Is Your Company Making the Best Use of Online Communities? Here Are Some Examples of Effective Community Leverage.


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From a commercial perspective, we’ve seen the role and effect of community interaction evolve from the general store cracker barrel and sewing circles, to the telephone party line, and office water cooler and coffee break. Innovative companies have, through promotion, electronic and print advertising, and other means, endeavored to leverage interest and action by local and special interest communities by relating to their core beliefs. Until the Internet, and the volume of information and speed of communication it represents around the world, much of this was fairly tactical and situation-based.

Online community represents, arguably, the most attractive and engaging customer experience management (CEM) tool around. Why? Well, to start with, look at a key original intent of the World Wide Web. It was, simply, to facilitate easy and ongoing interaction among people of similar interests. On the Internet, where the opportunities for customer loss occur at warp speed, a recent McKinsey study, ePerformance, found that 98.7% of online visitors do not become repeat customers. Another study determined that most sites will lose 60% of their first-time customers in a six-week period. Until rather recently, many e-commerce companies were ill prepared to counter this.

Consumer Internet participation, and the content they create, continues on the upswing. From the Huba and McConnell “90-9-1” rule of several years ago – where 1% of consumers online contribute content in the form of product and service ratings, blogs, and participation in forums such as Facebook, LinkedIn, and Flickr, 9% comment on that content, and 90% observe what is happening – we are now seeing an estimated 70-20-10, where 10% of consumers who use the Internet, or more are actively submitting content. E-commerce sites, and specialty portals, are leveraging the promise of online community as a viable element of b2b and b2c customer value and experience management. Here are just a few examples, from well-known companies.

Lego for Adults

Bilund, Denmark-based Lego, one of the largest toy companies in the world, began manufacturing interlocking toy bricks in 1949. Since then, a global Lego subculture has developed, with active participation by the company, supporting movies, games, competitions, and six themed amusement parks. As of 2013, around 560 billion Lego parts had been produced.

A vital part of that subculture is a worldwide community known as AFOL, Adult Fans of Lego. There are affiliate groups, such as LUGNUT (Lego Users Group Network) in the U.S., and The Brickish Association, a U.K.-based community of AFOLs.. AFOLs share their hobby passion through community chat, of course, and also show pictures of what they’ve created on portals like Flickr and Facebook. AFOL sponsors BrickCon, national and regional conferences and exhibits, where adult hobbyists can display the innovative constructions they’ve built and also trade for, and purchase, Lego products.

Though Lego doesn’t ‘run’ AFOL; as noted the company is deeply committed to this community and engaged with its activities. For example, Lego trains LCPs, Lego Certified Professionals, individuals who are not employees of the company, but are adult enthusiasts who actively participate in community conversations, attend the events, and provide (paid) counsel and technical advice to AFOL hobbyists.

Harley-Davidson Owners

Though its Harley Owners Group (H.O.G.) clubs had been existence for some time, the company retooled it to be a vital and contributory online brand community: a group of ardent motorcycle consumers, organized around the lifestyle, activities and ethos of the brand Much more than a marketing tool, the community is now a corporate strategy and asset, to support building and maintaining the company product development pipeline, and designing effective engagement and promotional programs.

It has often been noted that Harley owners are the ultimate advocates and bonded customers, not only using the products, but also wearing Harley-Davidson logo gear, and attending brand-related events. In 2014, for example, the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally will take place as it has for the previous 73 years, drawing thousands of motorcyclists and vendors to this small town in the Black Hills of South Dakota, for a celebration of all things Harley.

Over the past 25 years, and enabled by Web 2.0 technologies, the Harley community has been central to the company’s financial turnaround. It serves both the business and Harley owners, by understanding their needs, building deeper relationships, cultivating new interests, and contributing to society.

Overcoming ‘Dell Hell’

In 2005, Dell Computer experienced worldwide negative publicity, when one customer, who had bought what he described as a ‘lemon Dell laptop’, coupled with horrendous service, wrote a blog, which was addressed to Michael Dell, the CEO. The blog, which explained why he would no longer buy the company’s products (“Dell lies. Dell sucks”), caught the attention of print and online mainstream publications, such as BusinessWeek and PC World; but Dell was not paying attention. The company’s customer satisfaction scores tumbled. Among that year’s fiscal results: Dell lost 5% in notebook market share; and profits for the third quarter, when the stories appeared, dropped 28%.

