There are little that essentially go unnoticed… Consumers spend significantly more time online today than they did 10 years ago, and that amount of time is projected to keep rising in the foreseeable future. When online, consumers are spending their time across multiple activities ranging from social media to shopping, and conversing about experiences and issues regarding business and brand interaction. One way they share their experiences is via online reviews, which 3SixtySMB covered in a previous article (Landmark Case with TripAdvisor, Makes Businesses Think Twice About Reviews), but there are more ways in the form of Social Media and other online groups and forums. In this article, we’ll cover the various online communities where consumers share their insights and how businesses can create a way to adopt them as a strategy.
Consumers fill these groups and forums with critical and valuable product & organization insight in almost cult-like fashions… They use these groups to share best practices, tips, tricks, issues, or look for recommendations. However, what we find amazing is that they generally go overlooked by businesses. We’ve even seen some of the larger organizations (typically larger F500) create their own online customer forums, but then essentially ignore them as well. Generally, we find a few different reasons these groups go ignored, but there are mostly two core reasons: lack of understanding or a lack of budget…. Lack of understanding usually stems from management not recognizing the value of these groups, and the lack of budget is focused around the thinking that actively monitoring these groups as more of a cost vs profit center activity. We’ll get into the reasons behind why we find these groups so valuable and how to develop a strategy later in this article, but first, I wanted to focus on the various groups:
Facebook Groups – Facebook has put in a considerable amount of effort into enhancing these groups, and as a result, Facebook groups are becoming more prevalent and influential as of late. Typically, you’ll find these groups founded, ran, and moderated by users themselves… We also find that there could be multiple different user groups focused on similar businesses or industries which can make them difficult to find. Also, due to the nature of these groups, their structures can vary from highly moderated to almost no moderation at all. You’ll find that a majority of groups tend to be consumer-focused and can range from local businesses to nationally known brands.
LinkedIn Groups – LinkedIn groups have been around for a while in comparison to Facebook Groups. Typically, they are founded, ran, and moderated by the actual businesses themselves… However, there are several end-user generated LinkedIn Groups as well. Similar to Facebook groups, we find that their structures can vary from highly moderated to almost no moderation. We also find that due to the age of these groups, some can be significantly more active than others. These types of groups tend to be business-to-business focused, but you can and will find some consumer brands sprinkled in there as well.
Community forums – An example of this would be something similar to Nextdoor.com where the site is corporately ran, but it is independent of the content on the site with a goal to find revenue via advertising opportunities. All content is typically generated from users themselves and can be extremely active… Businesses that are local and focus on the consumer should spend a great deal of time getting to know these sites. Discussions in these sites typically revolve around individuals asking for recommendations or sharing their experiences with local businesses. Local businesses are seriously missing out if not participating in these groups.
Online forums – When thinking about online forums, naturally most think about online forums or user groups as these are some of the oldest types of forums out there. These types of organizations are usually formed by users themselves, but do have more structure than a Facebook or LinkedIn group. We’ll find that there might even be some type of advisory board with executive officers and can be highly moderated. Content within these groups is typically user generated, and in some cases, these forums have almost more of a cult-like following than any other group. They are typically funded via membership dues or advertising budget, but generally zero content would be vendor generated. These forums can focus on anything from specific products, brands, or industries.
Vendor Sponsored Forums/User Groups – These types of forums are almost 100% founded, ran, and moderated from the vendors themselves and it is mostly the larger companies that run these types of forums. There is a mixed bag of vendor interaction within these groups, as some vendors participate heavily in these groups and even go as far as having user group events. However, we also find some vendors that are almost nonexistent as well. The same can be said about the content… often most is generated via users, but you can find vendor content as well. Content can range from use cases, tips and tricks, and recommendations. However, due to the nature being focused on vendors, we do see a lot more issue related content. Again, because some vendors are better than others, some vendors groups can be extremely valuable where others not so much.
