When you hear the term “community,” you likely think of your neighborhood, perhaps your school, your church, or other groups of people with which you share a common interest or objectives. When you think about the role of a community in your business, it may be harder to envision.
I’ve spent my career helping organizations envision their community development opportunities, developing communities for a broad range of organizations: global technology firms, startups, non-profits, and NGOs. In each case, the “community” was made up of the stakeholders, connected through a network, and coming together around a common cause, idea, or shared objectives.
In the early days of my career (in the Internet dark ages of the late 90s), these communities were almost exclusively online and primarily focused on sharing technical knowledge and peer-to-peer technical support – technology companies engaging with their technically sophisticated customers.
Since the early 2000s, habits have significantly changed, driven by near ubiquitous broadband Internet access and the mobile devices in our pockets. As a consequence, the use of online communities has spread to almost every organizational use case you can imagine. I’ve helped create communities for software companies to co-create new products with their customers and drive market growth, a national non-profit that works with state health agencies on high-impact public health issues like smoking cessation, and a startup trying to predict the odds of success for seed-stage companies by creating a network of experts that collaborate within a system orchestrated by AI.
One thing I’ve learned from my experience with communities is that customers that are connected to a company through their community tend to be more valuable than those that aren’t – I researched and benchmarked this when I was at Autodesk and Dell. There is also a growing body of research pointing to the fact that companies that engage in community or customer network development tend to be more innovative and resilient.
If we agree customer relationships are valuable, and we have evidence that connecting customers through community experiences can make them more valuable, how might you begin to think about what a “community” for your business might look like?
To begin, you might consider:
Are you already developing your customer community?
Can you think of specific examples of connecting your customers through an event, a seminar, or a class that really engaged them, that they found valuable (via feedback), and that you enjoyed hosting? If you prefer not to interact with your customers, or there is a compelling business reason for you not to, then pursuing a community strategy is probably not for you.
What business values can you create?
Are there specific business goals that engaging your customers in a community might support? For example, getting feedback on a new product or service, identifying customer advocates, helping you shape and create new products, or helping you create content?
What can (and will) you contribute as a host?
Communities require an exchange of value. As a host, think about what you are willing to contribute to the customer community. This might be hosting a regular in-person event, providing online space for discussions, or partnering with other businesses on a shared initiative, like research to advance a specific practice in your industry.
What can your customers gain from each other?
One of the truly incredible things about successful communities is that when you understand the needs and motivations of customers, you can help orchestrate experiences that allow customers to inspire, learn from, and support each other.
Where should your community show up?
One of the most important and challenging questions to answer is where you host your community. There are a range of options, both virtual and in-person to consider. There are costs and benefits to any choice, and the best way to design your ecosystem is to understand where you can create the greatest value for both you and your customers.
Creating a customer community can bring significant business value by increasing customer engagement, fostering innovation, and building resilience. To begin developing a customer community, it's essential to understand the needs and motivations of customers and identify specific business goals that a community can support. Ultimately, a successful customer community can build stronger relationships between a company and its customers, leading to long-term success.
Learn more about the value of customer community and how to explore this opportunity for your business at NCET’s Biz Bite on April 26. NCET is a member-supported nonprofit organization that produces educational and networking events to help people explore business and technology. More info at www.NCETbite.org.
Bill Johnston is the founder and community architect at Structure3C, https://www.structure3c.com, pioneering community designer and strategist working with enterprise brands, startups, and large non-profits to create value and impact.