This galvanized Dell into social media action, and in June, 2006, they launched their own blogging and community portal, Direct2Dell, which set up employee-consumer dialogue portal about product and service quality issues, with a team of Dell staffers who monitor comments and reach out to bloggers. As one business reporter noted: “Now, Dell was really listening…and following their customers’ advice.” Dell learned, perhaps the hard way, that community – and the trust and value it creates through interaction – builds or undermines the brand; and its reputation and image belong to customers


Fitbit, a range of wireless-enabled wearable devices that measure personal activity data such as number of steps walked, quality of sleep, elevation (number of floors), etc. comes at the intersection of Internet connectivity and the increased societal focus on health. Importantly, personal data cannot be downloaded off the Fitbit device without paid ‘membership’ to the company web site; but, the ability to see an overview of physical activity, set and track goals, keep food and activity logs, and, as a free service, interact with other Fitbit users.

The Fitbit community, Fitbit Fan-Antics though the FatSecret free site, enables its members to post comments and photos, and also to monitor their personal diet and exercise results, but the main purpose is to share experiences – tips and topics – from using the device. As in other social communities, members can suggest friends for membership as ‘Fitbit buddies’; and as in other such sites, the company actively interacts with group members.


One of the first companies to have an online community, and perhaps the best known, is eBay, the pioneering online auctioning portal site. Participating in an auction, as either buyer or seller, creates an automatic community of interest. In addition to offering a vast array of consumer products, eBay provides services for business. Through its elance component, eBay enables freelance service providers to bid on projects such as graphic design, copy writing, printing, data entry, database development and so forth. There is, of course, genuine community in the form of discussion, help and chat (help boards, user discussion boards, chat rooms, etc.), a newsletter, and a library.

In addition, eBay actively uses its community as in information source for driving customer loyalty. Each month, they send out 50,000 survey invitations. They get 30% response rates. Results, through their Intranet URL, are immediate; and eBay can link actual customer profitability through segmented findings.

eBay, has taken community participation to a new level. Several years ago, they organized the first of annual three-day live community evenst at the Anaheim Convention Center in California. Thousands of eBay-ers – buyers and sellers alike – attended from around the globe. They had the opportunity to hear eBay’s president and CEO (at the time), Meg Whitman, talk about the role of community, meet eBay’s senior staff at forums over the three days, visit booths to help them with their trading, attend educational classes, and participate in events such as a live auction, games, and a gala. As one community participant said in an eBay community posting, “I, for one, am thankful eBay exists. They have given us a venue. We are grateful.” That’s real advocacy, the ultimate value of community.

Beyond sales, and potential sales, and helping organizations communicate and cement stronger strategic customer relationships, are there any other bottom-line corporate benefits of customer community? It turns out that there are plenty. Here are just three of them; and we are just beginning to see their application in these areas.

Lower Customer Service Costs – Companies can save money by using community management software, enabling them to encourage customers to share information and participate in relevant discussions. The more sites can register members to a community, and get them to participate frequently, they find that money can be saved by having either online content which answer customer questions, or getting another customer to answer the question. They can also benefit through mining the information from customer discussions, generating reports on customer concerns and trends.

Product/Concept Beta Testing – When companies come up with new products or concepts, they can get an early read on customer response by using their community as collaborators and jury. Customers can critique or test a proposed offering, sharing
opinions and suggestions, while companies observe and mine the information. Thishelps companies optimize their offerings, often avoiding the missteps associated with having complete customer input prior to introduction.

Customer Value Research – Over the past few years, we have seen the growth of b2b and b2c market research online communities, or MROCs. Companies can conduct straight customer loyalty and customer value research by recruiting panels of forum participants. Typically, these surveys are conducted on an Intranet basis. Results are immediate, and companies using their forum participants as panelists get response rates high enough to avoid the non-response bias pitfalls of other, lower response, self-completion research methods. Further, companies using their communities for value and experience research can link results to projected, segmented customer profitability, a tremendous benefit.

The learning and engagement role, and potential, for online communities continues to evolve and grow. As we’ve seen, communities expand the value of voice of the customer research, supplier-stakeholder dialogue, and informal social communication.

Michael Lowenstein, PhD CMC
Michael Lowenstein, PhD CMC, specializes in customer and employee experience research/strategy consulting, and brand, customer, and employee commitment and advocacy behavior research, consulting, and training. He has authored seven stakeholder-centric strategy books and 400+ articles, white papers and blogs. In 2018, he was named to CustomerThink's Hall of Fame.


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