Ten mistaken beliefs about customer communities

customer twitterStarting a community? Here are ten things you might believe — but shouldn’t.

I had a meeting two weeks ago with a customer whose community went live back in March of last year. There’s so much that a company learns in the first year of having a live, real-time dialogue with customers happening every day on its website. At one point in the meeting I commented about an issue they encountered. “You know, everyone is afraid of x, but what they really need to fear is y,” I said. She immediately smiled and replied, “You’re right!”

After the meeting, I started to think about those things that companies mistakenly believe when they launch communities for the first time. Here are ten that come to mind.

“Negativity is going to be our biggest problem.” It’s an understandable fear, but usually misplaced. There’s almost always less negativity than you expect, and what you get is much more manageable than you think.  I can’t tell you how many executives I’ve spoken to who openly marvel at the intelligence and patience of their customers, once they get to see them live rather than hearing only the bad stuff.

“We have to keep the audience small we don’t get overwhelmed.” As I always say, I’ve been doing this for more than 10 years, and one thing I’ve learned is: no one ever gets overwhelmed. I’m not kidding. On the other hand, you can endanger your entire investment – and your brand image – by under-promoting your community so much that it fails to gain adoption. Start small in terms of features and programs, but don’t cheat on audience size.

“Let’s start with a basic platform. We can always upgrade if this is successful.” This might work for your chess club or neighborhood association, but for companies, it’s not as simple as that. Remember that your community has to be successful from two perspectives – for your customers, but also for your brand. Success for your brand means you’ve got to manage and measure your efforts. Basic platforms won’t help you do that.

“Our goal is adoption. Business goals can come later.” No, it doesn’t work that way. If you don’t define from the start why you are doing this as a business, you’ll probably need to make radical changes down the road – or have to close it down for perceived lack of ROI. In either case you’ll be breaking the implicit promise to customers you made when you started. Better not start at all than start badly.

“We have to make it sexy.” Many companies devote 80% of their effort to design, and only 20% to the things that will really make them successful, like management processes and effective promotion. In fact, there’s often an inverse relationship between aesthetics and performance—because designers often lack an understanding of effective social design.

“We have to create a rich experience for users.” That usually means lots of features and functions. Unfortunately, customers would rather you do a few things well than many things poorly. A successful community has a roadmap—a thoughtful plan for how new features and functions will be introduced over the first 12 to 18 months.

“This is new—we have to learn as we go.” It may be new for you, but companies have been building online communities for two decades. Learn what they know. If you don’t have to guess … don’t guess. If your vendor can’t tell you how other companies succeed or fail, then get a new vendor.

“Our problem is that our executives don’t get it.” If a little voice in your head—or on your board—is telling you that you won’t succeed, you should listen to that voice. It generally means that you don’t have a good plan for success. If you create a plan and communicate it effectively, you’ll see resistance melt away.

“We need to have a private community, so our competitors don’t see our problems.” Sometimes private makes sense, but take a look at other companies in your industry—are their communities open or closed? Most companies create open communities. It’s not because they are less risk-averse than you, but because they are more risk-averse. They understand that you risk your entire investment when you erect barriers to adoption.

“It takes a long time to build a community.” Actually, you’ll know pretty quickly—often within one day—whether you’ve done this right. Of course the value of the community grows as your participation grows, but all the signs of success—people joining, starting conversations, getting responses—should be there on day one.

Joe Cothrel is Chief Community Officer of Lithium and coauthor of ‘Social Customer Experience: Engage and Retain Customers through Social Media’ (Wiley, 2014). Follow him on Twitter @cothrel