Online communities can deliver a richly rewarding experience for the organizations that create them and the members who participate in them. But as more B2B customer communities crop up, how is this space evolving?
To explore the issue, my company Leader Networks created The Big List, an online customer community survey, in 2011, with 94 communities being tracked. In 2014, we initiated the process again and the list of communities grew to 126.
For the latest edition, identifying new communities was no longer a challenge. In fact, online communities are now a mainstay of competitive advantage for many B2B firms. So, rather than create another database, we analyzed the list of 126 to see how they have changed over time.
Here are seven key trends our research uncovered:
1) Communities are driving competitive advantage for many B2B firms. More than 40% of the communities that made The Big List are now active and thriving. In active and thriving communities, content is updated regularly and the members in the directory often share bios and photos. Members seem to be familiar with each other and offer peer-to-peer support. An additional 11% (as you will see below) have moved into a federated model which is also a sign of success. So it is safe to say that more than half of the original Big List communities are doing well.
As the market moves closer to maturity, we continue to see that with proper planning and business alignment, online communities can offer new insights, relationships and revenue streams while meeting and exceeding their members’ needs.
2) Successful communities spawn more communities. In the past two years, 11% of communities have proliferated into multiple communities under the same brand. What was once a single, stand-alone community has become a portfolio of multiple, connected communities featured on an organization’s website. This suggests the company’s initial foray into communities was so successful they were inspired to create more—and to differentiate them.
Federated communities are mainly found in large enterprises. Many are operated under a single online community; a "Center Of Excellence" with shared success measured, consistent content and professional facilitation teams. These communities experienced meaningful growth over time because they possess the scale and efficiencies to fuel best practices.
3) Content is king—but not just any content. Notably, our findings indicate that communities with member-generated content have greater engagement than those who use the community as a marketing channel. As a result, we’re seeing many of the less successful communities shifting to focus on member-driven content creation and publication.
Learn more from Vanessa DiMauro at The Social Shake-Up, which will be held May 22-24, 2017 in Atlanta, GA. Brand communicators from Coca-Cola, Dunkin' Donuts, the Atlanta Hawks, Arby's and many more will speak on a breadth of topics from content marketing to measurement to Snapchat strategy.
4) A new B2B community business model is emerging. Among the independently run communities (not branded by a single organization), many include corporate sponsors for specific forums. This is a great way for independent communities to maintain their neutrality, serve member interests and generate revenue.
5) Inconsistent care makes for an incomplete customer journey. Our research shows that 35% of communities are supported, but unevenly. While the right elements are in place—content, information and discussions—there is evidence they are not being nurtured properly. The result? They run the risk of member abandonment and harm for the organization's reputation. However, these communities are not without hope. With some care and feeding, they are likely to turn around and become an asset to the members and the company that launched them.
6) Abandoned communities are a big liability. Nearly 10% of online communities are no longer carefully managed or visibly updated. Many of the communities in this category have numerous unanswered questions, spam in the forums, aged content and, in some cases, members voicing concern about their lack of support.
Unfortunately, abandoned communities are a significant liability for the brand and organization. As customer communities are a front-line experience for prospective and current customers, we strongly recommend that brands invest in reinvigorating these communities or develop a strategic takedown plan.
7) Gating may promote customer intimacy. About 5% of the B2B communities on The Big List have changed their community model from “open to the public” to private, creating members-only communities that require approval to join. Many of these communities have created splash pages that actively market the business value of joining and provide information about the membership but keep the discussions and interactions behind a firewall.
This shift suggests a small but growing trend for B2B firms to seek greater customer intimacy by creating gated spaces for deeper knowledge exchange on a peer-to-peer and peer-to-company level.
Vanessa DiMauro is the CEO of Leader Networks, a research and strategy consulting company that helps organizations succeed in social business and online community building.
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