17/05/11

By Benjamin Dyer, director of product development for ecommerce supplier Actinic

In 1904 a British scientist, Sir Francis Galton, came up with what he called “the wisdom of crowds” i.e. the wisdom of many is actually greater than the individual. So how can we apply it to business?

The internet has always been about communication. An aspect that works especially well is building a community of your customers; people drawn together by a product or service you are offering.

At the very core a community is an amplifier; it allows you an unparalleled level of access to your user base and empowers the otherwise voiceless consumer to get involved in the intricacies of your business. At its best the community provides you with an amazing insight into customers’ views on your products and services, whilst highlighting both your strengths and weaknesses.

My business, Actinic has a long running community of designers, developers, implementers and retailers that was established in 2002 and has over 10,000 members. However, setting up and running a community isn’t easy.

1 Set objectives

Before you rush out and start setting up your own community, it’s important to define a mission statement: explain why you are doing this, what’s the objective and what do you want to get out of it.

This is essential: running a successful community is tough work, so having a clear objective that reminds you of your goals as well as measuring the value it adds to your organisation, keeps you grounded.

Creating an online community is like a building project. You provide the bricks and mortar to build the environment, then your members will start living there and become active participants.

2 Finding members

If you are planning to provide a community yourself via a forum or other platform that allows open comment you need to think carefully about how you attract traffic.

Traffic equates to people, and more people means more involvement. Ideas to bring in traffic could be as simple as including details of your community at every ‘touch point’ you have with your customers such as outgoing email signatures, phone messages or literature.

Of course you don’t need to provide the community infrastructure yourself. There are plenty of prebuilt networks out there such as Facebook, LinkedIn or Ning.
If you are planning to build on someone else’s eco-system find out which, and how many of your customers use those environments. Depending on the age and type of your customers, there will be significant differences. Use some of the real-time web searches; join social networks and hunt customers out wherever they may be lurking, and above all take part and establish a presence for your business.

Talk to your customers. If they feel included in the creation of your community there is also a greater chance they will end up being heavily involved.

Communities can turn into ghost towns if the basics of how to attract members are not in place. If you are unsure about starting a community, test the water with a regular blog or corporate Facebook/Twitter account? If you start to get a good level of involvement then it’s a great indicator your customers are ready to talk.

3 You’re the boss

Every community needs leaders; it’s a tough but hugely rewarding job. Good leaders will help set the tone for the rest of the community so it’s vital you get it right. Community leaders need to combine the four Ps:

Participant
Politician
Preacher
Policeman

One idea is to involve key influencers and experts in your sector, maybe as occasional guests. By including people outside your organisation you can help set a level tone as well as making it feel inclusive.

It’s also important you don’t underestimate the effort it takes to run a successful community. Having a few dedicated staff is essential or the community will wither. At Actinic everyone answers questions and volunteers information on the community, from support and development staff all the way to our CEO.

4 Don’t stifle chat

There are some risks in running a community; after all, you cannot control what customers say about you. This risk needs to be assessed in the new world where your customers already have many platforms where they can criticise you. The advantages of running your own community in these circumstances is that you are aware of issues and can post replies. And if people are totally unreasonable, you can censor them, and/or your other customers will often leap to your defence.

However the very point of a community is about empowering your customers to talk. Don’t stifle conversation just because it’s going against you, or exposing a potential weakness with your offering.

5 Have rules

A community also needs a firm set of rules to define what is and isn’t acceptable, e.g. bad language, respect for others or discussing alternative offerings. These rules need to be the cornerstone of the community’s existence as nothing devalues a brand more than your own customers slugging it out on your public space.

We all mess up, but the key is how we react when we do. You need to be honest and open with your community. This is your chance to learn what your customers really think. Listening to comments and engaging with criticism proves you want to be proactive and create better solutions for the benefit of your customers.

Managing the fallout while maintaining freedom of speech is a delicate balancing act, so always make sure that your response is measured.

However, freedom of speech is one thing, a member stepping over the line is another Your community lets you talk and listen to your customers, but if this philosophy is getting derailed by abusive members, you need to take action fast.

Even exclude them if they won’t listen to your requests for moderation.

6 Stick with it

It takes time, commitment and dedication to build a community and to keep it on track.

From my own experience, there’s tremendous value in the many experts that bring knowledge and involvement to the party, but building this up has taken time.

If you and your customers are confident your strategy is correct, make sure you stay the course. Go back to your mission statement, then measure and review things: is your community still achieving its goals?

7 Use the information

Finally, if your community turns out to be anything like ours you will soon have a mine of amazing and insightful information. Ask questions; use the answers to feedback into the rest of your business and always involve the community wherever possible.

We all like to think we have the answers, but as Galton demonstrated the power of many minds usually exceeds that of the few. Building a community of customers is a great way of learning about your business, it’s an empowering process for everyone concerned too.