By now, all businesses -- both large and small -- realize the importance of having a social strategy.


In this day and age, it’s hard to find a successful company that doesn't have a Facebook or Twitter page to reach and engage customers. Yet just a few years ago, businesses needed to be convinced of social media’s value.

What many companies still fail to realize today is that having a Facebook or Twitter page is not a holistic approach to social, and basing your company’s entire social strategy around cyclical, third-party social networks is not an effective strategy. 

So, how can your business leverage social to go far beyond acquiring Likes and Tweets? The answer lies in customer communities.

Customer communities can be described as the social generation’s online forum, which companies can host to provide their customers and prospects with a centralized place to ask product and service related questions, find answers, share feedback and recommendations, and offer company praise -- all within a community singularly focused on a business’s products and services.

Many businesses host their own customer communities because they realize the improved experience these communities provide to customers and prospects. But most companies are failing to realize the full potential of customer communities for their businesses.

Below are the top five business benefits you should be getting from your customer community and the KPIs you should be measuring to assess whether or not your community is delivering business value.

1. Scale Support

All businesses have finite resources; the smaller the business, the more limited the resources. Customer communities can help companies scale customer support, reduce tickets, increase response time and decrease related costs by serving as the primary support network. Within the online community, customers and prospects can ask questions and get answers from fellow customers or from the social knowledge base generated by the community.

You can gauge the effectiveness of your customer community as it relates to your support team by comparing the number of inbound support tickets to the number of peer-to-peer requests within the customer community.

An effective customer community will result in an inverse relationship between the number of inbound support tickets -- which should consistently decrease -- and the number of peer-to-peer requests -- which should consistently increase -- saving your company valuable resources while improving the customer experience. Live streaming video provider Ustream used its customer community to reduce support tickets by 55 percent.

2. Fuel Product Ideas

Customer communities are valuable support networks, but they are also goldmines for market intelligence that can inform product teams and fuel product innovation with ideas and suggestions about how to improve your products. For example, TechSmith -- a software company that helps users capture screenshots and recordings -- has received more than 1,200 product ideas generated from their customer communities, while other companies like athenahealth -- a company that designs software for medical providers -- uses their private community to get product feedback from doctors and other medical providers.

A simple way to gauge the effectiveness of your customer community as it relates to your product team is to monitor the number of viable and innovative product ideas your customer community is generating as compared to your product team, or feedback on beta testing of your new products.

3. Generate Customer Word of Mouth (WOM) Content

Studies show that consumers look to their peers for product and service recommendations and reviews. WOM content is, therefore, one of the most powerful, scalable and cost effective forms of promoting your business. And unlike more aggressive outbound marketing campaigns that are often filtered out through email spam filters or caller-ID in the case of cold calls, consumers trust and even seek out feedback and referrals from within the community before they make purchases.

It’s easy to tell how effective your customer community is in generating authentic WOM. You simply have to tap into your community’s customer generated content and pull out company, product or service praise generated by brand advocates. This authentic content can then be used as peer-to-peer marketing content throughout your entire website -- from your home page, where you can publish general company praise, to your product listing pages, for individual product reviews and recommendations.

4. Improve SEO, Increase Traffic and User Growth Rates

While it’s great to have happy customers and prospects discussing your products and services on Twitter and Facebook, why not make it easy for them to have the same conversations on your own site to improve SEO and traffic?

While keyword rich conversations on social media sites are neither permanent nor indexed by search engines like Google, the conversations in your community are indexed and highly discoverable, in turn improving SEO and organically driving customers and prospects to your site. This content can also transform into a knowledge base for customers and prospects.

So, how can you measure the effectiveness of your customer community in driving SEO, traffic and user growth rates? Leveraging this content on your site will drive organic traffic through natural Google and Bing searches, so you should start seeing an increase in natural traffic to your site, which can be found using tools like Google Analytics. Once you start seeing an increase in traffic, your engaging customer community will serve as a tool to help convert traffic into satisfied customers.

5. Drive Leads and Sales

Customer communities can also play an important role in driving targeted leads by helping sales teams identify prospects from among the community who are asking questions about your company’s products and services, or looking for recommendations around your company’s offerings. By connecting these prospects to your customers you can leverage the voice of your customers to convert prospects into customers.

You can measure how effective your customer community is in generating targeted leads by analyzing the percent of sales conversions done from a typical sample and comparing that to the percent of conversions done from targeted leads from among the customer community.

Image courtesy of Ivelin Radkov (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: Interested in reading more on this month's focus? Read more takes on customer communities.