Brands have known for a while how powerful building a customer community can be. But, there seems to be some confusion as to what “community” should mean and how to successfully manage one. So, we asked the experts.
In the latest instalment of our Customer-Powered Enterprise webinar series, I had the chance to talk to three expert community managers—all of them previous BAMMIE award winners—on how they’ve managed to build thriving digital communities that provide value to both their business and their customers.
This all-star panel featured Wiley’s Vice President of Customer Success Nicole Dingley, PowerDMS’ Director of Customer Marketing Ray Lau and ADP’s Senior Strategy Analyst of Client Experience Sarah Schreiner.
Nicole’s team manages the customer advocacy community over at Wiley, an education and global research company. The community, called WileyPLUS Studio, has been around for nearly three years and came together with the goal of supporting customers throughout the various stages of their journey. It also connects customers with departments across the organization, helping to establish relationships between them and product managers, editors, and customer success specialists.
Some of Wiley’s advocacy program success includes a boost in usage rates of up to 98% for instructors involved in the customer community, an overall reduction in churn rates, and the development of a product advisory community.
Read on to discover Nicole’s tips on how to build a customer-powered enterprise by nurturing your community of customer advocates.
Q: What challenges did your organization face before implementing your customer community?
Nicole: The genesis of our program was really focused on nurturing customers. Our business had gone through a reduction of our sales team, so many of our customers no longer had someone acting as their account manager and checking in on them. We then turned to our community of existing customers to fill the gap and create that nurturing environment.
In doing this we were able to kill two birds with one stone — make customers continue to feel very much a part of our organization, but also encourage and inspire them to want to provide referrals, be a reference, host a webinar, or come to an event.
Throughout this process we’ve also discovered use cases for advocacy that we never would have predicted, which has been really powerful.
Q: What’s the greatest success you’ve seen or obtained through running your customer community?
Nicole: One of our greatest successes so far has been with a recent product launch we had. With this launch, we knew that we needed the community’s support from the beginning all the way through, and their continued help with nurture. We got them involved very early in the process through our advocate hub, and in 48 hours filled up 90% of the spots needed for the product’s limited field trial.
In having this group of advocates together in a community, we could do pulse checks on an ongoing basis, asking them “Hey, how are things going? What do you think of this feature?” and actually reward them in an automated way. Making them feel special in this way also helped motivate them to continue providing feedback.
From this exercise, we then developed what we call our “PAC” — product advisory community. We have a group of more than 200 customers who have raised their hand to provide feedback on a variety of things. We’ll tap them for everything from simple questions like what they think about a particular feature, to more complex asks like participating in a stress test where someone watches them interact with the product.
This has all been game changing for us. Our product team is so much more in tune with our customer base. And one of the greatest things for me has been feeling like I know our advocates very well, even though I’ve never met them before. I know what they like to do on weekends and what they look for in a product. This is possible because of the vision and insight we have by watching conversations between our customers unfold and getting to ask what matters most to them.
Q: What advice do you have for others looking to launch a customer community?
Nicole: One of the most important things you can do when you’re thinking about launching a customer community and investing in a tool to help you do that, is to gain cross-functional consensus across your organization. A customer community doesn’t just benefit your marketing team — although this is certainly a focus area, since you can amass so many testimonials and other great marketing content.
When you’re looking to launch a customer community, you’ll want to gain that buy-in from other stakeholders. Talk to sales about how the community can help with nurturing prospects and driving interest in upcoming live events. And that’s just sales — product management and leadership teams should also be aware of how their functions would be affected.
Having a community helps with proving the ROI of a customer advocacy program in a meaningful way. My advice would be to take the time to gather user stories to share how you think you could leverage this group of customers to make a difference. And you don’t have to do it on your own — there are great case studies and best practices out there for you to tap into, and resources you can contact for help.
Q: What are some of the benefits customers need to see to join the community and stay engaged?
Nicole: There are a few different things people want. They want to be recognized as an important part of your business, and that you can’t exist without them. You can also appeal to customers’ desire to be rewarded and feel special.
