Originally posted on the ForeFront Magazine blog. “A new class of company is emerging—one that uses collaborative technologies intensively to connect the internal efforts of employees and to extend the organization’s reach to customers, partners and suppliers…” This quote from a McKinsey study has always resonated with me as I consider the benefits and impact of social technologies and online communities on the way business is done. In today’s competitive marketplace, companies are working to maximize their opportunities and define the underlying strategy of embracing an online community to connect, engage and extend relationships with customers, employees and partners. From high-tech to higher education, online communities have a strong use case in most verticals, so long as the strategy is driven by the businesses’ objectives and audience needs and aligns with existing businesses processes and systems. What is an Online Community? An online community is a gathering of people interacting and collaborating toward a common goal. These days, companies are investing in building communities on open social networks like Facebook and Twitter, while also building their own community properties. While similar, there are fundamental differences between a social network like Facebook or Twitter and an owned online community destination like the Apple Support Communities. This table will help illustrate some of the major differences between open social networks and an owned online community: Open Social Network (e.g., Facebook, LinkedIn) Owned Online Community (e.g., Apple Support) Connections: Driven by relationships Connections: Driven by interests Design and Content: Standardized user experience: one size fits all. Noisy user-generated activity streams. Design and Content: Engineered user experience with content constructs. Can include tailored activity streams. Profiles: User-disclosed information Profiles: Combination of sourced and user-disclosed information Data: Limited to no access to member data Data: Ability to own and analyze member activity What Are the Benefits of an Online Community? While social networks have their value, owned properties provide elements that social networks like Facebook cannot. They provide a tailored design, enhanced access to data and more options for control. A well-rounded social media strategy likely will include social networks such as Facebook in addition to owned online properties. When a company builds its network on a platform like Twitter, they are subject to that technology company’s business model. The user experience and available data are based on what the platform is willing to provide—and that will probably have little to do with a company’s own objectives and needs. Consider Facebook, a platform that has routinely changed its business model. In 2010, it leveraged Wikipedia to generate automated company listings for their launch of community pages, which resulted in many duplicate search results for those businesses that had already created a Facebook page in their quest to drive ad revenue. The change confused users and frustrated businesses that already had an established presence. Then again in 2012, Facebook’s launch of Timeline for business pages relegated companies that had invested heavily in custom “apps” to a more limited user experience, thanks to the introduction of tabs. Tab viewership drastically decreased, rendering investments in apps as sunk costs. A recent study found that 90 percent of Facebook fans never return to your page after they click Like, so the majority of a business’ followers never even see the tabs. Furthermore, while Facebook is slowly improving analytics, they still acquire far more data about a page’s followers than they will ever share directly with a company. An owned online community allows companies to control their own user experience while gaining full access to all user analytics, content and data. Depending on a company’s needs, owned online communities present multiple opportunities for enhanced business value. Based on a company’s objectives, they can create an experience to help them achieve their goals, whether that is reaching new customers or increasing internal efficiencies. For the sake of simplicity, let’s focus on external communities—those focused on serving customers and partners. This chart offers a look at an online community’s illustrative benefits (please note that these are high-level and by no means exhaustive): Business Area Illustrative Online Community Benefits Sales and Marketing Sales enablement: higher win rates Improved marketing campaign development, effectiveness and amplification Customer advocacy and product/service affinity Improved natural search engine and social media optimization (brand and products/services) Real-time market research and consumer intelligence Increased channel presence, Web sales and referrals Customer Service Decreased volume of inbound support calls Improved customer self-service/first-time resolution Higher customer retention Increased customer satisfaction Ongoing customer support and engagement Customer service agent collaboration/knowledge sharing Product Development and Customer Intelligence Accelerated time to revenue Customer-driven product innovation and insights Increase in feedback and ideas from customers/Knowledge retention Where Should I Start? If you’ve decided that an owned online community is the right method for your business, there are four key steps to take to ensure success: Create a social business strategy and roadmap that carefully aligns with your company’s business objectives. All digital investments should drive toward a company’s business needs, including social networks and community building. ROI cannot be proven unless you know why you are investing and where to start. Investigate what your customers need. Identify your key stakeholders, from customers to employees, and define their pain points. Online communities that fail often do so because they do not effectively meet the needs of their intended audiences and experience lackluster adoption. An effective community will meet your business needs while improving the user experience of its guests and members. Integration is key to driving success. Some of the most successful communities are those that align with existing business processes and systems. Don’t create an experiment or a silo. Instead, think through operational and technical implications and put the online community directly in your user’s path while integrating with existing processes and systems. This is also the key to accurately measuring ROI! Create an activation and engagement strategy. If you build it, they will not come (or keep coming) unless you have developed a solid plan for activation and ongoing adoption. Communities often are not self-sustaining. Create a plan for getting people there, for ongoing content development, for communications, for training and for enhancements to continually evolve the community experience to meet user and business needs. An owned online community offers benefits that go far beyond that of a mainstream social network. By developing a strong strategy and implementation plan, your business can harness the power of your internal and external audiences to improve your processes and results.