Product Community vs. the Social Community: Which Is Better?

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Art by Laura Wilson – http://lauramakesart.com/

The product focused community:  the hard sell approach

A product focused community will typically have a lower tolerance for off-topic discussion than a “social” community. These communities will normally be focused on support, product questions and discussions with existing owners. The main selling factor of these forums is aspirational, a prospective customer can read about your product, interact with existing owners and begin to develop a Gollum/One Ring style relationship with it. For a great example of this, you need look no further than the official Tesla forums. All content is product focused, and as a heavily aspirational brand it benefits hugely from this. With premium priced products such as this (or say, Apple products), customers will also be keen to talk to each other about how great your product is and reinforce the wisdom of their own decision to pay more. In communities like this, a wider focus and chatty atmosphere would detract from the value of the forum. They benefit from a tight focus and controlled environment.

So what are the downsides of this Hard Sell approach? For one, it relies heavily on the quality of your user-generated content. Modern consumers are extremely aware of being sold to, so a strong corporate voice in your community will be a serious negative force. Your members will want to feel like part of a community, not a PR exercise. This approach is also heavily dependent on the quality of your product. In times of plenty, when your user base is energised and excited, the content they create is likely to be extremely positive. If you ever have a duff release or a scandal however, the focus and enthusiasm of one of these communities can be difficult to manage. Taking actions such as deleting posts or stamping down on negative talk causes a whole nest of its own problems, and it’s easy to end up in a tailspin. When your community is this tied to a product, that product needs to be consistently exciting enough to spur the kind of conversation you want.

The social community: the soft sell approach

These forums take a more balanced approach to product, allowing a wider variety of topics and user-generated content in order to build a community of buyers over a longer time frame. An example of this would be strength training website T-Nation, which operates a large community based around its training articles and user-generated content. The community itself is free, and doesn’t advertise external products. It’s revenue stream is a partner site which sells training supplements which are advertised and occasionally overtly pushed on the forums.

The resulting business model has been successful for over a decade, but this more nuanced approach to community leaves a lot of tricky decisions for the team responsible for it. Should you prevent users from talking about competitors? How aggressively? When is the right time to bring up your product? T-Nation is an example of a site which grew around its community, but if you’re starting a community for an existing brand  it may be harder to justify a community to your CFO when a large chunk of the allocated resources will be based around discussion that doesn’t directly produce revenue. This approach also may not be a fit for the product you’re trying to sell. It’s more suited towards lifestyle products such as supplements, cosmetics or entertainment. These products generate a lot of conversation, with members swapping advice, tips and anecdotes. The same is less likely to be true of say, accounting software or other utility products. These communities would get more out of a focus on product support and best practises.

Choosing the right approach

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach that is guaranteed to work for your company, and there are a few things you should consider before deciding what kind of community you want to have:

  • What kind of branding does your product already have? Do you want your community to reinforce it, change it or grow it?
  • What kind of return are you looking for on your investment? Is a community a running expense, or do you need it to turn a profit?
  • How long are you going to be running your community for? Do you want it to still be around in ten years (maybe with some of the same users) or is it tied to a short-term product launch?

There’s no perfect solution, and the best laid plans of any community manager rarely survive first contact with their user base. That said, taking time before launch to figure out what your need from your forum is the first step in getting what you want from it.