Many B2B companies think online communities serve a single purpose: a place for like-minded consumers to share their passions. But this impression falls short; communities also offer a highly rewarding B2B experience, so much so that they now have a significant influence on competitive advantage.
There’s no doubt that online communities bring many advantages to businesses of all types. For B2B companies, this includes increased brand advocacy, insights for product and service development and fewer support tickets. On the other hand, a bad community is a big liability, so it’s important to build and support one that matches the needs of your brand.
With that in mind, let’s look at three models for online communities, along with their benefits and drawbacks.
A public community is one that’s open to everyone, although participants are required to register to post content of their own. Anyone can view the content posted on public forums and it is also indexed by search engines. Public communities offer increased visibility, and that’s why most B2C businesses keep their communities as inclusive and open as possible.
Public forums come with some serious drawbacks though, particularly for B2B companies. Since they tend to be more member-directed, owners have less control over what goes on and moderating such a forum requires a dedicated community management team. There’s also minimal sense of privacy and exclusiveness, which detracts from the atmosphere of professional collaboration that most B2B communities want to achieve.
A gated community is one that’s exclusive to members or VIP customers. Unlike public forums, these private communities are only visible to those who have signed up, and content posted on them is not indexed by search engines. Many gated communities are open only to customers; a highly effective approach to weeding out spammers, trolls and others who have nothing to bring to your community.
Prioritizing trust, professionalism and exclusivity, many B2B businesses have turned towards gated communities which tend to be smaller and easier to manage. They’re a great way to create exclusivity with your VIPs while giving them a degree of privacy to exchange business ideas and share solutions to problems in confidence. Although these communities can be smaller than those which are open to all, they can help you achieve a deeper level of information exchange.
While entirely public forum communities are rarely a good choice for B2B companies, this is not the case for those with enormous customer bases, for which a private community is not practical. Keeping your forums entirely private also limits your ability to increase your brand’s reach and visibility. Fortunately, a hybrid model offering tiered membership can help alleviate these drawbacks.
With a tiered community, only some of your forum categories are open to the public. This provides an open knowledge base, accessible to customers who prefer not to register just to get an answer to their question. Furthermore, they may find the answers to their questions, drawn directly from your public forum threads after entering a query in a search engine. Your public forums can also serve as a place for announcing new products and services and other important news.
At the same time, a tiered community allows you to keep certain areas of your forum private. To whom and in which way you provide access to gated portions of your community is up to you – for example, you might want to keep it exclusive to existing customers or even provide access for a monthly fee.