Your Online Customer Community Could be Damaging Customer Loyalty!

Posted on 22. Apr, 2011 by in Customer Relationships, Loyalty

What an absurd thought you might be thinking.  Any online community is better than none!

Over the past few years, the enormously popular social media have caught the attention of marketers – offering a new medium with which to listen to and interact with their customers.  With this ready access to customer feedback, companies appear to be doing better at: incorporating customers’ desires in their development of new products and services; identifying areas in which they should improve their product/service experience; and understanding consumer expectations and therefore their competitive marketplace.

The Potential of Online Communities

A number of corporations have taken social media a step further by forming ongoing, online communities among their customers.  These private communities offer corporations ready access to customers’ feelings, reactions and ideas that would, prior to the Internet, have been exorbitantly expensive and resource consumptive.  And they provide a receptive, qualified, known user-panel with which to address issues previously requiring expensive marketing research events.

While unfortunately not the primary objective of most of these private online customer communities, they also potentially offer relationship building opportunities. If properly managed, corporations can nurture community members – increasing their connection with the sponsoring brand and increasing their passion as loyal advocates.  If properly “educated” and “coached”, they can become more knowledgeable, more motivated spokespeople both within the community and beyond (in both online and offline interactions).

The Possible Damage from Online Communities

But if an online community is not properly overseen there can be a dark side as well.  Perhaps it should be obvious, but the online customer community is yet another component of the total customer experience.  If members become disenchanted with the community, if they feel that they are being used by the corporation, if the community becomes a bore, then the sponsoring corporation risks losing some of its best, solid, loyal customers.  Compounding this threat, a poorly managed community could be worse than not having a community at all!   This is because the type of customers who typically join a community tend to be outspoken, active participants in other online communities as well. They are the worst people to cross.  Should they become disenchanted, they are generally well prepared to loudly and clearly vent their frustrations with plenty of negative word of mouth.   A poor community experience can turn these prior advocates into highly vocal detractors and complainers.

Overseeing an Online Community’s Health

So, how (if at all) are communities monitored?  Current practice seems focused on observational measures (member behaviors).  Sponsors are given statistics on member longevity; numbers of members participating in an event; latency of response to an offer or event; etc..   These “activity” measures aren’t irrelevant – they characterize some of the primary motives for forming a community.  But, they have limited value in anticipating the future of a community; they’re no more helpful (to management) than “looking in a rear view mirror”.  To fully assess the health of an online community, sponsors need to know the emotionality of community members.  Attitudinal measures offer a view that’s complementary to the behavioral measures.  Attitudinal measures include: how engaged members feel; how beneficial they believe their participation is to themselves; has their participation helped them learn more about the sponsor’s product or category; etc..  These measures assure a community sponsor that members of a community are receiving a positive experience – one that helps to reinforce the loyalty of customers.  Corporations need to combine both behavioral and attitudinal measures to be certain that their private online customer communities aren’t providing “free” research at the cost of damaging customer loyalty and generating negative word of mouth.  In the April 2011 issue of Quirk’s Market Research Review, Doug Pruden and I have outlined a monitoring program to better judge the health of online communities.

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