The biggest secret in social: Brand communities are everywhere

Does your business have a stake in customer community? Joe Cothrel, chief community officer for Lithium, reviews lessons learned from the first 20 years of brand community building.
Written by Paul Greenberg, Contributor

The stream of guest posts by erudite authors continues to flow. This one is by Joe Cothrel, the Chief Community Officer of Lithium Technologies, which as you may know is one of my CRM Watchlist Elite winners this year. To put it in the most simplified way, Joe is a thought leader, a community pioneer and a good man. He has been at this a while and knows not only how to execute when it comes to community-building, but how to articulate it. So pay attention. This is well worth it.

Take it away, Joe.


I call it "the biggest secret in social."

In a world where the latest social network to crack 1 million users is guaranteed to earn headlines, the secret is that brand communities -- those digital places companies create for dialogue with and among their customers - are now attracting hundreds of millions of people every month.

How and when did this happen? As a consultant and researcher in the mid-1990s, I was there. Let me explain.

First, let's back up a bit. The idea that a brand's customers constitute a community is relatively recent as business ideas go. The term "customer community" was little used until the 1980s, and didn't really take hold until the back half of that decade. Dig a little deeper and you'll see that the usage was concentrated in the high-tech industry. Why is that? Frankly, it was hard to visualize customers as a group -- rather than a disconnected set of individuals -- until they could interact with each other, which they began to do, in the early days of high-tech, though user groups, email mailing lists, and newsgroups.

As Dave Evans and I write about in our recent book, it's probably no coincidence that all this happened at the same time another important business concept emerged: customer experience.

The idea of customer communities broke out of high-tech in the mid-90s, with the birth of the commercial internet. Media and entertainment companies, who embraced the internet early, made communities part of their early efforts. Telecommunications companies were not far behind. Retailers, observing Amazon's socially focused efforts but relatively slow to follow, commenced their community efforts shortly after that.

More recently, financial services - banks, insurance companies, investment firms - have gotten serious about community too. As a short-hand, I often say that this stuff isn't new: high-tech and media started 20 years ago, telecom 15 years ago, retail 10 years ago, and financial services about 5 years ago. By "started," I mean moved beyond the isolated exception. For example, I had my first conversation about community with a bank (Citibank) way back in 1997, but I've had more conversations with banks in the last five years than I had in the 15 years previous.

So what do people do in these communities? Well, it's a different kind of social interaction than you see on social networks like Facebook. They don't come to chat with their neighbors. They don't come to see pictures of their grandchildren. They don't come to read celebrity news. They come to ask a question. They come to share their experiences. They come to give feedback and offer ideas.

But here's the thing - it's about you: your company, your products, your industry, and the problems you help your customers solve. You don't have to change the subject. You are the subject. You don't have to interrupt the conversation - you're already in it. It's kind of remarkable, this 24/7 ongoing dialogue of customer to customer and between customers and brands. It's the kind of thing you've probably assumed - or been told - that your customers won't do.

I say it's about you, but it's really about you and them - your customers. Companies that make complex products tend to have more product-focused conversations. Companies that make less complex products tend to have more customer-focused conversations. But it's never absolutely one or the other. I like to say, if the conversation is just about you - it's not a community. On the other hand, if the conversation is just about them - it's not your community.

OK, so what lessons have we learned over two decades of brand community building? Here are a few:

The customer doesn't own the community. You don't need to build an entirely separate web presence and turn it over to customers to run. In fact, that's almost always a bad idea. Customers want you to own the community - to create and maintain an environment where they can do their thing.

Community = many-to-many interaction. A community is not just an audience, or a web portal, or simply a public place where your agents help your customers. It's the customer-to-customer interaction that brings the real benefits, from insights to cost savings to increased sales. Anything short of that is leaving money on the table.

Participation is a means to an end, not the end in itself. Of course, if no one is actively participating, you won't have a community. But registrations and contributions aren't an end in themselves. Rather, value gets created when content is consumed and an action results -- a problem solved, a purchase completed, a recommendation made. ROI = lurking. Sounds crazy, but it's true.

You need to show up. Twenty years ago, companies would effectively say, "This community is for customers. If you need us, you know our phone number." In fact, you and your employees are part of the real-life community around your brand. Find your role, and fulfill it. Brand participation is the grease that keeps the engine running. If nothing else, your customers get to see that you're as human as they are.

There's a bigger reward. I always say that if your goal for your community is something other than to sell, to save, or to satisfy - you're not thinking hard enough. But that's only the basics. Companies doing this right are finding there's a bigger reason: communities are an amazing platform for educating and inspiring your customers to reach their potential in the context of your products and services. Maybe you help them get the most out of what you sell - which in turn makes them more loyal, more likely to renew or purchase again, and more likely to recommend you to others. Maybe that potential is to develop a skill or expertise related to your product that helps them advance in their professional life. Maybe it's achieving proficiency and success in a sport, hobby, or other avocation. That's what the best communities do - they are an amazing platform for learning and growing.

It's funny to think we're two decades into brand community building, and yet there still so much to do and to learn. It's been a fun journey helping companies master the skills and processes and technologies involved. I'm eager to see what changes the next 20 years brings.

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