Shut Up and Listen to Your Customers

Bring people together to fill a void and a viable business is born

With the San Francisco skline in the background, a jogger runs through Dolores Park July 13, 2005 in San Francisco. Runner's World Magazine has just named San Francisco the best city for running in the United States based on its weather, the number of running clubs, racing events and the the ample park space available for runners.

The San Francisco skyline. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Engaging online communities with a dedicated strategy and team has become ubiquitous among consumer brands and online marketplaces. The success of engaging with online customers and fans has yielded big payoffs for these sectors through brand building, increased retention, switching costs and lowering customer support costs. Diverting resources away from advertising and PR and toward managing your online community can be more powerful for driving business and building trust than ads and media relations.

Today, everyone can benefit from expanded community engagement. If you’re using or considering using community tactics as part of your marketing mix, here are five easy ways to dial up the intensity this year:

Mobilize Your Community Once you know your customers’ demographics, it is scalable and free to extend the conversation to smartphones. For millennials, the hottest app is Slack. Industry and social communities are using Slack’s free offering to collaborate on all manner of topics from “Metro Detroit D&D” players to “We Are Developer Evangelists” groups. Slack groups are ideal for controlled conversations because they are invite only. Facebook groups function the same way. For GenXers and Boomers, Facebook groups are a no-brainer; Facebook is already downloaded on everyone’s phone. Swapping startup Yerdle’s thousands of Pro members, who interact in a private Facebook group, have a 60 percent monthly retention rate. This group accounts for a significant portion of Yerdle’s transactions and also serves as brand evangelists and a referral corps.

Unlock Your Community’s UGC Letting your community tell your story packs a much bigger punch than making up marketing speak. How do you open up your brand to “user generated content” or UGC? Talk with your users and get to know what motivates them. Then offer a prompt encouraging them to show off your brand. Retailers like Everlane and Lululemon dominate the “I rocked it” social “humble brag” selfie scene. Those crazy #nekoatsume cat collectors show off their yards from this app all the time. Ellen DeGeneres partnered with music competition app Chosen to host weekly community “dance offs,” giving her brand a technological boost and providing the show with outstanding “real people” features. At the enterprise level, the reigning monarch of social love letters is Slack, whose #slackHQ campaign elevates user comments all the way onto full page ads for The New York Times. Talk about putting your community in the spotlight! Bottom line: Offer your users an opportunity to contribute and they will.

Get Out of the Virtual and into the Real “In real life” (IRL) meetups are all the rage for online communities, and now is the time to plan one. Venues love to host them (they sell more coffee or booze) and your members love to meet each other in person. Getting customers together IRL will change the way they feel about your brand and about how they treat each other online, and the myriad selfies that come out of face-to-face meetings won’t hurt. There are ways to plan in-person events cheaply and at scale. Airbnb routinely gathers hosts for outings and events in local markets. The company’s 2015 Airbnb Open drew 6,000 hosts to Paris. Toptal, an international network of engineering talent with no physical offices, organizes 250 events a year in 90 countries so developers can network and hang out. Community staffing startup Cloudpeeps invented “Freelance Fridays,” monthly meetups in select cities for co-working and creating community. Enterprise platforms like Keen IO and Cloud Elements team up to host developer meetups with new customers and ask for product feedback. The big idea: even tech denizens need to interface with other humans some of the time. Make it fun and meaningful, and folks will show up.

Staff Up Your Community Initiatives Your community team is the connective tissue between mission-critical functions of marketing, product, support and analytics. Sure, you may have a social media manager on your PR team or have moved a few of your customer support people over from pure ticket answering to social support, but have you taken a good look at your marketing or product team lately?  Spend more time directing the social conversation rather than reacting to it. For technology companies, engaging your active community in a controlled, ROI-centric way will provide real-time feedback to your product organization so your development team can optimize on the fly. Developers from hot software companies like Okta and Spring.io spend time interacting informally with their customers on Stack Exchange and Github—they would do well to add full time staffers for this. Fitbit’s support organization staffed up with moderators before they launched community forums last year, and they are able to keep pace with all the social mentions and questions by using a growing community team. Fitbit does an incredible job of keeping the conversation going, resulting in regular unsolicited celebrity raves on social media.

Build a Business Around Community Adding community managers to your existing company is a no-brainer, but starting with a community as a business model is a hot opportunity. Two rising stars are Daybreakers—a technology-driven early morning dance meet-up—and Creative Mornings—a tech-focused class and field trip series. 500 Brunches creates offline social networks through, you guessed it, brunching with strangers. Philadelphia-based Health Union aims to help people with all manner of ailments through content-rich patient communities both on their own websites and using Facebook groups. Every month, 1.7 million video game aficionados live stream themselves on Twitch.tv, now owned by Amazon, while 100 million gamers tune in. Bring people together to fill a void and a viable business is born. The common thread? All of these examples may have started in a particular location or with a particular subset of the population, but quickly expanded once they gained traction.

Shira Levine is president of Fanchismo, an online community strategy consultancy. Clients include Pinterest, Twitch.tv, and Kabam. Find her at www.fanchismo.com or @communitydrives.

Shut Up and Listen to Your Customers