Three Reasons Why Contribution > Community

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I hear the word "community" from many marketing managers these days. I hear it so often it would seem every business should strive to have a community. As if community is becoming a common business objective or goal.

While the concept of community — and assumed relationship to WOM and customer loyalty — is attractive, the realized business impact of community is a far reach for most companies.

I launched a community of baby boomers back in '97. Chat and forums made Thirdage.com a community, but even within these environments, unpredictable sub-communities around topics of passion formed. That's when I realized that a community has to be founded on common interests, passions and goals.

A company can create a thread of passion and community where one seemingly does not exist. Fiskars created a community around scrap bookers. Makers Mark created an effective "Ambassador" community for their bourbon whiskey that other liquor companies covet. However, as worthwhile as these communities are, I assert the vast majority of their customers  neither heard of, nor participated in, nor heard from members from these communities.

As such, you have to ask yourself questions before venturing into a community. How strong can your brand or products yield community? And then, how will the mechanics of that community yield significant business results? Will participation be high, or is it ok with you to host a nice online place for 500 of your most loyal customers to become members, in which only 20 participate regularly? How close is the behavior of that community to the needs of prospects for your company?

Facebook is a community or a container for communities. Three years ago it was closed to university students only, and I was managing Dell's higher ed marketing. Facebook sales execs came in to sell me advertising, and they explained the primary activity was a guy trying to 'connect with' a girl in class through profile matching. I asked myself, and then asked them, "How does that activity align with the search and need for computing technology?"

In my opinion, for most businesses there is far greater opportunity for business impact by facilitating and amplifying mere customer contributions. Participation at some level by a user, visitor or customer is a worthy goal, and likely to yield far greater impact than a lightly treaded community.

Here are three reasons why contribution > community…

  1. Contribution = volume. Ask yourself, is the # of contributions you've made across many sites greater than the number of online communities / networks you're actively involved with? Most customers, visitors and users are busy…like you and me. Most visitors are not going to 'get involved' in another community or social network. But, you can get many to simply interact and post something. Bazaarvoice has clients with up to 40% of customers posting reviews. The sum value of these small contributions is greater than the handful of in depth community conversations. The volume of useful content, data, and action [see "commitment" next] becomes your new marketing working capital [see "asset" below].
  2. Contribution = commitment. Even if contribution is a onetime event, that is worth something. Commitment is a foundational principle of influence. Get someone to say "yes" in a sales call and they're likely to say yes to the next question. Get someone to sign a petition, and they're likely to volunteer at the next asking. If you get someone to contribute content to your site, you get them involved. The customer that leaves a piece of content with the intent to help your company or others has made himself unconsciously committed.  And you have the opportunity to lead them to another action.
  3. Contributions = usable marketing assets. A review, an answer, a story… These types of contribution — unlike unbridled comments and forum posts — are reverse-engineered to be useful to the majority of prospects and customers who are not contributing. These contributions (a.k.a. user generated content) will be your most powerful marketing asset that can be used over and over again throughout multi-channel marketing programs. SEO, email copy, top rated merchandising, common questions, customer service training, catalog copy, advertising campaigns, and so on. Remember this tongue twister: A community of conversation commentary does not lead to conversion. But crafted contributions can create credibility.

I'm not suggesting online communities are futile or irrelevant. The community generated the majority of page views at ThirdAge.com. Dell Support forum, which I managed for nearly a year, is the foundation for Dell's online support efficacy. And I could argue that many contributions of product reviews have generated a sense of community among thousands of customers on PETCO, JTV and QVC. However, many "forum/blog/wiki/comment" company communities are marginal. So do this simple conceptual equation to evaluate the opportunity of impact of community for your brand:

  • The passion associated with your brand or product
  • X need / utility of customers connecting with customers
  • X likelihood of contribution / interaction volume (both % of customers and number of interactions)
  • X usefulness of community content to transactional prospects and customers (non participants)
  • X saliency and amplification of community content used in marketing programs

Alternatively consider how to facillitate transactional and structured contributions from your customers in ways that are relevant, salient and impactful to your prospects and your company.

