Serving Customer Communities Online

A while back I wrote about "What is an Online Community?�? in terms of understanding the basic concept of online communities. The theme was that online communities are “communities�? first and “online�? second - meaning that the “online�? part is secondary to the real-world community that is using the web site.

Building on this point, I’ve been thinking about how to relate this theme to businesses. If a business is interested in the online community concept or curious about where to start, the points below outline, very generally, my perspective.

  1. The first step is to document the major needs you see within your customer base and your business. By outlining the major needs, you can set related goals for improving service, saving money on support, increasing loyalty, competitive advantage, web site utilization, etc.
  2. Next, look at your customers and think about the best ways to group them into logical work groups, if they aren’t already grouped. Who could/would benefit most by sharing information? By focusing on work groups, you are defining the real-world communities that you’ll serve.
  3. Match the needs you outlined in #1 to the real-world communities you outlined in #2. Each community may have different needs. The key is to understand each community’s biggest needs.
  4. Now it’s time to think about your web site and how you can serve the needs and communities using online community technology. By using online community technology on your site, you are simply providing the real-world communities an online “home�? where you can offer them new resources designed to serve their needs.

While online communities will not serve every need or accomplish every goal, they can be effective in addressing many common issues. Below are common outcomes of a successful online community:

  • Decreased cost savings in customer support
  • Increased customer loyalty
  • Increased relationships and knowledge sharing among customers
  • Increased business knowledge of customer issues and ideas
  • Increased competitive advantage
  • Increased web site page views

These points are most applicable for small to medium sized businesses that have a web site and are looking for new ways to use the web site to serve customers.

See also: Customer Communities: Negative Feedback can be Your Friend