Building effective, valuable social communities

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While social media marketing is growing, it's still an area with low expectations and results for many b-to-b organizations. Of the more than 225 b-to-b marketing organizations that took our Social Media Opportunity Diagnostic, a best-practice tool for identifying the social media activities that have the greatest ROI for companies, only 16% considered their investments even somewhat effective. So how can b-to-b marketers find value in the social space? Our data suggest that companies should focus on a select number of channels that map directly to customer work flows and pain points, as well as emphasize an organization's unique differentiators. These criteria have led a growing number of marketers to consider peer-to-peer communities to help customers get the job done, while emphasizing the supplier's unique attributes. According to our recent analysis, about 15% of the top 100 b-to-b companies have set up clearly defined user communities. Leveraging insights of the organizations we work with, we've developed a set of guidelines to support effective user forum investments: • Evaluate your organization's social maturity. A marketing organization's involvement in a user community project should be based on its overall organizational maturity in the social media space. When assessing maturity, companies should consider:
  1. Is ownership of social media at the organization cross-functional?
  2. How thoroughly have social media procedures or policies been implemented?
  3. Is social used in a number of activities, such as marcom planning, crisis resolution or customer service?
Your answers will help determine whether you should be listening to conversations to drive insight, participating in third-party conversations or moderating your own community. • Size your potential audience. Approximately 90% of your community will “lurk,” consuming your community's content without contributing. A further 9% will contribute to conversations, and only 1% will actively create content. This rule suggests that the key to content creation and dissemination in user communities is finding a large constituency of users. If your business operates in a niche vertical, you'll face a tough road in building that constituency. • Determine the criteria for success. Too much focus on demonstrating in-year financial ROI can stall new channel investments. Social media programs are more suitable to “return on objective” metrics than quantifiable ROI calculations. We recommend linking effectiveness measurements to “bridge metrics,” indicators of customer behavior that can in turn be linked to financial metrics. For instance, Marketing Leadership Council data show that communication of a supplier's unique benefits is a driver of customer loyalty and intent to repurchase. So a user forum marketing program designed to raise awareness about a company's differentiators should be measured against its effectiveness at doing just that, rather than attempting to make a direct link to financial metrics. • Choose the right kind of community. Sociologists Jean Lave and Etienne Wegner identified two kinds of online communities: communities of practice, which focus on the challenges of specific jobs or fields, and communities of interest, which address personal interests in areas cutting across professions or products. Both are viable b-to-b solutions, but each community should be approached differently. A user community of practice can be built using a “jobs and outcomes” approach. For instance, one company we worked with discovered that one of its customer audiences was actively seeking online peer advice regarding specific work-related tasks. After mapping customer work flow, this company built a user forum addressing underserved needs that were critical to its audience's jobs but weren't yet integrated in competitors' communication strategies. A community of interest is more suitable to advancing professional thought leadership for its members. Our data suggest that buyers concerned with thought leadership are more confident in their selection of a particular product if the suppliers' thought leadership messages address considerations that are important to them, such as knowledge transfer and innovation opportunities. Building an online community is clearly not for every organization. But for good candidates, communities built according to the considerations above are among the highest returns on investment the marketing function can make. Patrick Spenner is managing director of the Corporate Executive Board (, a research and advisory services company based in Washington D.C., and is a researcher with the board's Marketing Leadership Council. He can be reached at [email protected]
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