What could an online community do for you?

February 2, 2009

Businessfolk do many things well, but for some reason they're not stellar at looking at the world through customers' eyes. They think they're doing that, but in reality they're almost always projecting their own needs, biases and desires onto their customers. I sigh every time I hear some executive blurt out in a meeting, "Well, if I were the customer here ... ."

But he's not. He can't be. He's too close to the company, and his all-consuming need to get the customer to buy inevitably colors his view. That's why there is market research, to tell him the things he doesn't want to hear, to represent the real customer at the corporate table. All too often, marketing is ignored when it tries to present the customer's brief. And sometimes marketing is prey to the same thinking, which is why many company Web sites are pretty, but awful to use.

Nobody asked the customer anything. It's tempting to treat the customer as a passive audience member in his own transaction. That's why customers are often called "consumers," a word that conjures the image of a person standing at the end of the assembly line to passively carry away whatever is sent down to him.

But customers are getting increasingly restive with being treated like that, and new, savvy companies like Amazon are empowering customers to engage with them, giving them a place to write comments and criticisms, and to create lists of their favorites that others can scan. They don't seem to interfere with this process, although some critiques can be scathing. Amazon's includes the customer in the whole process of finding and buying goods. Amazon and its customers are on the same level.

Beyond simple product talk, many companies now have technical support forums online, where their techies hang out and help customers with problems, or let customers help other customers. The whole point is to make the site owner just one more guest at the big Internet table. It reduces the distance between customer and company. It's often referred to as "Web 2.0," where customers add much of the value to your site.

Companies like Amazon make it look easy to create online communities. But when many companies try, they mess it up. In a Nov. 13 column in CIO's online magazine (www.cio.com), Esther Schindler gives six reasons why they fail. I think that most of the reasons, as good as they are, boil down to one thing--lack of faith.

It takes tremendous courage to open a free and easy dialogue with customers and between customers. The company has to become humble and listen, not just dictate. It has to be prepared to hear things it doesn't like. A few of the comments that hit the site will be embarrassing, frustrating or demeaning. Arguments may break out.

The anonymity of the Internet encourages the imbecilic to morph into "trolls," participants who agitate for the fun of making others uncomfortable. Consequently, many companies err so badly on the side of caution that they end up becoming tyrants. They delete posts arbitrarily, lash out at opinions they don't like, and generally treat any posters they don't want around as the enemy.

Any community needs guidelines, and you don't have to tolerate outrageous comments, but the guidelines need to be clear and applied uniformly. Beyond that, let the truth emerge as it will, no matter how frightening it may seem.

There is gold to be mined in online communities, which is why so many companies are tempted to try it. Businesses that are open, honest and helpful 24/7 tend to be trusted, and word-of-mouth can spread. Online communities are fountains of information. Companies that offer online support, for example, get a perfect ringside seat to observe common problems with their products. Customer chatter about product helps marketers gain insights into what customers want. Whereas online surveys of all visitors to a site usually garner an extremely small number of participants, those who frequent the online community may answer in huge numbers, because they have a stake in expressing their opinions. They see the survey as helping them, not just benefiting the company.

Not every company will benefit from having a "Web 2.0" online community. Some products and services don't lend themselves to it. A one-time purchase may not bring customers back to talk about their experiences. Or the product may be so mundane as not to generate discussions. Maybe your customers aren't big Internet users. However, many businesses have been surprised at how quickly their communities have grown. Don't try to build it alone. Get help from a consultant. And expect to phase it in both technologically and culturally. Web 2.0 isn't easy, and it will take some time to absorb.

Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. Listen to his column via podcast at www.ibj.com. He can be reached at timaltom@sbcglobal.net. Find his blog at usabilitynome. blogspot.com.

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