Trade or Industry Organizations – In each industry, you’ll find very specific groups dedicated to help educate their respective industries. Commonly, these groups are founded and ran by the organizations themselves but will allow vendors to participate as well… We find that these groups are geared towards industry knowledge, and as a result, you’ll have a mixed bag of users and vendors participating in them.
Again, we find these types of online/social groups and forums to be extremely valuable for any business, as topics discussed can be instrumental to understand customer usage, issues, or new strategic directions for a business, along with possible new prospects. These groups can truly help organizations strengthen their connections with customers, but also strengthen their products while bringing in new customers. This is why the thinking of these groups as a cost center is completely wrong; if done right, they can become a very valuable profit center for any business. Now that we’ve discussed the types of forums and why we find them so valuable, here are a few tips for developing a strategy of your own:
Dedicate resources – At a minimum, dedicate at least one resource to following and reviewing the various groups and forums… The bigger your company, the more resources should be dedicated. We believe most businesses think of this area as a cost vs a profit center, which is why they do not feel the need to invest into this area. Again, we find this to be a huge mistake as the insights gained from forums can be invaluable from a strategic perspective. Since prospects use groups as a sounding board for references, these forums can generate sales along with reducing support cost.
Generate reports – Topics covered in the various forums and groups are extremely valuable for any organization. It should be made a priority to set up regular reporting around various topics brought up in these groups. These reports should be directed towards executive management, product and customer service managers, along with sales leadership, as each group can benefit from these items… This is also where most companies fail because, frequently, no action items are ever taken based on knowledge gained. It should also be made a priority to select a handful of issues covered in these groups and devise a strategy for resolution weekly or monthly.
Monitor constantly – There is a reason we recommend dedicated sources–in order to get the most out of these groups, they do require active attention. People routinely gravitate to these types of forums and groups because they know they can get fast answers. Therefore, if you want to show that you are adding value to customers and prospects that participate in these groups, ensure a fast and accurate response.
Keep experts on call – We recommend dedicated staff to actively monitor and participate in these groups, but they do not need to be experts. Experts can be very expensive for this type of activity and can be better valued elsewhere in the organization. With that said, experts should be on call to answer any questions that require knowledge that is beyond the knowledge of the team member maintaining these groups.
Keep on-call executives – The same can be said for executive support. There should always be an executive sponsor on call to address issues as they arise in these groups. Again, coming to a quick and accurate resolution can truly show your customers and prospects that you value them.
Communicate properly – There are a lot of items that fall under proper communication, from timely and accurate responses, to knowing when to pull in experts or executives into discussions. However, this also means this is not an opportunity for the hard sell or to continuously blast your marketing message to the various groups… The reason why these various groups and forums are so highly leveraged is that they are great sources for knowledge without tainted marketing messages from vendors themselves. When users are looking for recommendations, it is okay to recommend specific products or share marketing collateral, but that should be the limit of sales and marketing activity.
Take action – This goes along the lines of proper communication, however, you must ensure that your team does everything humanly possible to address all issues that come up in these various groups. Not only does this directly help a customer, unattended messages stay in these forums and are indexable via Google. So as prospective customers and active customers search their issues on Google, there is a chance they will find these forum posts… Unanswered posts show there could be a problem with your product and/or service. However, if your team properly addresses the issue, it could save needless support calls and reduce support cost.
Prioritize customer requests – This goes in line with taking action. We find that the reason a majority of customer requests go unanswered is because the vendor themselves has other priorities from a product feature and functionality perspective. This means that vendors are too involved in developing solutions to their own specifications, and what the customers actually want gets pushed aside! It’s a theme that comes up a lot in our writings–most businesses brush aside the wants and needs of their customers, as they have a belief they know what is best for their customers. Customer requests and issues, should always have a top priority in your business model.
If executed properly, social media and online forums can become essential mediums for collecting valuable customer and product intelligence, adding to the education when developing changes in products and/or corporate strategies. However, these groups can also become great sources of income, attracting net new customers or helping customers upgrade services as the need arises, all while reducing customer service support cost. Developing a strategy for the various online communities that consumers engage in is a critical area that each and every business should be focusing on as part of their business plans.