There is lots of good research supporting the strong role brand communities play in retaining customers, getting them to spend more and indeed attracting new customers. Despite this, relatively little is known about precisely how they impact upon consumers decision making. Without this knowledge it makes it much harder to effectively manage your community to ensure more successful outcomes are achieved.
Research may be able to provide an answer. Discussions were studied to analyse what happened after members read replies to a query they'd posted on the community. Did their confidence in the company increase for instance? Did their perception of the customer-brand relationship change? And of course, did their buying behaviour differ?
Nearly 400 forum members were included in the study and the research found that when members received relevant, lengthy and timely information, they felt much more confident in the company and therefore had a much stronger relationship with them. All of these three elements needed to be present to encourage more purchases.
All of which represents a clear roadmap for how you can encourage more successful outcomes on your community.
4 ways to improve community communication
- Make the information timely – making information timely is a key component of making the communication quality. Suffice to say that providing a 24/7 presence on any community is one of the more challenging aspects of community management, but there are a few strategies you can employ to ensure you're providing that timely information people crave.
- Offer 'surgery' times whereby you tell members that experts will be on hand. By doing this you manage expectations well.
- Whilst most communities offer rewards for contributions, few do so for timely information. Lets say you have a numeric system for rating responses for instance, think about adding a 'solved' option that allows members to rate their problem as having been solved. Only one 'solver' per problem and you have a nice reward for timely information.
- Working on your mobile version can also help with the timeliness of information as it allows people to contribute without being at their desk.
- Make the information more relevant – as well as being timely, key to successful customer outcomes is the provision of relevant information. Here are a few tips on how you can ensure information you provide to members is relevant.
- There's nothing more frustrating than when a topic goes off on a tangent. Make sure your moderators use their powers to ensure topics remain relevant. It's key to create a culture whereby members know that off-topic ramblings won't be tolerated.
- You should also use effective categories to segment your forums. This allows members to both ensure they're posting their query in the right area and also to know where to go to find topics around an area of interest to them. The more precise the categories, the more relevant the information posted into them will be.
- User driven dashboards are also useful on a community. Say for instance a member has clearly identified in their profile they have an interest in red widgets, then you can display topics around that subject in a central location when they first login.
- Provide richer conversations – communities are great platforms for allowing lengthy and detailed conversations to take place. The research showed that this was key to providing good customer experiences. Here are some tips on how ou can encourage this quality of discussion.
- Making your forum easy to use helps to increase the quality of content posted. This is especially the case if you're looking for expressive and detail laden posts.
- There's nothing more annoying than writing a long and detailed response only to be told that your post has exceeded the character limit for the site. Much better to allow users to post what they want.
- Another good strategy is to allow various levels of feedback. A common feature of many online platforms now is the ability to rate comments. Doing this instantly draws attention to the higher quality comments left on your forum whilst also rewarding the members that make them.
- Increase the frequency of posts – perhaps an obvious one for most community managers, but in addition to improved quality of posts, you also want them made more often. For instance if someone posts up a question, you want that question solved promptly. Here are some tips to help you achieve this.
- A frequent topic of debate amongst community managers is whether to build your own community or go onto an existing social network. A major advantage of building a community on Facebook or LinkedIn is that people are already there so you don't have to be so concerned with generating traffic.
- Whilst generating new members is great, turning those new members into regulars is even more important. Making valuable members seem appreciated and important is a key part of your armoury. Awards may seem a bit trite but they can work really well.
- Points mean prizes is a popular gameshow saying. On a forum it could be posts that mean prizes. Try offering discount coupons or special deals to your most active users.
- You can also use your community as the place to be to get the news first. If customers know that products will be launched first on your forums then you can bet that's where they're going to hang out.
Online brand communities are powerful mechanisms for bringing customers together to enhance brand enthusiasm. Sometimes they even create brand champions who dispense helpful advice and purchase recommendations to scores of potential buyers. However, our results show that the mere existence of a forum or message board is not enough to strengthen relationships and drive sales. Rather, it is the exchange of high-quality information on these sites that drives a strong customer response. Providing that quality is an important challenge — and opportunity.