This November marks the 10 year anniversary of Vanilla Forums.
Vanilla was created in response to first generation software that was cumbersome, complicated and ugly, which created a barrier to getting people to participate in online discussions. With a vision for simple and intuitive experience, our company, ‘Vanilla’, was born.
Our success has been possible due to changing consumer behaviours and a shift in how companies serve and engage customers online. Three shifts stand out in particular: the professionalization of community, the recognition of community as being different from social media, and lastly, community being used strategically by organizations.
The Professionalization of Community
Before the job function of community manager, companies employed moderators and social media managers. These precursor roles did valuable work but lacked a broader vision built around community engagement.
As companies began to reap and realize the benefits of having an online community, it increasingly received the same investment as any other organizational function. The emergence of maturity frameworks, training, and outside training became more common, and organizations started to evaluate their maturity in terms of being able to create a customer community that would deliver on business objectives.
Today, the role of the community manager is seen everywhere and is increasingly senior; as more and more organizations and c-level staff seek a community to advance their business goals, the community manager is often the first position they look to fill.
Community managers own the business objectives of the community, whether it is reducing support tickets, increasing customer loyalty, or growing sales.
The Difference Between Social Media and Community Is Being Realized
Community is not new, companies, especially in tech, have been running user groups, events and branded online communities for many years. The explosion of social media however gave consumers a public voice and changed expectations on communications between customers and brands. Some companies confused social media and community, leading to failures in achieving the desired business goals; an instagram feed filled with promotions, for instance, is not a community.
Social media platforms are certainly an important place where community can be developed, but they are just one of many channels and come with pros and cons. As more cons become apparent, organizations are looking more and more at building branded communities on their own website. An owned community can be fully dedicated to providing a mutual benefit between an organization and its customer without the conflict of the social media platforms’ monetization goals and ensuing behaviours.
Community Being Used Strategically
Lastly, organizations are beginning to use community as a strategic program; something that can help advance all organizational goals. As a result, community is no longer being used by just one department, but rather, it’s being strategically used to advance a whole group of organizational goals for multiple departments at once.
Historically, the community was recognized for its ability to deflect tickets and was used primarily as a customer service tool. Today organizations are seeing community as a way to do business differently: a more collaborative approach. Community provides many benefits that can help a company create real strategic advantages over a competitor. These strategic advantages comes in many forms, including:
The ability to collect constant feedback
Creating social bonds between customers
Creating trust through transparency
Increasing product ROI by spreading best practices
Accessing the data generated by the community to make informed decisions
A validating story is the acquisition of calorie tracking app and fitness community MyFitnessPal by Under Armor for a whopping $475 million dollars. At the time, Under Armor’s CEO said “"By combining a community of 120 million unique registered users, we are developing a digital ecosystem that provides us with unparalleled data and insight into making every athlete better"
A lot can change in a decade—2009 was a different time, with a different playbook for organizations. Today, the playbook for successful business outcomes has most definitely shifted to incorporate the value that an online customer community can have. The impacts of community are more widely known and accepted, especially for the c-level executives making the final decisions.
I look forward to seeing where the next 10 years takes us.