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The social Web is expanding into the workplace. According to a recent Forrester Research study of business buyers, 91% use social technologies and 69% use them for professional purposes. In that context, more companies are discovering the potential of branded online communities aimed at the B2B market.

That trend is less visible than the growth of other types of social networks because B2B communities are often aimed at highly specialized populations and may even be closed to outsiders. However, a growing number of enterprises regard their B2B communities as a secret weapon that gives them a powerful competitive advantage.

What's an Online Community?

Simply put, an online community is a website where users can publish content and form relationships with one another. For B2B users, an online community can be a networking opportunity, a chance to collaborate, a place to gather and share knowledge.

A company that launches a B2B community is opening a direct line for engaging in an ongoing conversation with those users, which can lead to enormous business benefits.

Special Requirements of B2B Communities

When developing an online community—of any kind—it's important to start with a clear vision of your goals and your target users. A B2B community is no exception.

However, your goals and target users for a B2B community are likely to be quite different from those for a community aimed at end consumers. Those differences will shape everything you do, from the website design to the types of activities you will offer, your communication style, the type of community management required, and strategic decisions about how you will recruit your members and whom you will permit to join.

Some special issues with B2B:

  • Recruitment: Since a B2B community is likely to be aimed at a highly specific population, you'll need a focused recruitment strategy to get the right people—and enough of them—to join.
  • Activity level: If your B2B community is restricted to clients or partners, or if it's focused on a narrow industry sector, your potential user population is probably quite small. Therefore, a higher level of staff interaction may be required to get members involved and to maintain a minimum activity level in the community.
  • Member support: Effective community management and member support are important for any online community, but they are critical in a B2B community, where your members may also be key clients and partners. (And a 20-year-old intern is probably not the right person to manage relations with those members.)
  • Control of information: A B2B community is likely to be engaged in discussions closely related to your business activity, discussions that may include your clients, partners, or competitors. You'll therefore need to balance the values of transparency and the sharing of knowledge and ideas with the need to protect sensitive information.

Benefits of a B2B Community

B2B communities can provide a company with customer insights, attract new clients, or strengthen relationships with existing clients, partners, or suppliers by building trust and loyalty.

Many of the benefits are similar to those offered by a brand community for consumers, but they are potentially magnified in a B2B context, where the reasons behind customer decisions can be more difficult to ascertain and where trust can play a critical role in high-stakes purchase decisions.

For B2B customers even more than consumers, the loyalty engendered by a brand community is likely to translate into sales, according to Debi Kleiman, vice-president of product marketing at Communispace, which builds and manages private customer communities for more than 100 brands.

"These are buyers of services and products worth millions of dollars," says Kleiman. "It makes a difference if you can really engage them with your brand and products, and relate to them on a day-to-day basis."

Getting Started

If you're thinking of launching a B2B community, your first step should be to clearly outline your business objectives. Are your goals...

  • To increase brand awareness?
  • To gain market insights?
  • To co-innovate with customers?
  • To attract new clients?
  • To improve client satisfaction?
  • To network with other companies in your sector?
  • To build supplier relations?

Based on your goals, decide who your target users will be: Who do you want in your community?

  • Current clients?
  • Partners?
  • Potential clients?
  • Suppliers?
  • Other industry players?

Make all other decisions about your community with your target users in mind. Your community won't work unless they participate, and the best way to ensure their ongoing participation is to ensure that your community is fulfilling a genuine need of theirs.

So study your target users. If they are in the same business as you are, you have a head start because you already know the issues facing your industry. Call some of your target users and brainstorm with them—this is also an opportunity to stir up interest in your community project and to strengthen your professional relationships. Send out a survey; set up a focus group.

Questions to answer:

  • What needs do your target users have?
  • What other resources (online and offline) are available to help target users with their work?
  • What's missing? What gap can your community fill?
  • What tools can your community provide to help target users with their daily professional activities?

Your community concept is likely to arise naturally from the answers to those questions. Then you can start working out the details of the activities you will offer members and the website that will house those activities.

Case Studies

American Express has launched Business Travel ConneXion, a community for clients and suppliers of the company's professional travel services.

The community offers members a wide range of options that show some of the activities that can be useful to B2B members. Business Travel ConneXion members can participate in forum discussions, webinars, and live chats on topics related to business travel (e.g., "Innovation and Technology in Business Travel" or "Travel & Procurement Manager Best Practices"); they can form and join groups focused on specific themes (e.g., "Green Travel Summit" or "Houston Travel Community"); they can add and view events of interest on a shared calendar; they can vote in polls; they can even maintain their own blogs on the Business Travel ConneXion platform; and, of course, they can directly contact other members via a guest-book function.

The community also includes several less-interactive features, such as industry articles and whitepapers. Although such resources can add enormous value to your community, they should complement, not replace, activities that involve member participation and interaction.

If your website plan focuses too heavily on content generated by your organization, then you can end up with a knowledge center or an online magazine rather than a real community.

Sun Microsystems is the sponsor of another interesting project, Openec, a website focused on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and sustainable business practices.

In addition to a community discussion forum with a private internal-messaging system, the website offers members a range of tools for calculating greenhouse gas emissions and comparing their energy and emissions performance with those of other participating organizations.

A community such as Openec's that is focused on providing professional tools for its members should offer benefits that can't easily be obtained elsewhere on the Web.

Common tools such as calculators or currency converters won't keep anyone coming to your website because they are available from too many other sources. However, developing a unique tool for your clients—whether it's a technical application, a database, or a marketplace—can turn your website into part of their daily professional lives.

Open or Closed?

The two communities mentioned above are examples of open communities, which anyone can join.

An open community is the obvious choice if your goals include attracting new clients, increasing website traffic, or outreach of any kind, or if you have a community model—such as an online marketplace—that depends on a large member base or that requires a high volume of activity.

An open community will permit many recruitment options, such as search-engine marketing and word-of-mouth. It will be much easier with this model to build up content and activity on your community.

With a closed community, on the other hand, you gain intimacy and control over the type of member who joins and the flow of information. Closed communities are therefore often preferable for market research and co-innovation purposes.

For example, Communispace's communities, which focus primarily on insight and innovation, are normally closed groups of about 300 representative customers. Kleiman explains: "The companies can ask for feedback on new ideas, on new marketing programs in a private, closed environment that's confidential and where the discussion isn't taking place in front of competitors."

Something for Everyone

As with any marketing project, a B2B community should be developed with specific business goals in mind. But even as you work to obtain benefits for your company, you must also work to provide benefits to your community's target users.

You can't have a community without members. And busy businesspeople won't participate in your community unless they are getting a real return on their time and effort. Keep your eye on their goals as well as your company's, and offer something for everyone to ensure that your project will be a success.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nancy Strauss is the owner of William Victor Marketing Translations (www.williamvictor.net) and the author, with Anna Buss, of Online Communities Handbook (www.onlinecommunitieshandbook.com).