10 myths about managing a customer community

Being able to talk back to the internet has been the norm for over a decade now. Commenting, liking, creating. Teenagers today don’t even know any better than to actively participate in the online arena. The interactive era of the internet has taught us that our voices can be – and should be – heard. Yet, many businesses still struggle with adapting to this two-way medium, let alone taking full advantage of it. Understandably so. Because engaging with – instead of only broadcasting to – an online community of customers comes with numerous potential pitfalls. So, take note of these 10 notorious misunderstandings about managing a customer community. And learn how to avoid them yourself.

1. Managing your community is the job of one team or person

Nope. A healthy customer community needs support, cooperation and a time commitment from nearly everyone at your company.

For example, when you aim to collaborate with customers on product ideas, you need a team or coordinator to lay the groundwork for open discussion. Perhaps on social media, a community website or in-person. And to then facilitate and coach everyone involved. But that is pretty much where the team’s or coordinator’s responsibilities end. In this case, collaboration on the subject matter itself should be done by the people in charge of making product changes. If those decision-makers say that talking with customers is ‘not their job’ – that they are too busy with ‘more important’ things – your collaborative effort is bound to fail.

2. You turn to the community only when you need customer feedback

No. You should monitor your community at all times. Engage with your customers, also when your business has no urgent need for customer input.

Choosing not to look at or respond to unsolicited customer feedback and ideas breaks trust. It demonstrates that you are only willing to listen when you have the time or when you are interested. This will discourage open discussion. You may miss out on opportunities to build a long lasting relationship with your most valued customers. So, be available to them when they suddenly suggest something to you.

3. You always reach the same audience

Probably not. Every time you send out an invitation for a community event, for instance, you should assume that you are mostly reaching new people.

A majority of the people you attract to your online community are newcomers – infrequent visitors at best. So, it may be their first encounter with your business. And it is unlikely that they are in the loop of what was discussed or achieved by your community last week. Keep this in mind every time you try to (re-)engage your target audience. Repeatedly, introduce yourself, give quick recaps and point out relevant information to bring everyone up to speed.

4. What is being said by the community represents what your customers need

Better not jump to conclusions too quickly. Community interaction leads to qualitative feedback. For representative validation, you should conduct additional quantitative research.

In my experience, most online communities typically attract people that are either hyper involved, in need of attention or focused on a single issue. Therefore, treat community activity as a raw resource that needs interpretation, clarification, selection and validation. Let’s say you asked customers to give you feedback on a new product feature. Simply assuming that your research is complete because 72 people have replied on Facebook is an easy mistake to make. Those 72 replies are useful, though, and will help you decide how to proceed with your research. Professional market research is a common next stop.

5. You should respond to each member post

It depends. In the early days of an online community, you may need to be involved a bit more. Eventually, take a step back and let your members shape their own community.

As the owner of a community website or social media account, you are obligated to monitor what is being said and intervene when guidelines are being breached. We call this service to the community moderation. Aside from your moderator role, you are an equal member of the community. In your member role, your voice should not carry more weight than anyone else’s. Reminding yourself of this fact will help you recognize when it is best to contribute. And when not to. Members talking amongst themselves – and not directing every question and response to you – is a sign of a healthy community.

6. You dictate the topic of conversation

I hope not. You may need to kickstart one or two conversations when your online community is still new. Preferably, you will want your members to take the lead.

You should focus on facilitating great conversations and joining these conversations as one-of-the-bunch. That is not the same as starting each conversation yourself. I bet you rather hear what’s on other people’s minds, don’t you? Luckily, people love to talk. Just let them. Ask them questions and, in the process, discover new opportunities to create customer value.

7. You can run your community from behind your desk

Think again. When you are committed to building a close-knit community, you need to be out there as well. Host events, meet your members where they are, be social.

I get it. Stepping out of your comfort zone and meeting customers face-to-face can be unnerving. The temptation to hide behind your laptop all day is real, especially if you work for a large corporation. Get out of that office chair anyway. Try to think of places and ways to bring community members together around a shared purpose. And come up with an incentive – a reason for people to show up. For example, host a panel discussion on stage with famous guests. Those are popular and will get you signups. At these events, I believe most of the community magic happens before the main show begins and during the breaks. That is the moment when people are (more) free to mingle and interact. So are you.

8. Your online community is failing when visitors do not join the conversation

Not necessarily. Since most online communities are public meeting places, silent eavesdroppers can get a favorable impression of how you interact with active members.

I have expressed this basic premise many times: people online mostly consume and hardly ever create or contribute. And that is okay. From the perspective of a customer community manager, you should aim to engage just enough members to create the perception of a lively environment for conversation. Reaching that threshold gets you two things. One: there is substance to the conversation – you are actually learning new things. And two: there is palpable buzz, noticeable for the majority of silent passersby. Of course, you cannot really know for sure what passersby think of your business after visiting your community website or seeing a discussion on social media. I think it is fair to presume, though, that witnessing healthy activity within a community – that you feel part of – plants a positive memory.

9. You cannot define Return on Investment for an online community

False. When it seems impossible to tie community success to financial business goals, sit down with your executives, check their expectations and agree on tracking metrics that you are able to impact.

Many business activities cannot be directly tied to increased sales. For example, answering the phone at the front desk, recruiting new talented staff, and to some extent, also, creating buzz by publicly engaging with customers. These are the pillars, though, on which (more) products and services can be sold. How much budget is allocated to these pillars – to be able to operate at a professional level – is for the company to decide. So, if you are a community manager with community goals that do not directly garner revenue, frequently check with your superiors what their definition is of a successful community. Then show them how you are working towards that success. In other words: Return of Investment of online communities is – in the first place – about alignment of expectations.

10. Other online communities with similar topics are your competition

Stop thinking in terms of risk. Instead, start seeing opportunities. Realize that you can both serve the same community, each in your own unique way. This will strengthen the community as a whole.

You may own a community website or social media account, but that does not mean that you own a community. Communities already exist, whether you – or anyone else – serve them or not. Communities are nothing more than groups of people with a shared interest. Neighbors, coworkers, fans, professionals, hobbyists, and so on. Your company can help facilitate an existing – maybe dormant – community by connecting its members online or at in-person events. For businesses, it makes sense to start with the community of your customers. Then, realize that your customers are part of a bigger world. By definition, communities overlap. More than one company may be fishing in the same community pond. Fighting over who gets to fish in which pond is pointless. Instead, join forces and find ways to create a bigger and better pond together.

What did I miss?

I hope that some of these myths have opened your eyes and have given you a new perspective on the value of customer communities and collaboration. Surely, there are more myths on this topic that need to be debunked. Share them in the comments below.

By Rogier

With over ten years of experience in the ever-changing landscape of social media and strategic community management, Rogier helped the largest Dutch health insurance company to more openly communicate and collaborate with its customers and partners.

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