Saving out some work I did with a group of community thought leaders during the start of the pandemic. We put together this statement about the impact of online communities.
Why it’s time for you to understand this increasingly critical aspect of business
The pace of disruption is accelerating. Communities offer a north star to those seeking to navigate technology-driven societal and cultural change. Individuals are seeking connection, belonging, safety, relevant information, a path forward through uncharted territory; and brands – organizations of all kinds and in all sectors – well, you’re seeking the same. In short: resilience, direction, and growth.
These needs are not new, but technology is both undermining and enhancing opportunities to meet these needs as we continue to network everyone and everything via the internet.
Paradoxically, if you want your organization to persist, you must make the rich and shifting ground of our interconnectedness its foundation.
All of our endeavors —be they commercial, social, civic, or personal— are rooted in and strengthened by the fundamental human need to connect and form relationships, ones that last and give meaning to our lives. Strategically centering healthy customer relationships positions your organization to work with the complex challenges of our times.
When you build a true online community, you can authentically communicate at scale, innovate with less risk and more confidently adjust course.
You will discover the untapped potential of your relationships.
Go beyond the transaction
Host the market.
An online community is like inviting people over to your place to celebrate or experience something that matters to you both. You never know where the conversation will go, or what relationships will form because it’s not scriptable. You can however create the conditions conducive to the kinds of exchange that matter to you (why you invited them in the first place).
Similar to finding yourself at a really good dinner party, in a well-considered and well-managed community, people will bring and share more of themselves.
• They’ll apply their skills and expertise to your business because it’s of interest to them to see it run well.
• They’ll offer their ideas and creativity (many more and different views than just your team could ever generate) because self-expression is at the core of everything we do.
• They’ll find unexpected ways to expand on whatever it was that brought them into a relationship with your business because for them it’s personal.
• They’ll form relationships with other customers, not just by helping them with a quick how-to, but through the spontaneous and unique conversations that will emerge and, when respected and nurtured, become the persistent bonds required for long-term organizational success across unprecedented disruption to the status quo.
Beyond the purchase and social media commentary, in an online community you can foster an environment where your people can genuinely connect, trust that they belong and are safe to participate, where they can find and share knowledge, and co-create their individual paths forward.
Most important, because of their sustained and increasingly meaningful interactions with the larger community, they will become more committed, and more valuable, over the lifetime of their relationship with you.
Host the market. Welcome them to a supportive space away from all of the noise of the internet, and your customers will show you what they can do for your business.
This applies not only to commercial or for-profit organizations and their customers but to all kinds of organizations and their donors, experts, fans, neighbors, students, families, teachers, alumni, constituents…you get the idea. For simplicity, we’ll continue referring to customers. Think of them as those that buy into and believe in the bigger picture of your institutional vision, whose lives you wish to improve through the service that you offer.
Now, let’s talk ROI
How community fits into your business
Community is not a tactic or weapon that you add to your arsenal. It is an upgrade to your business strategy. While technology is integral to the experience, it’s ultimately a human experience, so it’s not “digital transformation”. It goes deeper than that and delivers much more. Community shifts strategic focus to customers as whole humans and weaves customer relationships into the fabric of your business. Community is your path to the future state of your organization, one where it is always learning, and has made the fabled transition from functional silos to a customer-centric ecosystem, well-informed, aligned and responsive to the market.
Here’s what your business gets when you invest in community —
Growth — Customers who are engaged community members spend more and spend more often. They bring friends, and they stay. A strong community increases customer lifetime value.
Innovation — They also bring a broader source of ideas to your table. Insight into what matters to your market — what to do more of and what you’re not thinking about at all (that someone else will).
Brand Loyalty — The network of customer relationships made possible in a healthy community is the resilient, living, breathing embodiment of your brand. Because they use their own voices, when they speak of you, the message not only reinforces their own interest in your continued success, it will carry farther and matter more to those listening.
Extended cross-functional capacity – Community enables customers to co-develop with your teams. Not just call center deflection (though that can be both a significant cost-reduction and improvement to customer onboarding experiences), but everything from content they’re happy to write about your products, to developing and testing the products themselves, disseminating information to help you address service glitches (not the follow-on PR problem, but before that happens) and priming people for planned upgrades and changes — even price increases.
Community involvement endows your business with what it takes to succeed in this new age of complexity and heightened interdependence. It propagates responsiveness and market intelligence companywide.
You get ROI internally too
What community does for your people
When you integrate community into your operations end-to-end, employee experience also becomes less transactional and more fulfilling because your employees will be giving more of their unique selves. Authentic exchanges will chip away at groupthink. Direct contact with customers activates individual capacity and agency within the company.
Which brings us to employee engagement, job satisfaction and productivity. Employees need interesting work, to make progress on their personal goals and to feel that they are a valued part of something greater than themselves. Getting closer to the fundamental purpose of the job, i.e. serving the customer, is deeply engaging.
Integrating community into their day-to-day will enrich their experience with unexpected and nuanced challenges, opportunities, relationships and especially, knowledge about how the service they provide is actually experienced in the world.
For employees, community is a continuous, live event that inspires and informs how they do their jobs and achieve business objectives. The untapped potential of your online community is not just inside your customers. It’s also in your employees. There is so much they can learn from each other and do together.
This doesn’t happen all at once. So don’t worry about how to respond to an influx of feedback and suggested initiatives—or about undermining your employees.
Not every customer will join or participate the moment you open your doors, or at all. You’ll need to give them a reason to accept your invitation, to trust that they are indeed welcome to bring their whole, valuable selves, as well as reasons to stay that contribute to their personal enrichment. This will take time. You’ll be learning how to listen to them and interact with them, and they’ll be surprising you with how creative and generous they can be.
What it takes
Are you up for a radical shift forward?
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we cannot ignore our inherent interconnectedness. It’s time for openness, transparency, accountability and emergent strategies. It’s time for better communities.
Vincent Boon, Alexandra Jacoby, Brian Pagels, Bill Johnston, Carrie Mellisa Jones, Joi Podgomy, Lauren Vargas and Vanessa Paech