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It’s funny, when I talk about online communities to a for-profit business somewhere in the conversation return-on-investment comes up. When I talk about online communities to a membership driven organization the conversation focuses more on how it will help better serve the mission of the organization. This made me think about the true motivations behind companies and organizations. Naturally, most membership driven organizations have a clear mission and know exactly why they exist. This is critical behind the motivation of members, volunteers and donors. I’m going to be a little bold here and say that many for-profit businesses seem to struggle with this idea. Outside of returning a profit, there isn’t always a clear reason behind why they exist. In other words the vision and/or mission is either not clear or missing altogether. This is one of the principle foundations of determining the real value of an online community.

When I say “real value of an online community” I am referring to all of the tangible and intangible benefits of having one. Let’s take a deeper look.

Here are a few examples of tangible benefits:

  • A chapter or club driven organization might look at the number of online community members that converted into real paying members or donors.
  • A non-profit using their online community to show enough advocacy behind a concept or idea to get legislation passed.
  • A non-profit received “x” amount of dollars in donations directly from “x” members in the online community.
  • A for-profit business might correlate the number of community members that made a purchase of a product or service or the percentage of sales increase since they started the online community.

Here are a few examples of intangible benefits:

  • Members of a chapter or club feel a deeper sense of unity and support for the organization.
  • Donors feel a deeper sense of trust and loyalty toward a non-profit and are enticed to donate in larger amounts and more often.
  • Customers develop a sense of trust and loyalty from the online community and attribute that to the company running it.
  • Understanding your customers or members further and what they are thinking by giving them a voice.

Increasing the value of tangible and intangible benefits of your online community will depend directly on the clarity of your purpose. Your online community is about your community and not you. It’s a shift in thinking, but once you understand the benefits are clear as day. If you go into developing an online community with the sole thought of “what’s in it for me”, your community will never stand on it’s own.

Here are a few real examples of organizations using their online community to gain real value:

LEGO


View the LEGO online community
Purpose: Product Development
Lego uses their online community for ideas on new products and even having customers help design the products themselves.

Campbell’s Soup


View the Campbell’s Soup online community

Purpose: Customer Loyalty
Campbell’s Soup unites their community of loyal customers together to share everything from recipes, cooking tips to raising a family. Their online community, Campbell’s Kitchen, has attracted more people to it not because of the product, but the sense of community it brings for people running a family (i.e. the people buy the soup). Again, the effect of an online community that pure advertising just can’t buy.

Dell Computers


View the Dell online community

Purpose:
Customer Service and Product Sales
Dell uses their online community to allow their own customers and community moderators to share answers to questions, give purchase suggestions, provide feedback and much more. This type of community is centered around the need to either fix something or find something. Customer purchase decisions are dramatically influenced by feedback they get from the community and less from the actual company itself.

As you can see with these online communities, the real value is created from of the purpose. It’s obvious that uniting a community of parents together inside of a community with your brand on it is going to influence buying decisions at the grocery store. Being able to be part of the creation of new products is going to influence whether you buy or not. Having a community that is devoted to supporting you is going to make you feel more comfortable with your purchase decision. The common thread in all of these examples is that they all elicit buying emotions. These buying emotions are critical whether it means paying for a product, devoting ones time or supporting a cause. In either case, it is the foundation and influence that drives people to take action.

Let me know your thoughts on this topic. What benefits have you seen or see right now in being part of a properly run online community?

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