Online communities are often seen as simply the price of doing business. An entry on a ledger somewhere reads "Community Budget", because it seems that everyone is doing it. As great as online communities are for engaging your customers and cutting support costs, your CFO might still see your community as a cost centre.
In fact, the ability for communities to generate leads can make them a great source of new revenue. If you're looking to improve your community's status on the balance sheet, here are are few suggestions for where to start:
1. Train your community managers to identify upgrade and upsell opportunities
Too many companies treat their community managers as glorified janitors, but the role has a lot of potential. Rather than simply asking them to clean up spam and ban trolls, ask your community managers and moderators to keep an eye out for customers who might want to upgrade their service, purchase add-ons or update to a premium product. Your community team should be in the trenches already, and they're in a prime position to see what customers want and guide them towards a new purchase.
The training part is important however. Your CMs will need guidance on how to upsell without seeming manipulative or greedy. You don't want a team who answer every question with "Perhaps you should consider the Premium Upgrade for only $17.99! What a deal!!!".
Consumers know when they're being sold to. When you have a great product and your team are aware of its best qualities, they should be able to extol its virtues without seeming like shark-eyed sales drones.
2. Integrate your community into your CRM
Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software is fast becoming a necessity for any company that wants to build a strong customer base. If you don't have your CRM plumbed into your large community, you're missing a trick. An integrated CRM (e.g Salesforce) can allow your moderators and community managers to identify sales leads and then escalate them to the sales team with the click of a button.
Using your community team to generate leads has side benefits aside from the obvious revenue potential. It gives your community team a solid, useful metric to follow. It allows them to be more involved with revenue generation, rather than being a nebulous side team.
The more leads your team generates, the easier it will be to justify spending resources on your community. This will make your customers feel valued, and help the community to grow. As the community grows, more leads develop, and you edge ever closer to the critical mass where your forum will grow and improve organically without further spending.
3. Allow your existing customers to sell your product for you
It's common for companies to try and keep their communities to existing customers only, to foster a feeling of exclusivity. While this certainly has its merits, it also means you're missing out on free lead generation.
When your customers are enthusiastic about your product, letting non-customers mingle with them is a great, low-effort way to create interest in your product. It's also completely organic, so customers who are sold to in this way don't feel like they fell for some clever bit of marketing. They feel like they took a recommendation from a friend.
This can also be useful for upselling existing customers. Someone who is considering whether to buy a premium version of your product (e.g a higher capacity smart phone) will be more responsive to the opinions of existing users than to your marketing material.
Not only will they not consider another customer to be a stakeholder (and therefore untrustworthy), they may also feel that familiar pang of jealousy that comes from seeing someone with a slightly cooler version of a product that they covet. Best of all? This interaction didn't cost you any time or money.