Creating Connections via Communities

Despite the many ways we welcome technology that physically separates us (telecommuting, teleconferences, teleporting - it is really a thing now), we still want to connect with people.

We seek connections with others to confirm or challenge our understanding of a topic, establish a network we can reach out to as needed, and lend our assistance or expertise to feel positively about ourselves personally and professionally. With so much of our daily lives happening in separation behind a computer screen (e.g., learning, mingling, shopping, working), it is becoming more important than ever to remember connections matter in every foreseeable situation. The challenge for companies now is creating online channels to mimic a sense of community when people do not share the same physical space.
Whether it is with our prospects or with our peers, thriving communities can connect enterprises with internal and external advocates who crave access to information for better decision-making for involved debates about brand strategy, for instance, and solving routine questions like which product or service to buy. In fact, a SAP-commissioned report from Forrester found that 75 percent of companies believe communities accelerate buying decisions, increase purchase likelihood (73 percent) and improve buyer confidence (59 percent). Similarly, 66 percent of companies surveyed expect to increase purchase satisfaction by using communities to help inform purchases.

The question enterprises themselves need to ask is how can they encourage and support genuine digital connections. The answer, however, depends on who is asked. Personalization providers may say what is needed to form online connections is a digital experience that remembers a person based on behaviors or demographics while collaboration software companies may say what is needed is a transparent view of a company from top-down while others may say connections can only be formed when people are rewarded for being involved.

In this month's feature of Website Magazine, we will explore some of those answers and their degree of truth, of course, but we will also take a look at the role empowered community members have on an enterprise's bottom line and how to support members in meaningful ways. First, let's look at a few examples of what communities look like today - focusing on B2B and B2C.

daisyAre Communities the Future of Work?
"Creating an atmosphere of knowledge sharing and communication across an organization is key to both business and individual employee success and the ability to get work done. If departments try to operate in a silo and do not break down informational barriers, this creates an environment where departments and teams are not working toward the same complementary goals and are therefore not aligned with the overall company's objectives."

" Daisy Hernandez, Global VP, Product Management at SAP Jam

Online communities can take many forms, from user-created groups on social media sites like Facebook and LinkedIn to those a company hosts on its website or a third-party platform. Successful communities typically share some common trait among its members (e.g., characteristics, goals or interests) and have an owner who is actively encouraging connections. There are many high-functioning, public-facing communities active today, some of which you may have already discovered:

+ Communities for software companies like BigCommerce (below), Magento and Moz to better support customers in their current or potential initiative and investment.
+ Communities for commerce brands like LEGO and Sony (below) to answer questions about product use and share ideas.
+ Communities for publishers like BabyCenter and PopSugar to provide personal stories and learn from each other.
It is not enough to acknowledge the benefits of what an online community could bring, however, but rather focus spending time on what it needs to provide in terms of benefits to the enterprise. The whole digital industry could do better. CMX and Leader Networks reported last year, for example, when launching a branded online community 56 of surveyed marketing and community professionals found it important to determine a business need, 45 percent relied on executive support and 39 percent built a business case.

Once deciding to launch a community, the specific type of community will then need to be addressed, which is seemingly more difficult by the day. One of the top trends Zendesk Senior Community Manager Nicole Relyea is noticing within communities is diversification.

"We are seeing a lot of diversification around types of communities and where they are hosted," said Relyea. "Instead of just online forums or Facebook groups, we are starting to see communities shift to Slack or to subscription-based models, and there is increasingly a blurring of the lines between content and community."

What Relyea is suggesting is that while the content that goes into that community is undeniably important, so is how and where a community is hosted and how it is managed.

Customers and even employees do not want to experience any friction when trying to interact with a community whether it is for the first time or the five hundredth time. There are questions to answer when creating an online community: will it be on a company's website as a subdomain, will it be a standalone site, will it be on a social media platform or will it be on a third-party vendor's site?

The reason a company might choose to support a community natively on their own website is to benefit from the extra time users spend interacting on the community as they can exercise greater control over conversion points. The downfall is that if the site has connection or security issues the community will likely be interrupted as well. Outsourcing the infrastructure may not actually be a negative depending on one's perspective.

Maxim Schram, founder and CEO of online community platform CMNTY, said most customers are perfectly fine with the community being hosted on CMNTY's servers, for example, as they offer a friendly way of integrating a community within a website so audiences are not aware of what is happening on the back-end. Sometimes, however, there is a special need for a community to be hosted on a company's servers versus a vendor's (e.g., compliance issues, company policy, etc.) but typically this has no bearing on what end-users experience. The experts we spoke to unanimously agree, however, the place to create and support a community is not on one individual network alone, like Facebook.

communityReady to Start an Online Community?
It's a big investment, but the rewards of an online community can be vast. Check out this  infographic from CMX to determine your community readiness. 

But First, Facebook
There are many reasons to consider using the largest social media platform's tools for managing a brand's community. This spring, for example, Facebook began testing a way for Page admins to link existing Facebook Groups to their Page or create new ones. Before marketers take advantage of this feature, they should understand the benefits and risks of managing a community on this popular social destination. For those already managing a Facebook Group, by all means link it to the business Page.
For those contemplating creating one, the benefit of investing time in a Facebook Group is to recruit (people already spend much of their time on the social network), visibility (to appear in the social search results) and connectivity (since a Page, where an established audience of devoted "fans" likely already exist, can now be automatically connected to the Group). The downfall of Groups speak to what we at Website Magazine have advised against: building a brand via a third party.

