The Five A's of Successful Customer Communities

Building an effective customer community can drive brand loyalty, reduce customer service costs, and increase profits. Successful customer communities have also generated new product ideas. Starbucks Ideas, for example, led to Splash Sticks, which created brand advocates. Sephora's Boss community fostered community members' collaboration far beyond the brand.

But for every example of a great community success, there are at least twice as many failures. In analyzing the evolving value of customer communities during the past several years, I've found the most successful ones share some common elements. I call them the five A's of successful customer communities.

1. Have an Agenda.

Is your priority to reduce customer service costs through contact deflection, increase customer lifetime value (CLV), or increase brand loyalty and awareness? The answer could be all three, but where your priorities lie will impact your tone, site architecture, technology choices, how you justify your investment, and which analytics you'll want to put in place to track your success.

For example, Lululemon's brand community is focused on helping community members build healthy lifestyles. Although connecting them with free yoga lessons and local trainers and fitness events might not directly drive more purchases, it's a longer-term view of customer experience and engagement. Mattel's Barbie user community, in contrast, is more focused on driving revenue, and its site is as much about e-commerce as it is content.

2. Know your Audience.

In addition to an agenda, you have to know whom you want to reach. Is it your whole customer base or only certain segments? Are your target customer community members of a certain age? Which channels are they most likely to prefer? Which type and length of content, and how much collaboration?

Procter & Gamble's Being Girl community, for example, is designed for teenage girls and takes a big sister tone, providing articles from experts on young women's health issues, a downloadable app, a Youtube channel, and social and community campaigns and Twitter hashtags. It's a community that has evolved over time and clearly knows and engages its audience, but is less dependent on an ongoing stream of fresh content because members are not necessarily long-term. GoPro, not surprisingly, has focused on video for its community, and its competitions, YouTube channel, and pace of content release reflect that.

3. Build Advocates.

Successfully building advocates will ensure you have both an increasing audience and an ongoing source of fresh and authentic content. Given your environment and audience, you'll want to consider the following:

  • How you want to reward advocates. For some (such as in gaming communities), online recognition and "cred" could be enough. For others, discounts, first-in-line access to new products, and free stuff could be more effective.
  • Will you take a farm, recruit, or create strategy? It's likely your initial community efforts will require a blended approach. Whether you choose a farm strategy, where you wait to see which advocates you can encourage to grow organically, a recruit strategy, where you seek subject matter experts and natural brand ambassadors, or a create strategy, where you're the primary provider of content, will depend on the type of brand, its audience, and your company agenda.

4. Be Authentic.

Successful branded community sites have authentic voices. In terms of community, this is not just about being on-brand. While reflecting the brand is important, so is responding to customer comments in an honest and transparent way. Clearly delineating between company and customer-driven content, responding to customer complaints honestly, and being transparent about customer issues and how and when they are resolved are key. Publishing clear policies for which content is and isn't acceptable, guidelines for advocates and aspiring advocates, and explanations for site changes as your site and its content evolves will be important to gaining and keeping community members.

5. Be Agile.

Successful customer communities evolve over time to reflect new social media trends and technologies, changing products and market dynamics, and the changing demands and preferences of their community members. What you plan today—even with the best crystal ball—is likely to change as your community evolves. Whatever you believe your Agenda, Audience, and Advocates are today will evolve as well, and you'll need both flexible technology and a flexible mindset to keep your community relevant and delivering benefits both to your customers and your company.

Rebecca Wettemann is a vice president at Nucleus Research.