Got Community?

Looking for the next great social platform? Over the past 10 years, the wave of “must join” social sites has gone from AOL (which peaked at over 30 million members in 2006), Friendster, MySpace, and Orkut to Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and Pinterest. The wave continues and the question arises: what’s next?

The answer is undoubtedly “,” or more precisely “” The next big social site isn’t “out there.” It’s “right here.” The next big social site is your owned community – your support, ideation, and experience-sharing platform that extends and infuses your online presence with social technology. Best of all, it’s all built around your business strategy.

Simply put, your next big social site will connect your core online presence to your customers in a decidedly social context. Take a look at your Facebook and Twitter pages: it’s highly likely that a significant portion of your customer comments on those sites are actually questions that seek advice, an answer, or specific help in addition to simply following or “liking” your brand (marketing) posts. Specific questions require specific answers: sadly, less than 10 percent of consumers say they have heard from a brand representative after requesting contact via social channels like Twitter and Facebook. What would happen if you ran your retail store like that? What if you answered every 10th customer service call? It sounds crazy, but that’s exactly what too many brands are doing on the social web. #FAIL.

As a marketing channel, social has a solid role. Brands have flocked to Facebook, and for good reason: with a billion+ members, your customers are there. Same for Twitter. So sure, there is quite definitely a role for the big social sites in your overall strategy. But consider what these big sites were built for, and how they got big: they are useful. Both Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey have made this point: Facebook and Twitter are thriving because they provide value to their members. The sites are utilities in this sense, and they attract a following because of that. Of relevance to your marketing program, this utility value is most clearly associated with acquisition. It’s not surprising then that the primary interaction between customers and brands on Facebook is marketing, not genuine customer engagement. That’s a missed opportunity: 40 percent of consumers say they want more engagement from brands online.

As a true engagement channel, customer care is vastly more impactful in making an impression than your social or traditional marketing efforts. Want proof? Consider this: only 2 percent of fans return to a Facebook business page a second time, and less than 1 percent of fans actually mention the brand by name on Facebook. Compare that with the conversational nature associated with posts expressing a specific, actionable request: when the brand engages the likelihood of both a return visit and a favorable mention climb. Add it all up and it’s clear: Facebook and Twitter may be – in fact, should be – part of your social marketing strategy. But by themselves, the use of these channels exclusively just isn’t enough: your strategy needs to bigger than marketing, a point at the center of my column back in 2011.

Own It; Don’t Outsource It

The contemporary social marketing program is built around multiple points of acquisition, including the social outposts like Facebook, Google+, and Twitter; content sharing sites like YouTube and Flickr; and the independent support forums and blogs where your brand, product, or service is discussed. But the savvy brand managers know a secret: if you don’t own it, you can’t manage it. In fact, if you don’t own it, it will manage you! Think about it: move your entire engagement program to properties with an advertising basis as their financial underpinning and two things are guaranteed to happen: first, you’ll help make these properties successful, and second, based on the first, they’ll charge you to advertise!

Again, this is not to say that you shouldn’t utilize the social properties that are important to your business. You should. And at some point you should expect to pay for the value they provide: think of it as a neighborhood improvement program. Seriously, the better these properties are at attracting and retaining members, the more effective your acquisition strategies will be. That’s the value they bring, and a healthy ecosystem built around social utility benefits everyone.

But beyond the non-owned properties, what’s your strategy for owned engagement? What are you doing to replace the personal relationships that used to drive loyalty that we now operate in a 24/7 digital economy? How are you building true brand advocates, the kinds of customers that will readily recommend you, by name (think NPS here), and who will come to your defense when a crisis strikes? Where is that in your strategy?

The savvy brand builds its online presence around its core website, a place where customers can reliably get information about the company itself. To support customers (to provide help, answer questions, offer guidance, and spur innovation), a social community is infused directly into that core site. The result is the creation of a branded, owned center of interaction; a place where customer experience can be managed, nurtured, and developed into a powerful force for brand advocacy. Around that nucleus sit the connections to the social outposts. Questions flow from outposts into the support centers, and customers are invited into the branded (owned) components where answers are found, and where the ideas that drive future innovation are welcomed, discussed, and acted on ultimately by the brand’s product development teams. The stories around these experiences travel back to the outposts where “mass socialization” drives both participation and value for the outposts, and spreads the advocacy message about your brand, amplifying your marketing efforts.

As you build your social media program in 2013, consider that your strategy needs to be bigger than marketing, that you need to be building a team that spans your organization, and that you need a community-infused nucleus (aka your social website) that sits at the center of your social technology roadmap. Take a breath, stop chasing what’s new, and focus on what works.

Community image on home page via Shutterstock.

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