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Online communities create social 'stickiness,' say experts

While social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook may get audiences to the door of a corporate website, online communities let them in, say experts.

ATLANTA  -- As companies delve further into social media to connect with constituencies and strengthen their message, they are making an important shift back home.

Over the past few years, companies made an aggressive move to establish themselves on external social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. According to a University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, study in 2014, 80% of Fortune 500 firms have established a corporate presence on Facebook, and 83% on Twitter.

But today, companies are recognizing the critical importance of cultivating their own online communities. By cultivating online blogs and forums on their own sites or as an adjunct to their corporate presence, these companies create a "stickiness" with their constituencies -- the notion that visitors will stay on a site longer -- that may be harder to achieve with external sites like Twitter. These communities can help with customer service, company loyalty or to cultivate community surrounding certain topics, such as healthcare. This final use has become a powerful means of crowdsourcing ideas to solve complex problems.

"Social [media platforms] bring them to the door," said Vanessa DiMauro, CEO of Leader Networks based in Belmont, Mass., at a panel on developing successful online communities at the Social Shake-Up conference in Atlanta this week. "But [online] community lets them in."

From social platform to online community

An attendee in the audience who heads up social efforts at SAP echoed this trend, saying that corporate budgets have shifted away from spending on social media platforms toward online forums, using tools like Lithium and Jive to cultivate constituencies.

For many companies, this shift in focus makes sense. Organizations, particularly in areas like healthcare, are creating "communities of purpose," in which audiences gather to share knowledge with peers, troubleshoot issues and even turn to experts for advice.

"Some of the most powerful communities are where users are looking for like-minded people," said Andrew McKee, a partner at Webster Capital, an investment firm in Waltham, Mass. "A provider of pediatric homecare services provides a forum for parents of terminally ill children who want to care for their kids at home. This is a purpose-driven community that is connected to a for-profit business," McKee said.

Some of the most powerful communities are where users are looking for like-minded people.
Andrew McKeepartner, Webster Capital

Tamara Littleton, CEO of Emoderation, a social media management agency for major brands in the United Kingdom, said that both forums have their place in businesses' strategies. Social platforms like Facebook are good for "signposting," or creating certain key signals regarding a company. But for companies that want to control the message, provide access to content and cultivate connections between their audience members, online communities are critical. "If you don't own it, you can't control it," Littleton said.

Cornering content for online members

Scott Wilder, a senior director of customer marketing at Marketo -- a marketing automation software vendor in San Mateo, Calif. -- said that being successful with native online communities requires solid execution on that strategy. For example, he said, his team is "ruthless about [search engine optimization]." He and his team mine customer conversations for keywords that come up frequently so that they can use these keywords to drive traffic to the community through search engines.

Further, Wilder said, he has partnered with numerous companies to generate content that is loaded with keywords and thus search-friendly. But, he said, the hope is to eventually recalibrate that balance so that more of the content on the site derives from user-generated sources rather than content from partners.

Littleton said that online communities should also be governed by certain best practices. "They need to create compelling content for their audiences, ensure that the tone is appropriate and measure everything," she said.

Littleton added that these best practices indicate that social media has moved to a new level of maturity and acceptance. "Everything is becoming very disciplined," she said. "Social is taking its seat in the boardroom."

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