When we think of online communities, we often think of forums and social media groups that are united by a common theme. Hobbies, politics, social causes, or even entertainment are typical reasons why online communities are started.
When it comes to education, we’ve seen the benefit of online communities for eLearning, and business training purposes. We’ve even examined how B2C companies can benefit from communities and even use them as part of their sales funnel. The question then, is can the same thoughts apply to business to business companies?
Business to business companies can still benefit from establishing a strong online community, although the effective methods will differ slightly from their B2C counterparts. Though not as much as you might think.
An integral part of any sales process is establishing enough trust, comfort, interest, or incentive for the customer to deviate from their status quo. The reality of sales is that even if your product/service is better, cheaper, faster, or more efficient; customers still have trouble letting go of what is familiar and comfortable.
B2B sales is no different and that is where online communities can really help.
Establishing a Helpful Hub
One of the cornerstones of the inbound marketing process is offering helpful content to aid prospects and establishing yourself as an authoritative source of information. B2B companies would be wise to adopt this mindset as it can serve them well as it did Bank of America and their Small Business Community.
It's a closed forum that targets and appeals specifically to small business owners which represent a significant portion of their current and prospective clientele. The forum is broken down into four main sections:
- Stories: This area encourages members to share their experiences with other small business owners. This type of peer-based support helps keep the community active and engaged while a “featured member” section regularly showcases the contributions of forum members.
- Forum: The “meat” of the community where most of the discussions take place. Topics are arranged neatly and community members are able to ask questions and receive feedback or advice on a variety of topics relevant to small businesses.
- Articles: This section features content written by forum members to help their fellow forum members.
- Events: This section showcases upcoming events that may be of interest to small business owners.
So How Does This = Sales?
It’s great that BoA provides this, but how does this contribute to their bottom line? The answer - in several ways.
A Branded Community: Simply being the facilitator of the community keeps thousands of current and prospective customers coming back to the website and putting their services in front of them. For this reason, a branded community is essential. And in BoA’s case, extremely helpful.
Businesses are inherently careful about their finances and are far more likely to trust a community that is sponsored by an established, trusted name than one they’ve never heard of.
Super Fans to the Rescue: Many forum members are already Bank of America customers who promote or share experiences with fellow small business owners regarding BoA services and programs that may be of interest. Remember, it’s difficult for customers to disrupt their status quo. This is especially true when the process isn’t so easy, such as with switching banks.
Since abandoning the comfort of familiarity can be a difficult hurdle, the social proof that “super fans” can offer is vital. You can tell prospects how great your service is all you want and spend millions of dollars doing so but the power of a fellow customer who can validate those claims with their own insight and experience is infinitely more valuable.
Data Mining and List Building: Signing up for the forum requires giving up your email address and that always means list building. BoA can further data mine the community and find out what topics their members are engaging with an use that information to segment that list for more targeted email marketing.
Events: The “events” section, while not 100% Bank of America sponsored, is heavily populated with BoA workshops, training programs, seminars, and more. This provides another touch point for the bank to gather members of their community together and put them face to face with a company representative who can engage in a more direct sales approach.
Applying the Inbound Marketing and Self-Service Support Model
Bank of America and other similar communities such as Quickbook's Online Support Community heavily apply the concepts of open, peer-based support and helpful content marketing strategies. The selling is not overt in either community and it relies more on creating a useful gathering place for current and prospective customers to receive the help, guidance, and support they need.
It’s like a restaurant allowing a school meeting to be held in their conference room. It’s not an overt sales approach, but sometimes getting people in the door and looking around plants the seed for a later need.
Business-to-Business companies often shy away from creating formal communities and even social media due to a perceived notion that their customers aren’t interested in engaging that way. Linkedin is essentially a business-level social media site and focuses heavily on forming B2B connections and networking between companies and individuals.
The customers are out there, you just need to know where to look and how to engage them.