When we made the case for customer communities, we didn't delve too deeply into the aspects that make these communities so powerful for businesses and for customers. Ever since my colleagues Jen van der Meer pointed me to his blog, I have been learning a lot about figuring out relationships and influence factors from Dr. Michael Wu at Lithium.
In a recent post, where he talks about the work of Prof. Mark Granovetter in The Strength of Weak Ties, and lists the components of tie strength:
amount of time spent together
emotional intensity and the sense of closeness
intimacy or mutual confiding
amount of reciprocal services
Where should companies focus their effort in building stronger customer
Build relationships on trust
Which is not the same as authority and reach and the main reason why media companies are not building communities. Trust is built on authenticity and transparency, which is the place where "us vs. them" becomes us and the transaction feels valuable.
Companies support customers in becoming better buyers when they are more accountable for their practices. Which hopefully makes for better buyers. And better buyers create more enthusiast evangelists; people willing to help companies make better products, or enroll other customers.
The other reason why this creates more value for the business is a greater number of loyal customers.
Is another way to develop stronger relationships with customers. Dr. Robert Cialdini explained the psychology aspects of reciprocity, how people tend to want to return a favor. That's why companies that learn to give customers things to do, that let customers serve them, have a competitive advantage.
The social aspects are more important for you to understand than the technologies, especially if you're looking to see why customer communities work. They work because they engage individual participants at a personal level. When people do something, they are bound to talk about it.
And it is at that level that we connect with each other while the brand provides the context for that engagement.
Community as context
As defined by the business dictionary, a community is a:
- Self-organized network of people with common agenda, cause, or interest, who collaborate by sharing ideas, information, and other resources. Virtual communities consist of participants in online discussions on topics of mutual concern, or of those who frequent certain websites.
- Cluster of common interests that arise from association.
So you may find current fans and organize a space for them to meet each other, invite current customers and prospects to join in a space you have developed to help address common issues, questions, interests, or concerns. Doing that, helps you create context for a community to form.
Customer communities work because they engage reciprocity and help build trust, thus making social ties stronger. This however, doesn't happen overnight, and needs strong execution to pull off with sincerity — "get me a community" means putting skin in the game at a personal level.
What will you do differently today?
[image from Forrester report on ROI of customer service for B2B]