How Communities Add Value

A headshot of Amanda Moloney

by Amanda Moloney

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It’s a mystifying fact of modern business that very often, the executives making big strategic decisions at the top – or even in the middle – do not regularly interact with the customers who directly impact their bottom line.

Research shows that 40% of companies today do not talk to customers at all during product development. What then are these companies relying on for insight and feedback? Perhaps this finally explains how Mattel is still selling a million Magic 8 Balls every year. We jest, but some of the most commonly employed customer insight tools aren’t that much more illuminating or soundly based.

Traditional tools like surveys, focus groups and customer panels tend to gather customers’ imperfect recollections of past choices and their offhand guesses about how they’ll behave in the future. This kind of data doesn’t paint an accurate picture of what people will actually need or want, or what a new-to-the-market product innovation should be. It’s akin to getting a bunch of those annoyingly non-committal, ‘Reply hazy, try again’ or ‘Better not tell you now’ answers in a row from the aforementioned Magic 8 Ball. 

A colourful cartoon illustration of a magic 8 ball.

When innovators like Steve Jobs and (Sony co-founder) Akio Morita famously declare, “We don’t do market research,” what they really mean is that they shun traditional tactics in favour of more innovative methodologies. To tap into hidden customer motivations, unspoken preferences, and tacit feelings, expert researchers put on their social anthropologist hat for brands like Coca-Cola, Intel, LEGO, Herman Miller, IKEA, and (yes) Apple and Sony. They conduct ethnographic observation of people in natural settings so they can understand the context of product use and gain glimpses into the future.

Read More: 9 Things We've Learned About Innovation & Creativity Since 2009

This type of research does provide insights that traditional market research techniques can’t. BUT it is time-consuming and expensive, and it still only captures information generated within a finite time period. Once the study is over, so is the interaction. Whereas an online community where members are collaborating daily, sharing experiences, building upon each other’s ideas, and even just hanging out to chat can deliver valuable, real-life insight data indefinitely.

Product development is just one of the many areas in which online communities prove their value to companies of all types and sizes. An active and engaged online community becomes a collaborative ecosystem where customers not only play an active role in shaping future products and enhancing the customer experience—they also develop an intimate relationship with a company and its products. And that has multiple benefits for community owners and members alike. 

Here are four of the most valuable ways companies are leveraging the power and passion of online community:

Product Co-creation:

Many brands engage their customers in co-creation specifically to aid innovation and improvement. A co-creative community invites your biggest fans and best customers ‘behind the curtain’ to have a say in how things are done. This brings a wealth of external creativity, expertise and passion that can be leveraged to supercharge product innovation, guide improvements and create customer-driven marketing content and campaigns.

Co-creation minimizes many of the inherent risks of product development. You’re working with better insights from the get-go and then getting real-time feedback through the entire process as you gauge demand, test prototypes, gather reviews and iterate. This reduces both time to market and the chances of developing a costly (and embarrassing) flop.

Who’s doing it?

Since launching in 2014, the successful LEGO Ideas co-creative platform has grown to over 1.8 million registered members who have submitted more than 36,000 project concepts. 36 co-created LEGO kits have been brought to market, many of which sold out upon release. Notably, LEGO has been able to shorten time-to-market for a set from two years to just six months.

Consumer Insights:

The artificial construct of focus groups and the impersonal nature of surveys often lead to lacklustre insights. People may respond halfheartedly, feel pressured to reply quickly, or simply default to telling you what they think you want to hear. In a community where trust and reciprocity have been built and participation is encouraged but not demanded, you’re much more likely to get glimpses of real thoughts and feelings.

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Online communities allow consumers to participate at their leisure from their computer, tablet or mobile phone, contributing and sharing from anywhere, any time. This means you can catch them in the moment, as they are using or engaging with your product, reflecting on a current experience, or even having an issue or problem. If the medium weren’t so open and transparent, it would feel a little bit like eavesdropping and picking up the juiciest tidbits of unfiltered intel. 

