocate for your product, company, or cause in the market.

Tip #4) Work for the Community, Not Your Bottom Line

Online communities are still an emerging strategy for most companies. This means that they are still at the stage where non-social executives need to take a slight leap of faith when committing to creating a customer community.

When a business implements a new email marketing platform, senior management can see a direct correlation between the communication that goes out and the conversions that come back.

The model with online customer communities is very different. The community is not a campaign. It is an ongoing living organism that, when healthy and providing value to its members, generates a much higher response to calls-to-action than traditional marketing channels.

However, if your community catches wind that you are “using” them to drive profits, the value system of the community breaks down. This leads to an imbalance where customers stop participating, new members see a lack of activity and don’t return, and your organization can’t reap the benefits of having engaged customers.

Obviously, your online community can’t cultivate customer advocates if it is out of balance. To avoid this online community “death spiral,” create as culture inside your organization that puts the community first. People at all levels across your company need to trust that if they support the community, the strategy will deliver the appropriate results for your business.

Tip #5) Offer Leadership Opportunities

It takes a lot to keep an online customer communities running smoothly. From content creation and community management processes to putting out fires and addressing members’ concerns, even big companies can struggle to keep up. This is where customer advocates come in.

Customer communities provide tangible opportunities for customers to get involved. Empowering customers to align with and promote your values by working to grow and support the community is a double-win for businesses. It both takes some of the community management load off the shoulders of your employees and creates more vocal and committed customer advocates.

In our experience at Socious, customers often jump at the chance to help lead a portion of the customer community by doing things like co-planning an event, running a sub-group or project, or producing an article to share. Leadership opportunities give customers a chance to standout and build their personal brand in your community.

Tip #6) Keep Your Customer Advocate Pipeline Full

When a company has an active online customer community, customers are sharing ideas with each other. They are asking the company and its partners for advice. And they are responding honestly to communication from the company.

This is fertile ground to recruit to new members of your customer advocacy program. Keeping the pipeline full of new customer advocates at early stages of their support is critical to building momentum in the market.

Use your online community software to identify and follow potential customer advocates in the community. This allows you to understand their situation and motivations, as well as take proactive steps to keep them happy. Then, at the appropriate time, invite them into your customer advocacy program.

Online Customer Community Takeaway

We are in the midst of a massive change in the way that customers buy and engage with the companies with which they do business. To put in bluntly, customers trust other customers a lot more than they trust messages from your company. This is why customer advocacy programs are so important. This is also why the peer-to-peer customer experience in private online communities holds an increasing importance to businesses.

Do you want to create a highly effective and sustainable customer advocacy corps? One of your first steps will be to integrate your customer advocacy program into your online customer community. It will provide the platform for you to maintain customer satisfaction, help passionate customers connect, and identify future customer advocates.

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Tags: Social Business, Customer Communities, Customer Engagement, Customer Advocacy

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