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Building a Listening Post Online For Customers

Posted By Sherri Dorfman, CEO Stepping Stone Partners, Monday, September 07, 2009
“We have a fear of not being relevant any more to our customers. Three months ago, we set up an online community to listen and leverage customer insight in our product design and in our marketing strategies. We need to better understand the patient experience in order to drive innovation”, explains the VP of Marketing for a healthcare technology company.

Now, more than ever, companies are feeling the need to stay aligned with their customer’s evolving needs. In their book Groundswell, Forrester Research shares many examples of companies using online communities to listen to customers discuss their products and engage them for more information. Businesses use their online communities to harness the “collective wisdom” which guides their strategic and tactical product and marketing decisions. In the process of co-creating with the customers, companies build and strengthen customer relationships and business.

What are private online customer communities?

These “invitation only” communities are secure online areas where customers collaborate with other customers and the company hosting the community. Customers are selected and recruited to join the community to play a role in co-creating on the product roadmap, discussing business trends and issues and providing ongoing feedback on the company’s and competitors’ marketing activities. When these community members log in to participate, they are given access to online discussions, polls, surveys as well as live and archived interactive activities. If done right, these customers have been invited to join a Customer Advisory Community with clear guidelines and expectations around participation.

What is the value proposition to a company for an online community?

Companies are realizing the many benefits of utilizing the communities to engage their customers in a cost effective and efficient way. Unlike focus groups with a limited number participants for a two -hour timeframe, businesses can gather insight from several hundred or thousand customers faster, throughout the world and on a 24x7 basis.

Senior management also invests in an online community initiative to bridge their many different customer advocacy projects that are currently taking place in different silos within their company. With a customer community, management can centralize and coordinate touches to different segments of their customer base and truly leverage their customer asset.

“With limited resources internally (people and budget), we tap our online community to
invite customers to special company events in their area, choose customers for our Customer Advisory Board(s), select customers to present at an upcoming user conference and to join our Customer Reference Program”, shares an SVP of Marketing for an IT storage company.

Typically, companies are gaining valuable insight from their communities in two key areas:
product and marketing.

  1. Product Innovation: Businesses are turning to their communities for “insight on demand” throughout their product development process, from concept through definition and validation.

    “For the past 3 years, we have used our community as our advisory board. Within the community, we have separate areas set up for each of our key product areas enabling our product team to interact with customers and our customers to find others like them. Recently, we gathered feedback on a new reporting tool and learned which metrics needed to be incorporated in our next product release”, describes a VP of Product Development at a financial services company.

    A technology company uses their community to extend their current Customer Advisory Board Program. “Our Executive (Customer) Advisory Board (EAB) has a special area within our online community where EAB members can continue their conversation between (face-to-face) meetings. Since we share our long term product roadmap with them, we provide them with a secure special area. These customers share information on emerging trends, access meeting notes, vote on business priorities and provide input to upcoming EAB meeting agendas. Since they are more senior, we understand that these customers participate less frequently than our general community members but in a more meaningful way for them”.

  2. Marketing Innovation: Companies are collaborating with their customer communities on the development of marketing messaging for their website, email and social media channels as well as their conference and corporate marketing materials. Online communities are an excellent place to capture the voice as well as the words of the customer.

    “We just used our community to get feedback on a video clip about our newest product to make sure it clearly describes and accurately positions our product tot resonate with our customers”, explains the Community Manager for a Saas technology firm.

    “Last month, we put a survey and discussion into our community to explore ways to strengthen our customer loyalty program. We were surprised to learn about new benefits to add value to our program and feedback about current benefits which were no longer of interest. We have started to phase out these benefits from our program which is a cost savings for us” mentions a Director of Marketing of a financial services institution.

What is the value proposition to customers for participating in an online community?

Customers find value participating in the online community for many of the same reasons as they do for joining a Customer Advisory Program. However, an online community offers the added benefit of enabling customers to connect with other customers as well as with a group of customers who share their same interests such as an emerging industry or business trend.

Customers choose to participate in an online community to have:
  • Input to Products

    “As a healthcare company, we have very specific needs for analytic software. With this online community, we have an opportunity to have direct input into new products. In the online discussions, we can surface concerns and discuss requirements that meet our unique product needs”.

