Marketing: Community emerges as a source of customer 'truth'

The role of community is shifting from customer support and service to being part of the brand marketing mix. Chief Marketing Officers should take note of this trend.

During a recent CxOTalk conversation with Wendy Lea, CEO of Get Satisfaction (disclosure: I am an advisor), we discussed the value of online communities in brand marketing. Although support organizations have long used communities to improve customer service and reduce costs, the relationship of community to marketing is particularly interesting. You can view the entire discussion here.

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In the short video excerpt embedded below, Wendy describes how communities can bring together the customer's voice with data from enterprise systems such as CRM. In addition to other benefits, engaging customers in community also drives transparency and openness, attributes that modern consumers increasingly expect:

In the world of customer experience, there is an elegant merger of this outside-in social world into these systems... I have to have everything integrated, otherwise I don't know what is going on and I can't build the culture that stays open, that we are supposed to represent to others.

It takes a lot for a company to embrace transparency; that's hard, because most companies want to control everything. The community effect, that we see happening now, can bring a new life to these very essential CRM portal-based tools that can allow the doors to fly open, the windows to fly open, so the conversations are more natural, more free-flowing, so the business results, inside and outside, are there.

Having established a link with traditional enterprise systems, Wendy explains the next steps in using community to create marketing value. This value arises by harnessing the active relationships that naturally arise when customers interact online:  

We should be able to feed the top of the funnel, helping marketers understand the value of community in the marketing mix.

We can take social interactions from our kind of community and extend their shelf life. To leverage those, you have to tag them, curate them, re-syndicate them, and extend their life. Otherwise, you just lose that opportunity.

We are not a forum, we are a living, breathing asset that connects customers to each other and then brings them into the website of a brand.

Communities provide a place for customers to interact and create content directly out of their own experience:

Content is king: it is the gasoline, social is the fire. I've got to have content to start the fire. And, then, I have got to have that interaction to put into my marketing automation system. What better content is there than that from your customers?

Establishing a link between the customer's voice and creating practical marketing programs is the primary challenge that community platforms face in making the leap from customer service to marketing. Deriving measurable structure and marketing utility from customer conversations is not an easy jump, although Wendy is totally correct in asserting the high value of this customer content.

We can hardly overstate the importance of direct customer interaction in shaping product design, marketing, selling, and driving leads into sales.

Today, we accept the idea that customers control their relationship with brands. Therefore, marketers should think about community as a gateway to customer interaction, engagement, and relationship. Although responsiveness is a touchstone of customer loyalty, the real marketing value of community lies in harnessing authentic customer interactions as a source of brand "truth."

CxOTalk is a weekly show that I co-host with Vala Afshar. We bring together the most innovative CIOs and CMOs in the world for direct, honest discussion.