Facebook's goal is two-fold in keeping users on their network and to increase ad sales. Therefore, the chances of people leaving a Facebook Group to visit a company's website (where conversions typically happen still) are slim made even slimmer by Facebook likely, as history has indicated, interfering in some way. Audience management is only one slice of this digital pie. When asked about Facebook Groups and to what benefit still exists to host communities on a brand's owned properties, Relyea of Zendesk told us first and foremost, companies want to own their content.

"Hosting a community on Facebook gives Facebook a lot of control over the content," said Relyea. "If they decide to change how groups work or what kinds of content formats are available, you do not get a say, you just have to adjust. Owning your community means you are not subject to another company's decision-making process, and you can do what works best for your own members. At Zendesk, we have a LinkedIn group and Facebook Page and accounts on Twitter and Snapchat, but the best and most useful interactions happen in our owned community, where we can really structure the conversations and content in the way that works best for our users."

Relyea suggests that hosting their own community also allows for a lot of integration with other parts of a company's website. For Zendesk, for example, customers flow easily between its knowledge base and community, and can have conversations in either place. This makes for a much better customer experience, according to Relyea, than members having to leave Zendesk's knowledge base to go ask a question.

This level of fluidity between a company's owned pages is an agreed-upon best practice by many community managers. BigCommerce told us earlier this year that a single sign-on feature allows its customers to go into the communities section from other parts of the website (like the products area) with one click.

Many enterprises, however, are advised to continue exploring the use of Facebook if their marketing strategy, budgets and capabilities align.

"Facebook Groups can become another addition to the marketing mix, and another way to reach your target audience if it is moderated and managed well," said Daisy Hernandez, global vice president, product management at SAP Jam. "If a business already has a thriving community that integrates tightly with its e-commerce engine or storefront, then Facebook Groups may be best used to promote this existing community or to help direct customers to information in the official (or preferred) community."

Before diverting resources from one channel into a Facebook Group realize that while the rewards of an actively engaged community can be immense, they may still be better met on a platform a brand actually owns and can control with much less interference from a third party with its own interests.

Thriving online communities have more than just members with shared interests. They have users that provide content and encourage users to create it too.

The best communities, says Relyea, make it easy for their members to create, share and find helpful content. The Zendesk community, for instance, has an entire section devoted to member tips where members write and share in-depth information on how to do something like customize an image, set up a workflow or complete another task members could help with.

Community content is as equally important in the business to consumer world too. Hernandez of SAP Jam has noticed that shoppers are holding more value than ever in peer and third-party reviews. Her observations are supported by data from Accenture's "11th Annual Holiday Shopping Survey," which revealed 79 percent of shoppers look at reviews online for peer perspective before hitting buy, so ratings and reviews in the online community can truly make or break website sales.

"Organizations should be encouraging their loyal customers to continually engage with the online community by leaving honest reviews, recommending follow on products and touting the positive experiences they have had," said Hernandez. "Offering this information in a non-branded format will help other shoppers to trust it more, and having an interactive community will encourage others to participate too. Information from peers should be easily accessible in the online community so that customers don't have to go far to find answers to their questions or understand the perspective of their fellow shoppers. Failing to provide this creates a higher possibility of losing a sale."

+ For further reading, check out, "Digital Hand-Holding: The Impact of Communities on Commerce" at

nicoleCommunity Listening
"Many branded communities are refocusing what has traditionally been thought of as ‘product feedback' into more of a ‘collaborative innovation' model - this is something we are working on right now at Zendesk. Rather than just taking requests or ideas from our users as a data point, we're looking to have more in-depth conversations between Zendesk and community members about how they use the products, and what problems need solving. It's a great shift in the way companies think about their relationship to their community, where the users really feel like they are a part of the company and have a stake in its success."

" Nicole Relyea, Senior Community Manager at Zendesk

The management of a community is critical to its success as members will not return if there is no value, the community is not active or discussions do not relate to them.

"Facilitating relationships between your members is also a really key activity, as is recognizing member contributions," said Relyea. "For example, we recently started a ‘shout-outs and gratitude' thread in our community, where users can call out other members or moderators who have been particularly helpful to them."

One long-time staple of online communities has been that of gamification, and while it is still very much in use (e.g., badges, leaderboards) in vendor platforms today, there are other ways to encourage participation. CMNTY users, for example, can leverage push notification features, email marketing, a to-do list widget in the sidebar of a community reminding people of activities they should participate in and dynamic user groups comprised of people who have not been active, for example, in a certain activity like a contest. These notifications speak to just some of the personalization capabilities many online communities can now provide.

+ For a look at 25 ways community managers can drive engagement and interaction, visit

Communities not only have the potential to help people connect with a brand, but also more importantly each other. Connections can pay dividends in the form of people feeling more confident about themselves and the decisions they make. By connecting with like-minded members in online communities, peers can interact in order to share experiences in a genuine way perhaps absent from other channels they frequent.