The Digital Marketer

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Collaborating with Customers in Private Digital Spaces

On of the seismic shifts of the digital age is the ability to nurture authentic, collaborative relationships with our customers.  This shift turns the traditional passive and transaction-oriented customer interaction on its head, putting us side by side with our customers, co-shaping, co-marketing, and often co-servicing our brands.  Private digital customer communities can be a highly effective way to develop these collaborative relationships and, as a result, to be able to innovate faster and smarter.

Why private customer communities?  Research conducted by the Michigan Statue University and Communispace on what motivates participation in online brand communities shows that while our customers go to public social spaces, such as Facebook, to hear from brands, they often prefer a private setting to share their thoughts, away from the influence and ears of their friends. (See the Rules of Community Engagement.) To successfully collaborate, many brands are forming private online communities to supplement their public social media presence.

“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, Chairman 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.”

Social communities can also become recommendation engines, sharing information about a company’s products and their way of creating and doing business with others. 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.”

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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.

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.

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“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.”

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:

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

By Lisa Leslie Henderson