I’ve said repeatedly that building a vibrant community is the most important objective of any business these days.
While this may sound like some social media laced feel good sentiment it’s actually quite practical.
Making your business customers, prospects, suppliers and partners feel like important members of a bigger community simply makes long-term business sense and is the key to long-term growth in ways that you not have even considered.
Many businesses get the idea treating customers in ways that make them want to return and refer, but you should also look at your best customers as collaboration partners able to help you formulate plans for growth.
Creating new products and services and making plans for growth is tricky adventures. Why not systematically involve your customers in every decision you make? Why not create new products and services with your customers? Why not include them in content creation and marketing campaigns?
Why not get your best customers to tell you what they need and then help you create, iterate and perfect it?
Below are five steps that can help you build systematic community involvement into your growth plans
The first step is to segment your business customers into personality types. Not every customer group is right for this approach and you may likely have completely different segments, such as B2B and B2C, and may need to build entirely different approaches for different segments.
Additionally, you’ll want to identify customers groups or types that are more open to this level of involvement. One of the best places to look is for customers that already refer or evangelize what you do. Can you identify them specifically or can you at least come up with a description of common characteristics?
These are what I refer to as you community champions. This is the first group to focus on as you try to expand your community reach.
Next you’ll want to dig in and figure out what this group might be lacking. This is sometimes a little tricky as if they really knew they probably would have told you by now, but I find that posing a series of questions around what they wish they had, what they can’t find or what doesn’t seem to work, even about your current offerings, is a good place to start.
After you do this you’ll want to audit your content, touchpoints and revenue streams in an effort to identify a handful of potential growth and involvement opportunities.
Many times you can find ways to involve your customers by simply creating content opportunities such as guest blogging, case studies and video testimonials.
Consider events you might create where your customers can do some of the education. Host peer-to-peer roundtables and let your customers facilitate discussions among prospects.
Consider additional revenue extensions where your champion customers could moderate other customer groups and help add ongoing value.
Once you’ve established some working rapport with your community champions get them involved in helping you build, test and refine new offerings.
Create what I like to call innovation circles to use to build with your customers. Take rough product, service, packaging and pricing ideas to your circles and get feedback. Then with this feedback create a beta test group that agrees to help you get it right. Then use these testers as case studies and early evangelists for your now much improved offering.
You don’t have to stop here either. You can use this same approach for all of your marketing initiatives, copy and positioning.
The final piece is the glue that holds this entire approach together and keeps your community champions coming back for more.
You must create a way to religiously track the results your champions are getting from their relationship with your organization as well as their greater involvement in the community.
This just makes good business sense, but it will also help reinforce the value you bring to the table over and above the somewhat empty claims of good service and low pricing used by your competitors.
One of the best ways to build this into your community is through game mechanics. Create ways for your community champions to participate in contests. Get them to compete with each other. Teach them how to help each other through tangible acts such as linking swapping, sharing and guest posting.
Make the use of your progress and services something they must report and even incentivize them by creating awards for people who come up with new uses and best documented results.
One way to take this notion up a notch is to teach a group of strategic partners how to do the same and then start cross-pollinating your communities.
When you create a common language and process, such as “innovation circles,” you make it easier to teach the methodology and create even greater participation as you and your partners are promoting the same approach.
Imagine how much more value you can bring to your community by building this kind of best of class partner platform, Further imagine how interested potential partners will be to learn how you plan to shine the light on them throughout your vibrant customer community.
Your customer champions want to help you grow and, while making referrals is one powerful way to involve them, when you take a formal approach like the one described above you’ll not only make it easier for them to refer you, you’ll create a team of business partners eager to help you plan and grow.