Embrace Online Forums and Foster Online Communities

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The conversation is going to happen with or without you. This is a fact and is also my standard response when people say they are afraid to get too aggressive with social media or want to avoid online forums. Outdoor brands are almost always followed and talked about extensively online because they draw enormous passion from enthusiasts.  Online forums are a great example of how brands cannot only ensure customer satisfaction, they can actually help companies spot product or service problems before they are too damaging.

Increasingly, businesses are implementing online customer communities to be the cornerstone of their customer engagement and retention strategies. Data from market intelligence firm, IDC, indicates that building online communities is the top social business initiative for companies in 2017. When customers have a question or an issue, the Internet is the first place they go; thus, forums have emerged as an effective setting for on-going communication with customers.

While the flexibility and broad reaching benefits of online customer communities are attractive to executives, launching and managing an online community to improve customer retention takes time and dedication. Developing or managing a forum or online audience that offers value to both your customers and your company demand specific strategies and community management processes. Many business leaders simply don’t have the internal resources or in-house expertise to effectively manage an online community.

Here are some things to consider and a few ways to address, build and manage an online community or forum.

Customer Retention

Because of intense, wide-spread competition, retaining customers is a major focus of most outdoor industry marketing professionals. Brands cannot overemphasize the importance of customer retention. According to Bain & Company and Harvard Business Review, boosting customer retention by 5% increases profits by 25% to 95%. Due to the high cost of acquiring new customers, extending the life of existing customer relationships is measurably more profitable than having to replace the revenue of customers who may or have already left your brand. When customers think they are in the know or have a voice, they tend to be more loyal – and online communities and forums can be the perfect venue.

Learn Faster and Avoid Problems

One major company was relaunching their brand after a realignment of distribution a few years ago. They had a great name and loyalty around their products but the brand became neglected. To gain some attention and make a splash, they decided to reintroduce a bellwether product, highlighted by a new way to engage a safety feature.  The backlash and disdain for changing this product was mind boggling by the consumers in the market, but not realized by the ownership. The first step the company took was to engage the vocal fans on their primary online forum, which were bashing the company at will. After a couple months of engagement, the brand decided to not discontinue the existing product. Instead, they simply added another SKU for the new product and made the old product an exclusive for larger distributors. The fans felt they had a voice and the brand got credit for listening to their customers. Sales were phenomenal.

This can also apply to existing or new products or services that are struggling.  Launching new products is always tricky and the early adapters and eager prospective customers are the first to identify and praise or criticize. Online communities and forums can be brands’ most powerful advocates.

Ready Made Test Market Platform

Online customer communities provide businesses with significant advantages when it comes to understanding the intent, mood, and goals of your customers. It also sheds light on how your customers view your company and products. Brands can use forums and online communities for surveys, discussion forums, and idea submission features to gather data about how new ideas will impact, and be received by customers, without making a widely-publicized announcement first.

As in the previous example, even if an unpopular company or product change continues to move forward, the data from your customer community will afford management the opportunity to prepare additional resources and support specific customer segments differently in order to mitigate potential customer retention problems. Many outdoor companies use every day users to “seed” people to test products. Besides learning valuable customer insight, they get the added benefit of early “word of mouth” buzz before a launch.

Looking for a framework for getting started? The following are three keys steps in your path to keeping more customers engaged in your online communities.

1. Grow Your Community to Critical Mass

Critical mass is the point in which your online customer community sustains itself through peer-to-peer interactions rather than the content and activity of your company. While entire books can be written on how to grow a customer community to the point of sustainability, it is important to note that this process is a critical first step.

Without ongoing customer participation in your online communities, your company cannot use it to improve advocacy in the market, customer retention, and product innovation. People need to use an existing forum or your customer community in order for both your target audience and company to derive value from the platforms.

 2. Use Social Data to Reinforce the Message

Traditional marketing techniques paint a picture of your customers’ demographic profile and transactional history. Your customer community combines demographic and transactional information with social and behavioral data from their activity in your online community. The old school term is psychographics. It means how they actually behave in deciding to buy or use your products.

By knowing what customers are asking, which content and videos they are consuming, and the discussion groups in which they are participating, you can make much more accurate assumptions about the needs of your customers. Feeding that data to your product development or customer support teams enables them to reach out to customers to address their concerns long before high degrees of frustration with your product sets in.

3. Be Proactive and Truthful

This should be ingrained in all aspects of a brand but when dealing with customers online, the game is drastically changed because everyone is on a level playing field.  Customers normally trust other customers more than brands. That is one reason why online reviews are so powerful. Outdoor enthusiasts have been burned by companies who publicly say one thing and their personal experience and those of others are drastically different. The key to managing and benefiting from online communities is that the brand needs to be a participant that cares, and not a salesperson or dictator.

In short, forums and online communities are different because they are engaging. They are one of the best ways for a brand to have two-way communication with customers. If implemented and managed successfully, online forums and communities enhance customer engagement and customer experiences. They also provide a special service to customers and help to maintain customer loyalty. Online forums and communities aggregate conversations from the most interested and passionate customers and bring them straight to your brand’s attention, offering valuable customer insight that you can apply to improve your brand and products and grow your market share and sales.