Let’s start by defining “online communities”
Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Online_community) defines online communities as “a virtual community whose members interact with each other primarily via the Internet. For many, online communities may feel like home, consisting of a “family of invisible friends”. Those who wish to be a part of an online community usually have to become a member via a specific site and necessarily need an internet connection. An online community can act as an information system where members can post, comment on discussions, give advice or collaborate.”
In 1996, but still very actual, a multidisciplinary group of academics held a workshop at which they identified the following core characteristics of online communities (Whittaker, Issacs, & O’Day, 1997, p. 137):
- Members have a shared goal, interest, need, or activity that provides the primary reason for belonging to the community.
- Members engage in repeated, active participation and there are often intense interactions, strong emotional ties and shared activities occurring between participants.
- Members have access to shared resources and there are policies for determining access to those resources.
- Reciprocity of information, support and services between members is important.
In a world where the lines are blurring when it comes to relationships with customers (see Wind, Blurring the lines: is there a need to rethink industrial marketing?) and where, in parallel, we are more and more made aware of customer empowerment: should industrial brands not reconsider their spending and allocate more time, people and budget to concentrate on customer’s online communities?
Today online tools provide many ways for customers to find sources of information and support when looking for a product or a service. We also recognise that the younger generation is connected at all times and according to a survey conducted by Aspect Software, a call-center software provider, 69% of Millennials feel good about themselves when they are able to answer a question or solve a problem on their own.
Customers increasingly expect brands to offer online self-service options (70% according to a survey from Parature) and when they do not find it available on the brand’s sites they naturally turn to their communities for answers. Even more with the rise of the smartphones allowing not only to remain connected at all times but also to share rich media content such as photos or videos to even better explain and visualize their questions or comments.
Why would customers be returning to the brand’s websites when they can potentially find more and more relevant information within online communities?
Today more and more customers want the brand to follow them home (as we have seen in Wikipedia’s definition online communities are considered a 2nd home to most members) and not to have to follow the brand themselves. One of the reasons why they do not see the point of returning to the brand’s website is due to the lack of rapid answers and self serviceability when they feel they can probably get faster answers within their community.
Tapping into the power of online communities
Within most communities customers can ask questions and get quality answers from other members, quickly and in a very efficient way. Answers are provided by other members who are, in most cases, customers and users of the brand’s product or service: this gives scale at low effort and credible answers.
Some communities have even as a main goal to engage and collaborate with each others to solve issues. As Eric von Hippel at MIT found out: the majority of significant product innovations in many industries initially are sparked by lead users.
Why do industrial brands not focus much more on ensuring that some dedicated representatives could actively join those online communities not only to monitor the discussion but to actively seek for feedback and ideas? This will allow to build a knowledge base on the fly!
Optimizing products, processes and services thanks to co-creation and ideation from the online communities
It’s also clear that today the product life cycle is getting shorter as we all expect a next generation of product/service within a limited time frame. Using the power of (experts) online communities industrial brands could learn and better match the speed of consumer brands in delivering a product that is a better fit to the market demands. Nowadays launching a new product on the market is not what it used to be: it requires more and more the ability to rapidly be modified or upgraded to fully match the customer’s expectations.
Maybe industrial brands should not look for perfection at first but rather speed and efficiency with the openness to accept that a new generation should follow promptly thanks to the feedback and even the criticism of the empowered customers… something that can be sucked out from the discussions on-going within the communities and not within a company’s proprietary websites or blogs.
The labs need to better understand the customers: how often do R&D engineers get to meet a customer? Probably not that often?
When industrial brands will have structured and dedicated teams in place to join the online communities debates those teams will also gain the ability to easily distribute insights within their own organization. The labs will not meet 1 customer… it will gain access to a multitude of them, at basically no cost and without the need to even get out of their office (although this should remain on the radar as, as much as online communities can bring value, the power of a real face to face discussion should not be undervalued!)
- Henning-Thurau et al (2010): Impact of New Media on Customer Relationships
- Wind (2008) Blurring the lines: Is there a need to rethink Industrial marketing