Extending Online Customer Engagement

Customer Service
Customer Service
Mercedes-Benz is one example of how companies can use private online communities to increase customer intimacy.

For many brands, the dominance of social media in the lives of their consumers means a customer-centric approach is no longer a luxury, it's a necessity. The pervasiveness of the Internet has made the marketplace truly global, driving companies to launch gigantic, and often impersonal, media campaigns. Brands sometimes find it difficult to break with tradition as they seek to provide the authentic digital connection that the social media-savvy consumer demands. Despite this effort to target consumers with precision on a grand scale, many brands miss the mark because they don't have a personal connection to their consumers.

This happens because of a misconception among large consumer brands that maintaining this "one-on-one relationship" with customers isn't scalable or profitable, and is therefore not worth the effort. I would argue that it's possible for companies to create scalable and authentic connections with their customers. Moreover, initiatives with this goal can also return additional benefits such as actionable insight, co-creation of products and campaigns, and authentic brand advocates.

Many companies start engaging with their customers via public social networks because this is where their customers are already talking. True, they will find their customers blogging, tweeting, and rating their products and services online, but trying to harness all of this chatter into a digestible format is like drinking water out of a fire hose. It's also not guaranteed that you'll be able to take what you learn from this resource-heavy effort and apply it to your business decisions. It is one thing to listen, but to really hear what hundreds of thousands of customers are saying, decipher what their intentions or needs are, and make changes to accommodate them, can be incredibly challenging in a huge, free-flowing forum.

One way to create intimacy with customers and get greater return on your investment is to invite a smaller, more passionate group of your customers to join a private branded community. People are incredibly receptive to exclusive access like this as it demonstrates that the company behind the initiative is making a concerted effort to get to know them on an individual level. Bring them into the product-development process; solicit input on a new ad campaign; ask your inner circle what types of perks they might like as part of a rewards program; then show them how their input is being put to work. You can reward their loyalty and enthusiasm with access to insider information, special brand experiences, or credit toward something they care about. By giving your principal fans exclusive access to the brand, their connection will grow even stronger, and they will feel more inclined to help spread the word about your most important initiatives.

In order to make the experience a win-win situation for the company and the community members, though, you have to engage in dialog, rather than just asking them questions. Mercedes-Benz has mastered the art of creating a truly engaging experience in their private online communities, Mercedes-Benz Advisors (for current Mercedes-Benz owners) and Generation Benz (for Generation Y current and future Mercedes-Benz owners). Through polls, discussions, and live, interactive chat sessions with company executives, Mercedes-Benz invited consumers into its world, providing a platform for them to give input on everything from product design to marketing decisions. The company has also focused its communities to include certain demographics, so that all activities are centered on a common goal of talking to current customers in the case of Mercedes-Benz Advisors, and new and upcoming Mercedes-Benz owners in the case of Generation Benz. For example, activities in the Generation Benz community revealed that this group spends much more time online and on social networks than they do interfacing with traditional media. They use their social media networks as a part of the decision-making and fact-finding process. By knowing this, Mercedes-Benz has been able to adapt its marketing efforts to reach this audience more effectively.

One particularly exciting activity that has paid off in spades is the test-drive program, where Mercedes offered select Generation Benz community members the opportunity to test drive the 2011 Mercedes-Benz E350 Cabriolet, E Coupe, E Sedan, and GLK so Mercedes-Benz could get the impressions of younger buyers about these models. Many of the community members created some very well-produced videos and posted them on YouTube to detail their experiences. This member-generated video produced from an E350 Cabriolet test drive is an excellent example of the brand advocacy that can organically happen when a company takes the time to listen to and engage with its audience.

The quality of customer intimacy achieved by Mercedes-Benz could not have been possible through public social media activities; the content the company makes available is often not ready for public consumption, and due to the exclusive nature of the content, community members have been more than willing to provide their feedback. It is impossible to forge the types of one-on-one relationships that the company has built with its community members in a public setting. It is also important to note that Mercedes-Benz has done an excellent job of closing the feedback loop with its community members, which keeps them coming back -- they see firsthand how their input is affecting the company and its decisions.

Mercedes-Benz and other large brands have proven that despite how daunting it may appear at the surface, by creating an authentic experience and showing that you are listening, you will be able to create the intimacy that both your company and your customers need. By creating personal connections and inspiring consumers to organically spread the word in their public social networks, you'll find that the connections you make in the smaller setting will be amplified far beyond where they started.

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About the Author: Tom Quinn isChief Revenue Officer of Passenger