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Introduction to Online Communities

Lasting Value of Customer Membership and Buzz

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Introduction

Much like your neighborhood, the buzz on the block gets livelier or not, depending on the time of year, holidays, school vacations, and so on.

Online communities operate in a similar way. For those of you not familiar, online communities are largely cooperative systems for peole to share ideas, resources, and common interests. Online communities originated in 1985 with the 'Whole Earth Lectronic Link', a pioneering social network and conversation site that is now the Well.

Twenty years later, Clay Shaw, Adjunct Professor, Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York University, says the costs of groups communicating with each other has 'fallen through the floor'. But in his speech at a Ted conference, Shaw suggested that building these costs into the communications infrastructure can create lasting value.

Can the buzz within online communities hold the attention of enough people to make the online community experience worthwhile, in terms of business expense and outcomes, including customer benefits?

For customers, free membership is valued added. In addition, the opportunity to engage in company sponsored community forums can help the members seek out advanced ideas and discussions.

The general target market for online community engagement will involve gathering customers, employees, supply chain partners and distributors, professional groups, hobbyists, or all of the above. Companies that put up an online community will have a team of content curators and moderators to help educate usage and moderate for general public content--and this takes time to create that lasting value.

Customer Needs Not Met

Lean staffing in recent years and the adoption of automated technologies has led to self-serve product support and community learning. Online communities have become the company's network extension to provide customer support resources and a place to nurture relationships.

These social networking-like communities are fed healthy online resources through community staff and its members to satisfy product usability issues as well as the intrinsic benefit of developing new connections. For distributors in a company's supply chain, an online community may serve as a way to collect the latest information from the company and people they trust who enrich this community with buzz.

Types of Customer Online Communities

What can an online community do for your organization? Here are several external types of online communities that have been quite successful and a brief mention of the technologies used to build them.

Knowledge Sharing Customer Forum

NetApp, Inc.
© NetApp, Inc. Used with permission.

NetApp, Inc., a leading network storage and data management solutions company offers an online community forum for customers and distributors as a place to extend product knowledge and host peer conversations. In over four years, the community has attracted 100,000 members and has a 60% returning visitor rate.

These numbers signify a healthy operating community based on the ratio of returning visitors, customer loyalty, and contributed sales of NetApp products. The NetApp Online Community Forum is built on Jive Software.

Open Learning User Network

© Autodesk. Used with permission.

Autodesk, Inc., a leader in 3D design software and services, leverages various point-to-point user integration designed for open learning. Autodesk has well established user groups and a loyal customer base that comprise its main focus. Autodesk also saw the advantage to tie in learning resources directly from the software products when a user looks up online help. And getting to know new professional architects, engineers, and designers and how work is performed can be valuable lessons for future product needs.

Autodesk's open learning network boasts 2.3 million unique visitors in its first year, and a 53% return visitor rate, which is expected to grow over time. The online community is built on Mindtouch technology and developed in 14 different languages.

Consumer Product Engagement and Loyalty

King Arthur Flour. Used with permission.

King Arthur Flour has been around for a couple hundred years but focused on web-based consumer engagement beginning in 1996. The online community grew out of universal interests in home baking and cooking. In later years, the community became the one stop members with similar interests could also share stories about loved ones and other interests.

Receiving one million monthly visitors, King Arthur Flour regularly collects community feedback to reckon where new products and marketing efforts could be directed to. The online community is built on Drupal open source technology.

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