Building the Business Case for Online Communities

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Guest Post by: Helen Trim

I’m at the Communities 2.0 conference in San Francisco this week. It’s such a beautiful and diverse city and sadly not enough time to explore (sigh).

One of the hot topics raised at the ROI symposium was the thorny issue of getting internal buy in for your online community from across departments and management levels. At FreshNetworks a lot of the early work with our clients is around supporting the project sponsor to achieve this. It’s often the hardest part of getting an online community started and even when you are rolling, how do you keep the visibility of it high to ensure continued investment?

I’ve been struck by the number of passionate mavericks I’ve met who ‘just knew’ their company should be starting a dialogue with customers (or employees) and could see the benefits a mile away even if they couldn’t quantify them. Euan Semple started the BBC intranet on a box under his desk and the seasoned community practitioner Dawn Lacallade (previously Lead Stormchaser at Dell and now at solarwinds) tirelessly waded through the politics at Dell to extol the benefits of the early Dell communities. Many social media projects start as skunkworks projects and sometimes this is the only way to gather the evidence that the demand and the benefits are there. I’m all in favour of piloting, learning and evolving but there can be some pitfalls:

  • you may end up with multiple communities targeting the same people, creating real confusion for your customers
  • as social media people leave the company, community ghost towns will appear as no-one knew about all the cul-de-sacs of conversations existed and there’s no-one to carry on the conversation
  • social media enthusiasts may be good at Twitter but they may not understand how to manage risk. Online communities can impact all areas of the business and there is nothing worse for a customer who has made the effort to talk to you than getting no response back from the brand.

So here are some tips from Dawn about how she used her powers of persuasion at Dell (at solarwinds everything they do starts with ‘how do we involve customers in this’ so I gather life is less complicated for her now!). I’ve added to the list from some of our experiences at FreshNetworks too.

  1. Amongst the other skills you need as a community manager, you need to develop your sales skills! Equip yourself with loads of great case studies to convince stakeholder of the value to the business. They are unlikely to respond to words like blog, wiki – only to phrases like customer retention and cost reduction!
  2. Identify all the key stakeholders in the business (i.e. those that give you money, those that can vote on what you are about to do and those that are likely to give you grief!)
  3. Meet/call/survey these people to understand the priorities of the business and each department. At FreshNetworks we try to encourage setting up a cross-functional team to attend at least a half day workshop, including directors. It’s amazing how many epiphany moments happen when people are sharing ideas with each other and often the biggest cynics walk away as converts and later evangelize the project. Play back to the group what phase 1 is going to cover and what it’s not to set expectations.
  4. Prioritise the objectives and work out the business KPIs for the community. Use the language of your stakeholders. If the KPIs don’t contribute to departmental goals you are unlikely to get support for the project. KPIs include things like ‘reduce acquisition costs’ not ‘number of top contributors’. The latter is an essential metric for managing a community but unlikely to mean much to a management team under pressure to deliver their quarterly targets! And finally remember – value is fluid. I met Tina Card this week, another driven community manager from Scottrade who told me their community is producing benefits that hadn’t even envisaged at the outset.
  5. Test the business readiness. Is the company committed to investing in the medium term to develop the community to maturity and value? Have you thought through the internal process changes that might be required to respond to say an ideas community?
  6. Launch a beta then work hard to play back the results to your stakeholders. And never stop doing this, get in front of Execs on a regular basis. There are a lot of repetitive tasks involved in managing a community and marketing people particularly are not used to this as they live in a campaign-based world.

We’d love to hear about your experiences so we can continue to add to the list.

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