  • Access & Interaction with Company Management

    “Since we spend a large share our technology infrastructure budget with this company, we want to influence their product direction. Through their online community, we can describe our ideas which are shared with management. I really like it when their management comments on our ideas and informs us of any changes in business priorities that will impact their product release. It’s like we are on the inside”.

  • Ability to Connect with Other Companies

    “We are looking to purchase another product from this company. Before we joined their online community, we had to contact others that we met at their customer conference. As a member of the online community, I can just search for customers with a specific product and connect with them to learn more about their implementation experiences. This helps me make the product decision quicker while giving my team the heads up to put needed processes in place for a successful implementation”.

Getting Started- Easy as 1, 2, 3
  • Step 1: Community Planning

    As a first step, companies often gather interested internal stakeholders into a conference room to begin to determine potential objectives for their community. This meeting can be facilitated by an experienced Community Consultant to discuss the potential goals of the community, share best practices and examples from other communities and help connect and align business needs from different departments. After the meeting, the Consultant can deliver a Community Plan which incorporates key business initiatives, a calendar of community activities (i.e. online surveys, discussion forum topics, polls, etc), recruitment and engagement strategies, an implementation timeline, and success measurements.

    “Our management seemed to think that we were done the hardest part when we launched our community. After many discussions, they are realizing that the community requires continuous nurturing and feeding to motivate customers to participate. I am constantly identifying new content and activities to put into the community when I meet with my community team members”, emphasizes a community manager from a software firm.

    Another key part of the Community Plan is the technology selection and staging. Once the community objectives are defined, the community team can start identifying and evaluating different technology options. Some community platforms are better suited to connect customers for social media objectives. While other community platforms are stronger for research and innovation objectives with built in brainstorming capabilities. These platforms enable customers to contribute their own ideas as well as extend and rate the ideas of others. Since all community platforms are not the same, it is important to begin and let the business objectives drive the technology selection. Often times, companies choose to stage the technology capabilities instead of turning everything on when the community is launched.

    The most successful communities collaborate with their customers on the design (i.e. look, feel, placement), capabilities and content before building their communities.

  • Step 2: Community Processes

    While the community is being developed, it is essential to put processes in place to keep the community vibrant and sustainable. This entails defining the roles and responsibilities for how the internal stakeholders will support the community. Who will create content for the community? Who will manage the content calendar? How will user generated content be used?

    “Once the other customer facing departments started to learn more about what our customers were saying in our community, they began knocking on my door to see how they can use it for their own business needs. This was exciting but also scary for me because I had not thought through how we were going to extend our community and I was concerned that I would lose control without a detailed Community Plan”, explains the community manager for a marketing software company.

    The community team also needs to devise external processes such as ongoing communications with the community members. Many companies create an enewsletter to inform their members and bring them back to the community. Who will send out this information? Who will manage the calendar for ongoing member communications?

  • Step 3: Community Evaluation

    Although companies actively monitor their communities, they need to take a step back on a regular basis to evaluate how the community is supporting their business objectives. One common mistake that businesses make is that they are overly focused on the community metrics. There is tremendous insight hidden within the user/member generated content which can be mined to uncover emerging customer needs.

    “Each quarter, our team meets to evaluate the success of our community. The community metrics tell us how we are doing but the insight tells us what we can do. As part of this evaluation, we refine our plan with upcoming discussions and surveys to further define these opportunities for our company”.


Since businesses view customer communities as a competitive advantage, management is often pushing for their community to be built as quickly as possible. Management’s interest in speed prevents the team from thinking through the value proposition for both their company and the community members in order to meet their business objectives.

When companies go through the discipline of creating a Community Plan and putting needed processes in place both internally and externally with their customers, they succeed in making their community not only compelling to their members but also an effective business tool for their marketing and product departments. The Community Evaluation will give management a clear idea about the health of the community as well as the insight to guide business and community related decisions.

By leveraging their community to engage customers in new revenue opportunities, surface cost savings ideas and build customer relationships, companies will profit from their community investment.

Sherri Dorfman is the founder and Chief Customer Ambassador atStepping Stone Partners, a consulting firm that helps companies make the right investment in products, services and programs that drive revenue.She offers a Customer Advisory Council Workshop to guide companies in defining or refining their Advisory Program incorporating best practices. Learn more by contacting Sherri at or visit .

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