Build Community to Build Brand and Business

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Tools of the Trade

Service providers that specialize in creating these types of communities include Affinitive, Web Crossing, and Capable Networks. Affinitive’s Enclave solution, for example, essentially replicates the functionality, look, and feel of a MySpace or Facebook. Consumers joining your new community can create a profile or blog, share photos, post videos, send private messages, add friends, create and participate in forums, and chat live.

The solution also includes a survey tool, which can be used to create a "24-hour focus group" to generate feedback and opinions that are collected and analyzed in real time.

Another service provider offering a similar solution is Web Crossing. One of the granddaddies of community and social network creation, it began making software for social interaction when those spaces where simply called "discussion boards" or "bulletin boards." Its latest product, Web Crossing Neighbors, is similar to the MySpace/Facebook model, and it comes complete with special interest groups, personal user spaces, blogs, file and photo sharing, search, and user access controls. Its solution is targeted at companies that want to create review communities in-house with the help of very powerful technology.

Capable Networks offers a similar MySpace/Facebook type model, as well as content-creating help from Capable’s staff. Specifically, these skilled editors and veterans of online communities will create and edit content for your new community, moderate your forums, and interact with community members to stimulate discussion.

Essentially, the solution is designed for companies looking to jump-start a vibrant, hopefully evangelical community very quickly—although there is a caveat. In exchange for the personalized help, Capable Networks includes a rider in its contract stating that it owns and operates your community as a separate entity.

Private Clubs

Meanwhile, the second flavor of online review communities—small, private, invitation-only affairs—are the genre preferred by Communispace, an online community service provider that specializes in designing and helping companies run these meeting places.

 "When a few hundred members are participating on a regular basis, the quantity and quality of the content is deeper and richer than from large public sites," according to Katrina Lerman, co-author of the Communispace white paper, "The Fifth P of Marketing: Participation Size Matters." She says, "For companies that truly want to connect with their customers, smaller may in fact be better."

Under the Communispace model, private customer communities are generally branded, password-protected sites where an intimate group of members spends months (and sometimes years) together brainstorming ideas for a company, sharing conversations with other company customers, and essentially playing a pivotal role shaping the company’s future.

"Several facilitators guide the conversation and help bridge the gap between customer and company," Lerman says.

The intimacy and invitation-only factor also tends to result in greater numbers of members participating in the ongoing discussions. "When members contribute, they participate at a high rate—an average of 3.9 contributions per week," say Lerman, citing an in-house study of 66 online communities created by Communispace.

The firm also says its own in-house study of 20 Communispace communities found that 82% of community members said they were more likely to recommend the sponsoring company’s products since joining the community. And 76% said they felt more positively about the company after joining its community.

Let’s Talk … About Me

The third flavor of industry review communities, sites that limit all activity to pubic reviewing of a company’s products and services, are being used by some of the biggest names in business, including Dell, Macy’s, PETCO, Sears, Charles Schwab, and PepsiCo. 

One service provider in this space, Bazaarvoice, urges companies to go the transparency route. Its flagship product, the Ratings & Reviews module, is designed to solicit unvarnished reviews about a firm’s performance, which are published on the company’s website. Another popular review tool from the company, Ask & Answer, which enables consumers to swap info about goods and services in a Q&A format, is also unvarnished.

If you’re still a bit skittish about the concept of transparency, you will probably be more interested in Genuosity’s KudosWorks. Essentially, this is a glowing-testimonials-only service, through which extremely enthusiastic customers offer write-ups about a company that are filled with accolades.

Genousity solicits the testimonials with contact tools it places on your website, as well as in marketing emails. And it helps customers who respond by directing them to a post-your-own-testimonial module, which includes tips on how to write a humdinger.

Another service provider driven by this keep-it-positive philosophy is Zuberance. Rather than soliciting individual testimonials, the company specializes in building an entire cyber-community around your website, which is filled with naturally occurring evangelists—who are truly jazzed about your company’s goods or services and feel compelled to tell the world about it. (Think Apple fanatics.)

Zuberance’s governing principal: Devote your energy to providing as many online/offline tools to enable these evangelists to express themselves positively about your product or service.

Be it positive or negative, the internet is buzzing with conversations about products, services, content … and probably your company as well as your competitors. Harnessing the buzz and making it work for your firm is becoming one of today’s essential business tools.


Talk About Town: Community Monitoring

As many firms have learned the hard way, one or more negative web posts about your company can quickly multiply across the globe in a matter of hours, whether or not those posts happen to be accurate. Essentially, without vigilant monitoring, a bad reputation on the web in general, can mushroom into a major headache for your firm that can take months, or even years, to repair. The importance of such monitoring, according to Bruce Arnold, founder of Caslon Analytics, a web marketing firm that counsels clients on managing company reputations online, cannot be underestimated.

"Some posts are little more than a repository for juvenile humor: graffiti, comments that ‘X’ is the devil, animations of creatures urinating on the corporate logo," he says. "Others feature detailed and sometimes persuasive critiques, including ‘insider’ documentation, and are associated with newsgroups."

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