Of course, you won’t be silently observing, but actively engaging with your community members in an authentic and responsive way. With social media, there is still a third-party middleman between you and your customers and you don’t own the data or have the ability to pull in-depth, personalized reports. When you own and control your own community, you don’t have to chase people around on various social platforms. Plus, the best branded community platforms allow you to gather insights at a glance, and export data and custom reports to dive deep into behaviours, patterns and preferences you can use to validate and improve customer profiles or personas.

Who’s doing it?

Since 2015, Wolverine Worldwide, a global footwear and apparel manufacturer of iconic brands such as Merrell, Sperry, Chaco and Saucony, has developed five branded insight communities. They interact with almost 10,000 consumers on a monthly basis, infusing the consumer perspective into new products, advertising and strategies. Consumer insights and market intelligence are at the center of their decision making and new styles are tested and vetted before being brought to market.

Brand engagement and loyalty:

Every business relies on people: customers, employees, partners and other stakeholders. Communities draw these people together and unite them around a subject that they care about. Whether it’s a customer community where people can share the amazing things they have done with the brand’s products, or an employee community where individuals from across an organization can share ideas and best practices, communities make people feel valued, included and empowered. It’s only human nature to stick with the people and things (like brands) that make you feel this way.   

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People want to participate. They want to belong. And they want to contribute their ideas, enthusiasm and energy to the brands they care about most. In return, when you show that you trust and value the opinions of your consumers so much that you’re willing to empower them, you create a strong two-way bond that cements loyalty and turns consumers into brand advocates. Communities help people feel personally invested in your brand and connected to your purpose and products. They don’t just like what you sell, they like what you’re all about. Customers who feel this way are likely to continue choosing to do business with you and to encourage others in their circle of influence to do the same.

Who’s doing it?

Sephora’s Beauty Insider Community serves as a destination for beauty-lovers to find inspiration, ask questions and get recommendations in a real-time, ‘real talk’ social setting. By letting customers become the ‘experts’, they also become brand ambassadors, inspiring others to use products they recommend and post pictures of. Sephora can monitor which items and topics are trending to create strategies accordingly, and also identify pain points and respond to questions and customer service issues before they become complaints or bad reviews. 

Gather user-generated content:

No matter how trustworthy and reputable your brand is, people will always trust other people more than they’ll ever trust a company or a marketing campaign. Word of mouth recommendations from friends and family have always carried a lot of clout. User-generated content (UGC) takes this one step further by showing how real people you know – or feel connected to – are using a product or service in their lives. A staggering 85 percent of consumers feel that UGC is more influential than any other form of brand communication. UGC is a simple, surefire way to increase brand awareness.

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Online communities are vital sources for trusted, customer-led content that is authentic, credible (not paid-for), and free to you! A UGC campaign invites your audience to create branded content for your company. They'll then share their creations on social media using a customized hashtag that you'll monitor. Any company whose products can be used creatively, combined, or remixed stands to benefit from an online community of users generating content on their behalf. This could include fashion brands, creative products, food and cooking products, recreational goods, tech products and more.

Who’s doing it?

GoPro has a long history of employing a UGC-focused marketing strategy by encouraging camera users to upload their best, and most inspirational photos and videos to Instagram and YouTube using the dedicated #GoPro hashtag. GoPro celebrates its content creators around the world by reposting and celebrating the best submissions and rewarding some of them with cash and product prizes. 

And that’s not all.

Communities can serve a host of needs and fulfill many different purposes, even outside of the corporate or commercial realm. Some seek to harness the power of collective wisdom through knowledge sharing to solve social or institutional problems. Catalyst, for example, is bringing high-level education leaders together to solve some of the biggest challenges in education. Edmonton Economic Development has created a citizen engagement platform to invite thoughts and ideas on building an economic strategy for Alberta’s capital city over the next 30 years. Even one of the big four consulting firms is turning to community to help employees connect with one another in the wake of major corporate integrations.

Online community isn’t for any one type, style or size of business. It’s for any brand or organization that wants to connect with other humans on a deeper level. It’s not just a tactic or tool, but an always-on gathering of the people who matter most. What organizations and their fans do in that space varies from organization to organization, but the principle stays the same: eliminating barriers between an organization and their fans, and connecting fans with one another is sure to add value for any organization.

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