The Power of People: Cultivating Social Communities

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By leveraging social channels to increase engagement, companies have the opportunity to build consumer communities that further relationships, foster trust, and promote brand advocacy.

People are inherently social. But, as technology continues to redefine what "social" implies in today's hyper-connected world, consumers are coming together more frequently to share their experiences, offer advice, and solve issues via social Web communities. These consumers are increasingly attracted to social networks and online forums as ways to discuss matters with fellow and potential customers, guiding and encouraging others to make educated purchase decisions. Yet, while these conversations are taking place all across the Web, many companies have yet to tap into such sources of insights in order to get to know their client base and establish extended relationships. As customers begin to share more details about themselves online, brands can easily come to understand consumers on a personal level like never before.

"These social platforms allow businesses to peek behind the curtain of customer personalities and expectations," says Gary Dolsen, director of exceptional digital software at IBM. "In the digital age, people are treating activities like shopping or dining out as if it were a party, uploading a photo of a new dress on Facebook or a great meal on Instagram to get opinions from friends, tweeting about poor customer service experiences, and sharing opinions on their buying experience in their communities of choice. Businesses need to consider how they plan to deepen relationships with customers across all digital touchpoints," Dolsen adds.

As Mariann McDonagh, CMO at inContact, notes, companies often stumble into the social world, unsure of what they're doing, while others jump in with both feet, bursting into conversations and making their presence known in a forced, disingenuous fashion. But it's within these communities that the brands truly grow, for consumers share their personal experiences, write reviews, and assist one another when issues arise. Companies must tap into what consumers are already saying and posting in order to understand the tone of the conversations that are happening about them without them. From this, brands can then drive value-a major differentiator in today's competitive market-by offering relevant content that enables the community to learn more, whether they visit occasionally or frequently. However, such understanding must also include concrete knowledge on how the chosen social platforms operate.

For instance, while Twitter tends to lead the way in terms of providing links and value-added facts that engage users, Facebook acts as the ideal platform for discussing news and events, and LinkedIn offers active communities of a professional nature. All things considered, the ideal social strategy must be built upon clear comprehension of the networks or forums in question. Consumers bring preconceived notions and expectations to each channel and companies must tailor their strategies to correspond with every medium they've embraced, because as consumers open up and engage, they increasingly expect companies to know what they want, and may become frustrated if brands aren't able to deliver.

"Identify what's important to the customer and play toward that," says Steve Klein, lead product manager at Parature. "The community is theirs, not yours, so you need to identify what their needs are and play towards those." To successfully drive engagement, brands must define their goals as they pertain to each particular social setting. A clear strategy will ultimately allow companies to gauge the activity of customers across all digital channels, identify behavioral patterns, and improve the quality of the consumer's experience. Success cannot be measured solely by the size of the communities, but also by engagement rates, for customers that interact via social often develop an emotional connection with the brand and users within the community as they build off the high they get from seeing their words influence others. When they see themselves as key members of the community, they are likely to remain loyal and feel a sense of ownership over other consumers' experiences.

Tim McMullen, founder at redpepper, highlights that social offers a unique type of engagement that lends itself to long-term relationships. When consumers view a TV commercial, they can choose to engage with the given brand in that moment or not. Regardless of their decision, the advertisement's fleeting nature carries only momentary value, while social often implies commitment and continued interest. Social media and its communities bring consumers and brands closer together, and companies should not be afraid to jump in and "go be human," McMullen adds. Brands that become part of the conversation, not just bystanders, create an even deeper connection that cultivates loyalty and brand advocacy with these highly engaged customers.

GameTrailers.com Gives Consumers the Chance to Chime In

For video gamers, gaming has become increasingly social. Players often take to the Web to share their opinions and assist fellow gamers. But, in many instances, the only widespread commentary comes from journalists paid to review games, minimizing the scope of sentiment. In response, GameTrailers.com partnered with Mass Relevance to expand upon its gaming community and give gamers a voice. Together, the two companies created the GDEX, which scans millions of social media comments each day, thereby calculating a score for the most talked about games across social media platforms.

"Instead of just commenting or reacting to conversations that are already happening in social, steer the conversations to topics that are relevant to the brand and find the bull's-eye between the rings of audience motivations and brand messaging," says Sam Decker, CEO of Mass Relevance. "The gaming community is extremely passionate and very active online," he adds. "Social media is a core aspect of how they communicate, so it made sense to harness the power of their engagement through GDEX. The goal of GDEX is to give a voice to gamers, and provide an easy to understand, real-time social score for the games they play."

With GDEX, GameTrailers.com tapped into an already existing community, bringing relevant opinions forward so gamers can see their feedback in action, also providing game publishers with the opportunity to understand true sentiment leading up to and after a game's launch, allowing them to tailor their marketing efforts effectively, as well. "The GDEX is very much a reflection of the importance of social media in terms of gauging consumer feedback and sentiment around the industry we cover," says Brad Winters, general manager at GameTrailers.com. In a way, we hope this tool can help give insight and real-time feedback to a publisher's social strategy, as well."

Sears' Extended Communities Seek to Surpass Social Norms

When Sears decided to embrace social media, it recognized that integrating such platforms with its overall marketing strategy meant reaching beyond Twitter and Facebook communities. Instead, to extend consumer relationships, the brand sought to create its own communities that build upon popular interests and offer added value to the customer's everyday life. Sears derived its approach from feedback gathered across traditional social media sites in order to determine how it could better engage consumers.

According to Jennifer Dominiquini, CMO of fitness, sporting goods, and toys for Sears and K-Mart, these offshoot communities allow the brands to encourage conversations and interest before and after purchase. For instance, Sears' FitStudio community was designed to not only establish the brand as a market leader in the fitness equipment space, but also provide consumers an outlet for setting and achieving their personal fitness goals in an atmosphere that builds human relationships through expert tips and information, as well as shared purpose. K-Mart's Playdate Place, on the other hand, expands upon the relationships built with family-oriented consumers to offer an environment for parenting and childcare tips and advice.

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