For example, to get people to join our program as part of our back-to-school season campaign, we offer t-shirts to anyone who wants one. And we don’t just send out XLs to everyone — the shirts are good quality and exactly the size customers want. In having customers request their shirt within our community, it gets them involved and makes them look around and think “Hey, I like what I’m seeing here and want to stay connected.”
Education is also a huge incentive for people. People constantly need product tips and help information. But, let’s face it, we’ve really moved to a world where people prefer to be self-serviced. They don’t necessarily want a Client Success Manager calling or emailing them to set up a meeting to discuss their questions. People want to be able to look at these tips and best practices on their own, and then quickly ping someone if they have further questions.
Last but not least, sometimes people just want to have fun with the company they’re working with, especially when they have a relationship with their account manager or CSM. They would also like to be connected with like-minded users with whom they can discuss ideas and share best practices. That sense of community and belonging actually goes a long way.
Q: How has your career developed given your interactions with customers?
Nicole: This role, as well as my background in customer marketing, have helped me look at Wiley’s customer community with different eyes. I can look at it from a range of different perspectives now to see how the whole organization might get value from this community.
When I first started working with this community, I had come from sales and my title was Customer Success Marketing Manager. I don’t think there was a clear definition at the time of what that title would mean. After launching the community, managing it, and growing it by 200% or 300% every year, that’s when we really started to see how much value there was in customer advocacy.
Because I was so closely aligned with the customers and saw what they had to say and what was important to them, I could offer their perspective to various levels of management within my company. That really helped me grow and eventually got me into the role of VP of Customer Success. I certainly could not have jumped that ladder without having my finger on the pulse of what customers were finding important.
Q: How long does it take to realize the way you’re trying to engage customers or create advocates isn’t really working and what should you do next?
Nicole: I feel that everything is a process of learning and iteration. You might think you know exactly what your customers want, but you don’t always know what’s going to engage them. There is some trial and error to it.
But, there’s also this idea that trying to engage a community is like tending to a garden — you get out what you put in.
If all you’re doing is asking for testimonials, references or referrals, you’re never contributing back to the community. You should have days when you’re saying something to the effect of “Hey, it’s Valentine’s Day and I’m sending you a cup of coffee. We’re so glad to have you as a customer.”
If you’re not showing appreciation for your customers in this way — or even just chatting with them and giving them a chance to share their input — you’re going to wear them out and your requests will feel like a chore to them. You might also find that the only people engaging with your community are the ones who are out to get rewards, but not to make any valuable contributions.
There should definitely be give and take, where you’re spending time earning your customers’ trust and making sure what you’re doing with them in an online community feels symbiotic and mutually beneficial.
Q: When were you ready to try to get leadership’s buy-in to invest in the software needed to scale your program?
Nicole: A great thing to do is identify what your pain points are across different functions of your business. Do you have enough Marketing Qualified Leads? Are there enough people willing to review your product and offer feedback in an efficient way?
Capture some of these pain points and really think about what it would mean to have a community of people that you could quickly leverage to address those challenges. I think that’s where you start, and work backwards from there.
Q: What KPIs would you recommend for someone in the first year of managing a customer community?
Nicole: In the first year, I would say just opt for straight growth, and growth of the right people. From there, I would say find the one indicator that is most relevant to you. If you’re a marketer, this might be the number of content marketing pieces or testimonials you’re putting out.
Since I’m in customer success, my concern is how well customers are using the product and if they’re using the product to its full capability. I’m looking at measuring adoption rate and comparing it to the average for customers who are not within the community.
The first year is all about growth. It’s the crawl, walk, run method. You really have to lay the foundation and get people to understand what the community’s all about before you can engage them like gangbusters.
Building a customer-powered enterprise
You can find the full recording of our “Ask the Community Experts” webinar here. Be sure to stay tuned for more Q&As from this series, showcasing stories from members of the Influitive community who have successfully tapped into their customer network to fuel their business strategy. For more in-depth resources on how you can grow your organization with the power of your customers, you can check out our Customer-Powered Enterprise playbook.