Launching a branded community is similar to any other strategic project; it requires rigorous planning, broad buy-in, commitment, and a tangible way to not only measure success, but a willingness to iterate and fine tune the plan accordingly.
I have witnessed a few failures over the years. In most cases, the project could have been a success and would have provided so much benefit had it been managed differently. A branded customer community can have a significant impact on your business: community can increase a customer’s value for money; reduce customer churn; increase customer loyalty; reduce support costs and perhaps most importantly, give customers a voice and help them provide feedback on products and the customer experience. When community is treated as a strategic initiative and subsequently given the attention of a strategic initiative, it is more likely to succeed.
There are three points in a community rollout where it is most likely to founder :1) failure to launch, 2) failure to get traction or 3) failure to achieve business objectives.
Let’s go into more detail in these three areas:
1. Failure To Launch
A community launch typically involves planning, allocating budget, staffing and technology procurement. I’ve seen a large corporation make an impulse decision to launch a community and waste hundreds of thousands of dollars when it inevitably failed to launch. Similar to most things, it’s often the basics that matter most. An easy starting point for your community project is a mission or vision statement.
The mission or vision statement doesn’t have to be a grand strategic exercise, it simply needs to state why the community exists and what its main goals are. In some cases the mission might be very straightforward, such as creating an online forum where customers can ask and answer questions to reduce contact center tickets. Or, it might be something more connected to your organizations’ broader mission.
An example of a mission and vision statement was provided by community expert, Carrie Melissa Jones, in one of her previous blogs. She gives the example of a skincare company that makes products for athletes and gathers their coaches in an online community.
Our mission is to empower over 2,000 female-identifying fitness coaches to grow their businesses and support the growth of female farmers (our suppliers) in developing nations.
We envision a world where wellness and economic opportunity are accessible to all.
Defining the community's mission and communicating it broadly in the organization is a great first step because it helps clearly communicate the end goal to everyone, will make it easier to get staff buy-in and will surface disagreements right away. I’ve often seen a project stall because another department caught wind of it and wanted to get involved. Branded communities are increasingly touching customer service, marketing, project management and even sales. It’s better to work through competing interests and agree on a common goal before any expense has been incurred.
This brings us to the other important consideration that will lead to a successful launch, which is executive sponsorship.
In my opinion, a branded community initiative works best if the championing executive during launch is also the business owner after launch. I’ve seen a community initiative treated solely as a software purchase and relegated to IT or procurement. I’ve also seen product management make the decision that a branded community is a product attribute and take on responsibility to plan and launch, but then disappear the day after launch. In my opinion, if you’re going to own the ROI, you should own the launch.
The championing executive should also work on getting peer buy-in, something that’s not always as easy as you might think. The three things that I’ve witnessed are disagreements over who should own this (usually it’s between marketing and customer service), a lack of understanding of how this can help (VP Sales: “how will this help me close more deals?” CFO: “What is the ROI and payback from this new expense” Product: “We’re going to be overwhelmed with bug reports”) The fear of negative feedback is an especially troublesome objection that I’ve touched on before. This is a losing attitude, and hopefully you don’t run into this issue, or have it yourself as there are a number of statistics that prove the value and impact that feedback can have on an organization.
Fortunately, a report by the Community Roundtable found that executives are increasingly realizing the value of community; in fact, 63% of executives support the community. Further, community experts had identified a shift towards executive interest in community as a key community trend for 2019. Sufficient to say, it’s getting easier to secure executive buy-in.
2. Failure To Get Traction
Once launched, the community will need to gain traction. At this stage, it’s like an infant child that needs nourishment and some extra attention before it can stand on its own two feet. Proper resourcing and some good community management best practices are key at this stage.
A customer community doesn’t require a large staff. One multinational consumer electronics has a community team of three. They are able to manage a community with hundreds of thousands of members through some very savvy engagement techniques. The actual number of people who are full time or part time in the community management team can vary (what is the nature of the community? Are contact center staff logging in? Are the events team from marketing included? etc.) The one definite recommendation here is to have at least one full time person owning the community, usually with the role title ‘community manager’. The community manager should have some skin in the game, i.e., have compensation tied to the established KPIs.
With a community manager in place, now is the time to have a larger presence in the branded community. The goal is to get to a critical mass of content and activity where the community can sustain itself. Until that point has arrived, a heavier staff presence is required.
Members of your community expect to receive a certain level of service just like they do from other channels, and failure to deliver on these services will likely result in one-time visitors who won’t see the value and won’t participate. Now is the time for everyone to pitch in and help out engaging in the community and promoting it to customers.
3. Failure to Achieve Business Objectives
It’s rare to see a community that has been both well planned and well received to fail in delivering benefits. What can happen, however, especially if it’s not seen as a strategic initiative, is that there’s a perceived lack of value.
Community management is a relatively new discipline for many organizations, and as a result, the templates for calculating ROI or frameworks for evaluating community maturity and effectiveness are lacking. The inability to properly measure success and iterate based on findings, or the failure to implement community KPIs and benchmarks, can result in a community that fails to meet its objectives.
Make sure that your community team has the right analytical tools necessary to properly assess the data. You could have all the data in the world, but if you don’t have the right tools or know-how to analyze it, identify trends and determine whether your community is on track to achieve its goals, it’s worthless.
There are a growing number of consulting organizations that can help you plan, launch and measure a branded community. A few that stand our are FeverBee, The Community Round Table and CMX. These organizations bring with them the learned experience from hundreds of successful communities.
My final thought is to be vigilant and ensure that you put the time and effort into developing a collaborative and long-term plan for community success. If you put the effort into developing a proper plan that everyone can agree to, it will pay off down the road.