Getting closer to customers with private online communities

20th Jul 2009

Brands are realising the potential of public social networking communities, such as Twitter and Facebook, for closer interaction with customers but private communities can take this one step further, directly involving customers in the creative process.

The continued evolution of the social web has had a significant impact on the way that brands can interact with their customers. While the use of public communities like Twitter and Facebook is widely reported, private online communities can also empower customers to give direct input into the strategic planning, marketing and product development strategies of the companies that they care about.

In order to create the communal dialogue inherent to the success of community engagement, brands must give up their anonymity and, to a degree, their privacy. Instead of approaching customers in a top down, one-to-many fashion of traditional media, or in the one-to-one model of traditional customer service, brands are speaking to a crowd of peers. The brand is speaking as a group of individuals who are endeavoring to serve their customers. They are visible as humans and their dialogue is visible to the peer group. The playing field is thus levelled. 

In turn, it can help increase customers’ brand empathy, which has a direct impact on brand loyalty. Customers feel more connection and ownership in the brand and are more likely to spread positive sentiment about the brand’s products and services.  

Community engagement

But private online community is not just impacting the consumers who join them. The community engagement has a strong authority on the brands who invest in direct customer dialogue. We recently teamd up with independent research firm Sector Intelligence to identify the influence that private online communities are having on consumer brands. How are the communities affecting the way brands approach their customers? Is the feedback that they are getting from this constant communication changing how companies approach business overall?
Sector Intelligence surveyed brand managers at 16 Fortune 500 brands that are utilising private online communities to communicate more consistently with their customers and returned with some really interesting results and anecdotes. In many cases, these communities give brands an opportunity to test the use of branded community in a more controlled, private environment, with 54% of respondents indicating that the company’s experience with private online communities has "changed the way we think about collaboration in general", while 46% felt that it changed how they think about customers.
Furthermore, 86% report they have experienced “deeper/richer insight into customer needs” and 82% say they have gained the “ability to listen/uncover new questions.” On the more tangible front, 33% reported that their community changed a product design and another 33% said that it changed the company’s marketing strategy.
Empathetic link
Another interesting finding suggests that employment of private communities can hav a positive cost savings impact on a company’s investment in and use of traditional research techniques - 43% of survey participants report they use fewer focus groups as a direct result of engaging in collaboration via the private online community, while 36% report conducting fewer surveys. Ultimately, the study surfaced something that goes beyond the most visible benefits and challenges of private online communities: the “conversation” component that brands engage in to form a connection between brand and customer. 
Specifically, the conversations generated in private online communities appear to constitute a perpetual empathetic link between the company and its marketplace and, in some cases, across departments within the company. Quick access, candid feedback and the sense that the community can be employed for honest input lead to a sense of security and perpetual access.
It suggests that as the world moves ever closer to ubiquitous connection, the lifeline between company and customer will become an essential tool for companies to stay connected with their consumer base. This relationship appears to be continually deepened because it tends to engender honesty and trust, helpen to strengthen brand loyalty.
The implications of the conversation are not limited to developing new research or marketing channels; this constant connection to key customers can change how the company approaches customer connection and loyalty in the following ways:
  • A sense of trust between customer and company is likely to be engendered through the promise-delivery cycles experienced process. Customers participating in the community experience consistent engagement with the brand and this sense will reverberate through word of mouth to the larger community of customers.
  • Word of mouth becomes a more central part of a company’s marketing strategy as it learns to integrate loyal customers into the brand strategy. The company will have the impulse to take a positive conversation and 'write it large'. The familiarity created in the context of ongoing conversation can be a powerful model for offline customer connection and learning how to engender customer loyalty.
  • The online community enables various divisions within the company to join the conversation directly with the customer, increasing the relevance of company departments to one another. Where departments are typically operating in silos, they begin to collaborate because of the customer voice that is in the room, encouraging this behaviour.
Rather than guessing what customers want you can ask them directly and involve them in the creative process from start to finish, putting the focus on serving and maintaining a brand’s core group of customers to increase loyalty and word of mouth marketing.
Samantha Skey is general manager of Passenger

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