One of my clients, a membership organization, is facing a challenging problem. The Board would like to recruit younger members to ensure that the organization continues. One of the issues our team has been trying to address is, "How do you attract and retain new community members—when these prospective members start out with little in common with current members?"
Luckily for me, I attended a social media breakfast in Boston(#15) this morning. There, Communispace CEO, Diane Hessan, was the last speaker at an event entitled “SMB15: The Power and Peril of Online Communities.
If anyone has deep insights into the power and perils of online communities, it’s Diane Hessan. Her team at Communispace has been building online communities for ten years.
Today, Communispace hosts vibrant communities for some of the biggest brands in the US—companies like GlaxoSmithKline, HP, and Hallmark. This morning, however, she told us that her company didn't achieve success overnight.
As Diane began to speak about lessons learned, I quickly realized that my client could learn a lot from her experience. Yes, my client’s community is a conventional offline community. Yet, I believe many of the same principles that the SMB15 speakers presented will apply.
Online communities are like cocktail parties
One of the speakers likened an online community to a cocktail party. As with a cocktail party, the success of a community depends on a performing a series of actions.
These actions include welcoming guests when they arrive, encouraging them to stay by introducing them to others, including them in the conversation, and giving them a great experience so that they come back again. In short, as the first speaker, Brian Person, Social Media Evangelist at LiveWorld pointed out, it takes a great host to throw a great party. He then remarked that in an online community, the host is the community manager.
Community managers play important role in on-line communities
Up next, Rachel Happe, Principal at Community Roundtable, spoke about the important role the community manager plays in building a strong community. Both Rachel and Diane suggested hiring an event manager for this role.
Just as at a party, this person needs to set the tone. Online or offline, it’s important that this individual engage with other members of the community directly.
People are attracted by other people. Hessan said that just as you’re asking the community members to share their thoughts, ideas and/or experiences, it is important that community managers also reveal a little bit about themselves.
Social glue binds on-line communities
Another related concept is “social glue”. Social glue is what holds communities together, and keeps participants coming back. She noted that the more involved people are in the community, the stronger the social glue.
The key to involvement over time, therefore, cannot fall to the community manager alone. Instead, community managers need to stimulate conversations between members.
For some communities, these conversations come about quite naturally. As an example, Hessan referenced one airline's frequent fliers. These road warriors spend all their time on planes--so the airline and their travel experiences are top of mind.
It's much harder to build a social community around brands that people care less about. Here, she told us about the challenges a toothpaste company faced in when trying to build the types of ties, among their members, that came so easily to the airline.
Since most people don’t think too much about brushing their teeth, it was unlikely that they would bond over their brushing experiences. Hence, the community manager encouraged conversation by reaching out to a subgroup of young mothers.
She then engaging them in conversations about their family life. As Hessan explained, dividing a large disparate community into subgroups makes it easier to nurture the “social glue” it takes to hold a community together.
Building on-line communities takes patience and sustained efforts
One of the cautions that Rachel offered, and Diane reinforced, is that communities take a long time—and sustained effort--to build. In her experience, it’s not uncommon to see relatively low flat participation for a long time.
Sometimes, there are spikes when a community manager initiates an effective campaign. Yet, the overall trend is still flat--until the community reaches a critical point. Then, if everything goes right, growth will accelerate.
Would be community builders, such as my client, therefore need to be prepared to make a sustained effort for a long period of time before things take off. My sense was that that time period can be a year or longer.
Listening is an underrated marketing strategy
The need to sustain one’s efforts throughout brings me to the next point. Diane quipped that "listening is an underrated marketing strategy".
Communities are a great way to learn about what matters most to members. On the other hand, once you set the expectation that you care about what others think, it’s important to follow through. If you don’t sustain your efforts, and respond to their recommendations, you’ll just alienate your community.
When you do listen, however, it pays dividends. Hessan told us about the first time one of Communispace’s early clients experienced a spike in traffic. The SWAT team--that Diane assigned to figure out what created such a high level of engagement—identified that factors contributed to the success and what Communispace could do differently in the future to do even better.
Toward the end of her presentation, Diane provided some specific case examples. My ears perked up when she began discussing the experiences that Charles Schwab had when it first tried to attract younger investors.
I began to listen very hard, when as an aside, she mentioned the difficulties that financial service companies, and for that matter health care providers, face in getting social media communications approved.
This was of particular interest to me because this is something my health care clients worry about a lot. It is also one of the questions that my colleague, Robert DeSimone, of Medicomm Inc., and I are currently querying medical device companies about in our survey about medical device companies' use of social media--but I digress.
Diane quickly returned what Charles Schwab and Communispace learned when they set out to attract millenials and Gen Xers. For one thing, terms such as “retirement” and “no load funds”--which are part of the vernacular for baby boomers--mean little to the next generations. Retirement is far away. Since, as it turned out, most young people use checking accounts as their primary investment vehicle, "no load" was not a term with which they were familiar.
Different communities require different marketing tactics
Communispace and Schwab also learned that communicating with young people is fundamentally different. This population is “always on” from the very moment they awake in the morning. Moreover, the technology of choice is likely to be a mobile phone.
Once again, “listening” paid dividends. Schwab introduced a high-interest checking account that was a great success.
What does this all mean for would be community builders?
What does all of this mean for my client? It appears that if they want to attract individuals from a younger generation, they may have to do things differently—and it may take a lot of time. On the other hand, if they are patient, invest in applying some of the best practices the SMB#15 speakers recommended, and sustain their efforts, they have the potential to attract and retain the prospective members they most want.
Social Media Breakfast: Go directly to the source
Thanks so much to Bob Collins, who hosts Social Media Breakfasts in the Boston area, sponsors LiveWorld and Communispace, and the speakers that made this a fantastic event. This is just a taste of what they served at breakfast. You may want to check out hashtag #SMB15 on Twitter to get all the details.