8 Responses

  1. Spike says:

    Good food for thought, Sam.
    But I feel I need to point out the differences between Brains on Fire communities and the others out there that you are referring to.
    We don’t help ignite one unless there is an opportunity. And we don’t open it up to the world. We look for deep relationships instead of vast amounts of “joiners.” There’s even barriers of entry to join the communities, therefore determining commitment. This results in very high percentages of active participants.
    Have the vast majority of Fiskars customers heard of the Fiskateers? Not yet. And there’s more everyday. That’s the beauty of a long-term word of mouth movement. It starts small, and grows. These passionate fans are the ones bringing new customers to the brand because they are given the online and offline tools they’ve asked for and been empowered in a way that allows them ownership to invite others to experience something that has made a difference in their lives.
    And that’s another point: done in an authentic way, communities can change lives – and sales is a byproduct of that. Here’s just a very small taste:
    http://www.fiskateers.com/community/topic/10902
    I believe another point is that we don’t put all of our eggs in the online basket. Ninety-two percent of WOM happens OFFLINE, and those that create communities or feedback loops that are only online are foolish to do so. How a community is connected offline is critical to the success of that program.
    And the last point is the ROI on community. Customer feedback is just one small part of the benefits of a long-term word of mouth movement. Just one. There are so many others. Sure, we were able to see how sales doubled in certain cities where we concentrated our efforts, but it also changed the culture of a company. It gave people pride in what they do for a living. It elevated and inspired others. And it brought new customers to the brand in ways that feedback loops can’t touch.
    In essence, communities provide the architecture that contribution lives in. And then amplifies it.

  2. Josh Neumann says:

    Nice points. I completely agree, the word “community” is thrown around a lot, but if it doesn’t result in $$, who cares?

  3. Kevin Dugan says:

    Nearly silly, semantic question for you…do you consider contribution the same as participation? Starting to see people differentiate and I am not sure of the difference.
    I agree that community is one buzzword that is starting to lose value from over/mis-use. In addition to contributing, I think facillitating your customers contributions is also wise. This means less – BUILD A SITE ASKING FOR CGM. It means more, planting a flag on sites like YouTube, Flickr and Facebook so customers can find you and engage at their own speed/preference.
    Good stuff. Thanks!

  4. Rachael says:

    Thanks for the information…I bookmarked your site, and I appreciate your time and effort to make your blog a success!

  5. Sam Decker says:

    Rachael…I think contribution is different than participation. Contribution says to me they left something behind. Participation could be very general, and there are things that a person can participate in, but leave nothing for others to read or use. Like playing a game would be participation, but they didn’t contribute anything.
    Spike…Fiskateers is a great success. I think my point is your last two paragraphs. I agree the community is one of many things that play in an ecosystem of word of mouth. My point is that if you focus on how you can leverage contributions beyond the one campaign, channel, or community, the better the ROI.

  6. Ed Barrett says:

    Excellent points all. As your dell/ facebook example so nicely illustrates, if a certain activity is not correlated to prospects who are in the market intending to either buy or investigate a product – who cares???? It is a complete waste of money for marketers looking for a ROI. Frankly, I openly question now, and have for years, the viability of the current facebook value prop. This makes me a marketing heretic – I know – but I’ve been around since the rise and fall of Prodigy (etc) and have seen lots of well intended and over-hyped activities die on the vine. Facebook (in its current iteration) is next.

  7. Hi Sam,
    A thought provoking post. But you’re not comparing like with like. You’ve tried to answer a “chicken or the egg?” question without realising that the question is at fault.
    It is the sense of community that enables contributions. And a community is nothing without contributions. Neither the chicken nor the egg comes first, both evolved in iteration dependent upon one another.
    These two things are not (as your post suggests) mutually exclusive or one good, one bad. In fact they are the wholly reliant upon one another. Your post suggests a false dichotomy when the reality is mutual independency.
    http://Bazaarvoice.com is great at providing retailers with the infrastructre to capture contributions, however it’s the very sense of community spirit that encourages people to pass on their experiences and motivates them to make a contribution.
    At http://www.freshnetworks.com when we advise firms to create a sense of community it’s specifically because community can lead to contributions. I agree with you that community for it’s own sake would be a waste of time.
    So forget
    Contribution > Community
    all we can say for sure is
    Contribution = f(Community)
    i.e. contribution is a function of community and vice versa.

  8. Charlie says:

    Hi Sam,
    A thought provoking post. But you’re not comparing like with like. You’ve tried to answer a “chicken or the egg?” question without realising that the question is at fault.
    It is the sense of community that enables contributions. And a community is nothing without contributions. Neither the chicken nor the egg comes first, both evolved in iteration dependent upon one another.
    These two things are not (as your post suggests) mutually exclusive or one good, one bad. In fact they are the wholly reliant upon one another. Your post suggests a false dichotomy when the reality is mutual independency.
    http://Bazaarvoice.com is great at providing retailers with the infrastructre to capture contributions, however it’s the very sense of community spirit that encourages people to pass on their experiences and motivates them to make a contribution.
    At http://www.freshnetworks.com when we advise firms to create a sense of community it’s specifically because community can lead to contributions. I agree with you that community for it’s own sake would be a waste of time.
    So forget
    Contribution > Community
    all we can say for sure is
    Contribution = f(Community)
    i.e. contribution is a function of community and vice versa.

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