The 411 on Private Social Media Communities

Last week, we talked about what the best marketers are doing with Social Media. This week, we discuss the pros and cons of whether you should go a step further and create your own social community.

Fish Where the Fish Are

Social media can be enticing, but it can also be overwhelming. Before jumping in, it is important to determine where the opportunities really are for our individual organizations. What are the key market issues in our industries and who is discussing them? Where are the people with whom we want to connect congregating? Of those networks and communities, where does it make sense for us to be? This is not a question to ask only once. Life on the social web is fluid. Preferences change.

On average companies are active in six social environments. Click To Tweet

On average companies are active in six social environments. More often than not, companies are involved in the big networks, but there are plenty of others that may better meet their goals. At Racepoint Global, we regularly explore the social media landscape to identify the best fits for our customers. We have identified, investigated, and developed metrics for over 150 different platforms.

In the past few years, companies have been rushing to establish their own social communities. Unfortunately, Gartner the technology research firm, has found that there is about a 10 percent success rate for these collaborative initiatives.47 Why don’t these communities thrive?

Many times communities fail because they lack a clear purpose. Gartner refers to this as the “provide-and-pray” approach, in which organizations provide their customers with access to a social collaboration technology and pray that something good comes out of it.48 (This approach is a cousin of the “spray-and-pray” broadcast tactics marketers used for many years.) Needless to say, customers rarely find these communities compelling.

Other times communities fail because their host companies have been too self-serving. Collaboration requires trusted relationships that take time, interaction, and a smaller and more stable community to develop. In an attempt to garner as much market insight as possible, companies can neglect building the community. Running their communities like a focus group, they ask questions and look for answers, without taking the time to get to know their members in a way that really promotes ongoing collaboration.49

Key Team Member: Social Community Manager

Sometimes, particularly in the case of customer care communities, companies assume that the communities can run themselves or be managed by social media marketers. It is difficult to build productive communities without community managers.50

It is difficult to build productive social communities without community managers. Click To Tweet

Professional community managers who are experts in managing relationships, implementing collaborative processes, and fostering community spirit. They generate compelling content to sustain members’ interest, moderate discussions, and re-engage lapsed users. Working on a shared-value basis for brands and the community, community managers are essential to co-creation. They invite members to help improve brands and translate relevant insight back into the business where it can be incorporated into strategy. In the absence of community managers, there is not enough value in the community to sustain member involvement.

Finally, communities often fail because they are asked to produce something that they simply cannot. One of the primary reasons that companies participate in social media is to glean insight from prospects and customers. Research shows, however, that people go to public social spaces, such as Facebook, to hear from brands – but to share their thoughts, our customers often prefer a private setting away from the influence and ears of their friends.51 To successfully collaborate, many brands are forming private online communities to supplement their public social media presence.

Dig Deeper with Private Customer Communities

“Online customer communities are a 24/7 strategic marketing asset that ensures that customers are at the center of marketing and communications planning, innovation and strategies for growth,” explains Diane Hessan, CEO of Communispace, which creates private-brand communities. Over the last decade Communispace has partnered with 200 of the world’s most admired brands to create 700+ online communities, with members in more than 96 countries.

What is the secret to a successful private-customer community? “When we create environments that are conducive to collaboration, and help brands really listen to their customers, asking for their input on material business issues, they deliver,” Hessan explains. “Building trust is absolutely critical—and you get that often by creating a relatively intimate environment in which customers feel that they truly have a voice. As participants become more connected to the company through the online community, they trust the company more and provide more thoughtful and detailed feedback.” They also recommend the company’s products to people. This is the highly sought-after place where customers become co-creators and co-marketers. “There is a huge difference between treating consumers as respondents and feedback-givers versus really making them feel like partners—and the distinction plays out in the value you get in return.”

Case Study: Godiva Chocolates

Consider the impact that members of Godiva Chocolatier’s customer community had on the company. Since 1926, Godiva Chocolatier (Godiva) has been known as the premier maker of fine Belgian chocolate. To keep its finger on the pulse of today’s customers, Godiva worked with Communispace to develop and manage a private, invitation-only online customer community, aptly named, Chocolate Talk. Member-to-member conversations accessed daily provide the company with powerful insights into how chocolate fits into their lives.52

During the last U.S. economic downturn, Godiva turned to community members to understand their changing purchasing behavior. Through insights gathered from a variety of exercises and assignments that members undertook, the company uncovered critical recession-induced patterns that were adversely impacting their sales. They also discovered a great opportunity.

While members loved Godiva chocolates, in an effort to cut back on spending, many were making fewer visits to the mall, where the majority of Godiva boutiques are located. Instead they were purchasing more affordable premium brands available at grocery and drug stores. Competitors also offered chocolate gift boxes, which customers purchased as casual gifts for teachers, coworkers, and mail carriers, saving the signature Godiva gold ballotin for highly special occasions. As the conversation unfolded, community members described another important preference: They did not always like to share unwrapped chocolates—like those found in the Godiva gold boxes—with people that they do not know well.

Acting on these insights, and after the community validated the idea, the company developed the Godiva Gems line—quality chocolates that are individually packaged in colorful wrappers with a sprinkling of Godiva’s signature gold—sold at a more-value oriented price point. Today, Godiva Gems can be purchased in boutiques, department stores, and grocery and drug stores, making the chocolates more readily accessible. The young brand is a significant new source of revenue for the brand globally.

“The community provides us with the ability to continuously tap into our members’ minds to be sure we are meeting their desire for Godiva chocolate,” explains Rick Keller, global business director for the Everyday Godiva Platform. “In addition, it was instrumental in getting Gems to market fast so we can stay competitive in the Premium Chocolate category. Our members’ input was crucial to the success of the Gems platform every step of the way.”53

What to Look for in a Partner

When thinking about establishing a private online customer community, finding the right partner is essential. Hessan offers these questions to ascertain fit:

  • How many communities have they built? Get several references and check them.
  • Ask to see a sample report from a community manager. How do they deliver insights? How actionable are the insights?
  • What is the length of involvement of members in a typical community? How do they keep members engaged?
  • How active is a typical community? What is the level of participation? How many activities does a community manager initiate weekly?
  • How are members are chosen for each community?
  • What are the backgrounds of your community managers?
  • What are examples of the impact your communities have had on the companies that support them?
  • What is the best way for us to use the community? (If they say “Everything,” run!)

Next week, we’ll share some metrics you can use to see if your social media efforts are working.


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About the Authors

Larry Weber and Lisa Leslie Henderson are the cowriters of this Digital Marketing guide. Larry is the CEO of Racepoint Global, an advanced marketing services firm. A globally known expert in public relations and marketing services, Larry has successfully built companies and brands and is passionate about the future of marketing. Lisa is an observer, synthesizer, and writer who draws extensively from her background in marketing and consulting. Lisa and Larry have collaborated on two guides to date, The Digital Marketer, and Everywhere: Comprehensive Strategy for the Social Media Era. To stay current on their thinking, frequent and follow them at @TheLarryWeber and @ljlhendo.

Buy on Amazon: The Digital Marketer: Ten New Skills You Must Learn to Stay Relevant and Customer-Centric

47, 48. “Gartner Says the Vast Majority of Social Collaboration Initiatives Fail Due to Lack of Purpose,” Gartner,
49. “10 Best Practices for Managing Online Communities,” Communispace,
50. “Gartner Says Organizations That Integrate Communities Into Customer Support Can Realize Cost Reductions of Up to 50 Percent,” Gartner,
51. “The Rules of Community Engagement,” Communispace,
52. Details of Godiva story taken from conversation with Diane Hessan and Communispace.

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