5 Online B2B Communities—Which One Is Yours?

Online communities are becoming a marketing mainstay for many B2B firms. But they are not all created equal.

That’s the big takeaway from our recent analysis of “The Big List of B2B Online Customer Communities,” an ongoing research initiative that looks at hundreds of online communities around the world. Our 2016 research shows that most online communities fall into five categories.

Which category best describes your online community—and what can you do to take it to the next level?

Active And Thriving
Here’s a bit of good news: About 41% of the standalone communities we tracked are active and thriving. These communities are investing in the customer experience and delivering a rewarding experience for the organizations that created them and for the members who participate in them.  

Your community falls into this category if you have experienced meaningful growth in membership and engagement. Your discussions are facilitated by professional community managers and you add new content regularly. Most importantly, your members share information with each other and offer ongoing peer-to-peer support.

If you’ve got a community like this, keep up the good work! You might also consider evolving into a gated community or spawning additional communities under your brand.  In fact, more than 11% of the “active and thriving” communities we analyzed in 2014 had parlayed their success into a federated collection of communities by 2016. (More on that later.)

Supported But Unevenly
Fairly often, companies launch an online community, but do not nurture it consistently. That was the case in 35% of the online communities we analyzed.

You’ve probably got this kind of community if you have the right elements in place—information and discussions—but lack the resources to create a rich content stream or facilitate member interaction. Communities like this don’t contribute to a positive customer journey and may even harm the reputation of the organization that runs them.

If you’re in this boat, don’t give up hope! With some care and feeding, you can turn your community into an asset for its members and your company. Begin the turnaround by conducting a comprehensive diagnostic to benchmark where you are today—and uncover new opportunities to complement your critical business processes.

Ripe For A Federated Model
Federated communities are usually found in larger organizations and are characterized by a variety of topical communities under a single umbrella. Eleven percent of the communities we looked at had proliferated into multiple communities over the past two years.

If you already have an active and thriving community, it might be time to create another one or two—and to differentiate them.  

Keep in mind that as you spawn additional communities, it’s wise to establish an online community Center of Excellence (COE) to maximize scale and efficiencies. A COE will enable your communities to leverage best practices, engagement models, governance standards, facilitation teams, and success measures.

Ready To Get “Gated”
Five percent of the B2B communities we researched have morphed from open-to-the-public communities to private, members-only communities that require approval to join. These communities have splash pages that articulate the value of joining and provide information about the membership, but keep the discussions and interactions behind the firewall.

Consider putting up the gate if you seek greater customer intimacy and can facilitate private spaces for knowledge exchange on a peer-to-peer and peer-to-company level. You’ll need to actively invite new members to join the community, using a highly relevant and personalized approach. You’ll also need to focus on creating “insider” information that you can share and collaborate on with your customers.

If you have recently switched over to password-protecting certain areas, if not all of your community, then it is important to focus on growing peer-to-peer knowledge sharing.

Remember, a gated community is typically smaller in size than a public community. But if you enable trust among members and with your brand, the level of information exchange will be far deeper than in a community that is accessible to all, making it much more valuable to your organization.

Unfortunately, nearly 10% of the online communities we analyzed are no longer carefully managed or visibly updated.

Abandoned communities are marked by numerous unanswered questions, spam in the forums, aged content, and in some cases, members voicing concern about their lack of support.

If you’ve found yourself in this predicament, you need to act—and fast. Abandoned communities are a significant liability for the brand and the reputation of the organizations they are a part of. Make a choice: Either invest in reinvigorating your community or develop a strategic takedown plan.

As the market moves closer to maturity, we see increasing evidence that online communities can drive new insights, relationships, and revenue streams while meeting and exceeding their members’ needs.

Regardless of what category you’re in now—and where you plan to go—aligning your community with your business goals and operations will be the key to success.

(Click on infographic to enlarge.)

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