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Corralling collaborative communities easier said than done

Collaborative communities are now a cornerstone of social business, for product development, customer service and more. But corralling them isn't as easy as it sounds, says an expert.

Companies are increasingly turning to community forums to create new products, to save costs and to generate revenue. These virtual environments allow companies to benefit from efficient, low-cost crowdsourcing by opening up an office's four walls to external parties without jeopardizing company intellectual property.

These communities create a virtual environment to share member conversations in real time, exchange files and integrate the environment with other applications to enable people to collaborate on projects.

These virtual communities bring efficiencies by assembling experts in dispersed geographic locations without incurring travel costs, or they can reduce the costs of traditional customer service by enabling customers to troubleshoot problems with one another rather than taking up customer agents' time. And companies have found top- and bottom-line value in getting feedback from communities on their products and services, leading to product innovation or improvement.

But, experts caution that collaboration tools cannot ensure a successful community without establishing governance, security and other safeguards to corral and control collaboration. Companies need to create standards of conduct and enlist community managers, for example, to steer communities.

Vanessa DiMauro is the founder and CEO of Leader Networks, a research and consulting firm that helps clients develop social business strategies. She sat down with SearchContentManagement to discuss some of opportunities of collaborative communities, and some of the challenges yet to be solved.

What are the most successful ways to use collaborative communities to further business objectives?

Vanessa DiMauro: It depends on what the business is trying to accomplish. But here are some of the benefits to think about:

Vanessa DiMauroVanessa DiMauro

Scaling, efficiency. With emerging, larger organizations, communities can bring scale and efficiencies to the model -- everything from scaling expert points of view (getting them to communicate on a one-to-many basis); to delivery of information or co-creation (FAQs, training materials and education) instead of only delivering in person or on-site to use the self-serve model and add the important layer of bringing customers together. I get the benefit of peer-sharing, the ability to ask questions. We're also seeing centers of excellence and frameworks being developed so that larger companies can bring best practices across departments.

Self-service. Customers want to self-serve with low-complexity issues. Organizations are thrilled that these questions can get resolved so the frustration doesn’t build and resolves itself and also frees experts to focus on customer issues that need real handholding.

Customer intimacy. I think [customer intimacy] will become increasingly more important. It goes beyond quantifying the number of followers [and] number of likes [to] looking at the impact on customer intimacy. Social business has a direct correlation to customer satisfaction because it breaks down the spot of need and turns it to engagement; it creates opportunities to connect with customers in an ongoing way.

What are some downsides to collaborative communities?  Can companies lose sight of the strategy in social business?

DiMauro: This is where effective strategy is so important for the social business initiative. Until you know which strategies you're looking to impact, you don't have guideposts for how to shape the interaction. If you're doing a new product launch, then the focus should be on helping support customers with the transition [and] answering questions. If the objective is to reach a new audience, someone damn well better be in the community to engage with the audience you're trying to reach. We want to reach CEOs of Fortune 1000s -- but without a cultivation program, online and offline, it won't be actualized. The goal has to involve, "How will we behave in the community itself?”

What about the continuum between internal and external collaborative communities? How can companies balance that internal information with external engagement?

DiMauro: So many firms think communities think it’s a suite of tools. This is the capital-G, capital-P Governance Problem. Often overlooked is the need to create standards, frameworks and best practices and identify the handoff.

Many organizations fall into this pickle, communities take off and grow, and these types of problems will crop up in successful communities unless governance is well thought through and socialized throughout the organization and the lines of business participate in defining the alignment. [In] communities for customer care, for example, one of the conflict-oriented questions is, "Who owns that? Is it customer service, is it marketing [or] is it support services?" Unless you name the owner, staffing, operational alignment and training become a problem.

What about the danger of creating a "community sprawl," where companies have activities scattered across too many places, and may lose impact?

DiMauro: It's in the best interest of larger organizations with multiple communities, generally speaking, to migrate to one platform for efficiencies in terms of moderating and publishing content, but also for having a single lens of the customer or audience that you're reaching. We call that the "social media muddle," where there's members and customers smeared all over a variety of different platforms. It's too hard to manage.

Do you need people to lead collaborative communities as managers or participants?

DiMauro: I've rarely seen an online community succeed that doesn't have a dedicated, experienced staff. Community management is just starting to be recognized as an experienced profession. Companies are now recognizing that they can’t just hire that kid on the bench. The community manager is a major touchpoint with customers. Organizations are just starting to recognize that community skills [involve] experience and a core set of business skills. Without the business skills, the ability to run the tools is meaningless.

For expert communities, what about fraud? Can communities self-police?

DiMauro: One of the most important things a community can have, in addition to terms and conditions, is community house rules: a codification of what is and isn't acceptable. The rules need to align with the risk tolerance of the organization. Zappos' interaction model will be different from the FDA's. In a familiar voice, putting forth what is acceptable and what the actions will be if there are breaches, gives the opportunity to create guiderails on what isn't consistent with the mission and vision of community. This is another reason to get legal and privacy stakeholders in early to think about the culture of the community.

To connect with Vanessa DiMauro, email her at vdimauro@leadernetworks.com.

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