8 ways of building a strong online community and following

Virtual customer communities have gained more importance after the pandemic. Let's discuss a few ways to ensure customer engagement and following.

Mukul Chaware
Mukul Chaware

The world as we know it has experienced paradigm shifts in the way businesses work. With the sudden spread of a pandemic, organizations have had to rethink and redesign their working strategies and move their interactions, communication, systems, and business online. This extended to many customer-facing organizations looking to replace customer events and activities with virtual alternatives. While online communities have always been a channel for customers, prospects, and other stakeholders to interact, socialize, network, and grow, they have seen a steep rise in the post-pandemic era.

Does your organization require an online community?

Yes. It doesn't matter which industry you belong to or what your offering is, your customers will benefit from an online community.

If you're a product company, providing your customers a common space to come together and share their experiences with your product allows them to connect with and encourage prospects in their purchase decisions. Whether you're an FMCG food processing company that hosts a user platform to share recipes such as Mother Dairy or a software product company such as SAP Ariba that has a user community to address user concerns, collect feedback, and communicate new launches - the customers appreciate and utilize the space to build a brand community like no other.

The same applies to service companies. Service providers find it difficult to capture the service experience that is unique to each customer. This can only be communicated by the customers who experience the service. Online communities are a great way for customers to interact, learn, and discover new things related to your service which in turn helps businesses collect genuine customer feedback and testimonials. VIselli Salons from Boston, USA, and Ramsay Healthcare, London, UK have their dedicated social media platforms open for the customers to communicate and share the latest in their businesses and also for the customers to share their opinions and raise queries if any.

As can be seen in the examples above, there are two types of online communities:

  1. Public Social Networks: Social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Linkedin, etc. fall under this category.
  2. Branded Communities: Privately built online communities with limited access such as THWACK by Solarwinds or DMC Medical Group healthcare services that have portals that are open and available only to their customers.

If your organization is on the path to building a space for its stakeholders to come together in an online platform, here are a few tips to keep in mind:

  1. Value-driven

The most important thing when building an online community is to ensure that the community provides value to the user. If the user does not find value in spending time in your community they will not engage. A simple trick is to listen to the consumer. Make sure that customer feedback, insight, and suggestions are incorporated when building your community. While face-to-face events and interactions allow businesses to change their communication and approach as per real-time customer feedback and response, it is not possible to monitor that virtually. Hence, pro-actively reaching out to customers to understand their requirements and what would be beneficial to them would give you a good head start on the framework of the user community.

Let's take an example of a software product company, the customers would benefit from sections such as helpdesk, announcements, and user queries which would help them with most of their requirements. On the other hand, a healthcare community could benefit from sections such as patient history resources, doctors’ speak on trending topics, notifications and announcements, etc.

2. For all users

Every customer will have a different perspective on your product or service. These perspectives together bring life to your brand and ultimately help you grow. It's necessary that the online community is enabled to capture all these perspectives. Not only that, allowing open conversations with people's queries posted online for all to see, gives them a chance to interact with each other. While some queries can be common and addressed by the business, for other queries online communities have proven customers to be more helpful in finding solutions for fellow customers - sometimes quicker than the business can respond.

3. Networking

Networking is the sole objective when looking at the community from the user's perspective, which means every online community needs to have a networking corner for the customers. Whether you're running a "Chatty Thursday" on your Twitter handle or have a Networking menu in your customer community portal, as long as the customers get to share their woes and their loved experiences with your product or service, the section is bound to be a hit.

4. Resources

Most organizations have ample resources in the form of ebooks, whitepapers, pamphlets, blogs, videos, etc. that help customers understand the offering better and make the right decisions. These value-adding resources, if included in the customer portal or shared on a social platform encourage customers to join and follow the community often.

Some examples of resources that can be shared include ebooks and whitepapers for services such as home appliance maintenance or pest control services detailing self-care for appliances and pest-fee home maintenance. Some users prefer to consume content in the form of videos or short micro-content which can be the way to go for everyday services that most people have knowledge about such as a salon service that shares a hair tip every Tuesday or a service video of a nail artist every once in a while.

5. Acknowledge and respond

An online community does not work itself. It requires dedicated personnel to maintain its upkeep and to respond to customer queries. For customers to maintain engagement at the platform, they need acknowledgment of their queries and resolutions, if any. An acceptable response time in most cases would be within 2 working days for any query posted on your platform. To ensure this, your business can assign the task to a customer-facing team that is well adept at solving customer queries and issues.

6. Support services

Customers looking for product support or issue resolutions look for multiple channels to communicate with the business. While most organizations have dedicated support call lines, emails, and service desks, the customer is bound to look for multiple channels to ensure quick resolution. Online communities are the best place to channel these requests. Most online communities have customers raising queries and receiving solutions from fellow customers instantaneously thereby building a fraternity brought together by your brand.

7. Consistency

While onboarding customers onto an online community portal is a task in itself, maintaining followers is a whole different ballgame. Consistency is the solution to this challenge, Consistently sharing resources, responding to queries, announcing new offerings, and all in all looking alive makes sure that the customer feels the need to check in every once in a while.

This is easily obtained by running regular campaigns such as "Tuesday Tips and Tricks" or "Wednesday videos" or even monthly newsletters highlighting the happenings at the organization front for the month.

8. Boundaries

Customer online portals can backfire if not handled correctly. As mentioned above, many customers utilize the channel for query resolution, although not all queries or customer feedback is positive and may turn into a nasty conversation that affects the company. This is a situation where setting boundaries in the form of moderators, admin consoles, and private communication options can be helpful. For business accounts on social media platforms, it becomes difficult to maintain control at consumer levels. Although, many platforms have provided a solution to flag offensive content or report or block content that is unfavorable, such as Instagram's ability to block users and control comments on certain posts and Twitter and Facebook have an option to report and block posts as well as users. It is necessary that communication language and content boundaries are maintained in order to ensure a safe space for all who are a part of the community.

The key to a successful online community is a place that allows customers to engage, share, network, create, suggest, improve, and grow. It is a culmination of different user experiences combined to communicate and foster the organization's culture that involves the society and the people it serves. This translates into improved brand loyalty and stronger customer relationships ultimately leading to better business opportunities.

Small Businesses