Rachel Happe and Jim Storer, co-founders for The Community Roundtable, just released their latest State of Community Management report, so I invited Rachel to Marketing Smarts to discuss what they found.
(If instead of reading about our conversation you'd like to listen to it, just click the audio player, above.)
Before we got into the report's findings, I asked Rachel how she and Jim defined community and what sort of business results companies could look to achieve by cultivating and managing communities.
On the definition front, they keep it fairly simple and relatively broad: A community is "a group of people with unique, shared values, behaviors, and artifacts."
Given that definition, Rachel went on to explain, one can categorize communities as exclusive, with high barriers to entry, so that "people really know they're a member—it's not at all vague"; discrete, in that you have to go to the community's site to participate in the community (online forums are a good example of discrete communities); and distributed, in that community members may be linked by a shared purpose or interest but not restricted to one particular place either geographically or online.
One thing to note, she said, was that those participating in discrete and distributed communities may not actually think of themselves as part of a specific community. Rachel gave the example of people who visit an ATT forum online. Some may think of themselves as belonging to the ATT community, but many will just think of themselves as customers who visit the forums to address specific issues they are facing. Similarly, users of Apple's products may be "fans," but may not see themselves as part of an "Apple community."
On the "what can you do with a community" front, Rachel pointed to marketing use cases, using communities to create awareness and advocacy as well as to reduce the cost of sales; support use cases, where you use the community's knowledge to provide support resources to other users; and, finally, product and service innovation use cases, whereby you actually integrate communities of various sizes into your innovation funnel.
Considering all these types of community, as well as the various ways that companies can tap into the power of community to accomplish business objectives, what exactly is the state of community management in 2012?
Well, according to the report, the state is "good," in the sense that we are now finding companies at all stages of maturity, from beginners to those who are actually relying on community with a high level of sophistication and integration. At the high end, Rachel said, very interesting things start to happen to the relationship between the company and its various communities.
"As you mature through the community maturity model, as the community starts producing business value," she explained, "they understand—or start to understand—the power that they have and they start flexing their muscles a little bit and asking for participation in decision making."
The result of this muscle flexing? "Companies need to renegotiate their balance of power with their constituent groups."
Which is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, as Rachel points out, considering the many recent high-profile dust-ups between organizations and the communities they serve and support (she mentioned cases involving Bank of America, Susan G. Komen for the Cure, and Goldman Sachs, to name but a few), "a really robust community that had a really tight relationship with these organizations would have been the risk-mitigation strategy for a lot of this."
There is no question that communities are going to play a bigger and bigger role in the way we all do business. The question is, Is your company ready for it?
If you'd like to hear my entire conversation with Rachel, you may do so above, at the beginning of this article, or you can download the mp3. Of course, you can also subscribe to the Marketing Smarts podcast in iTunes and never miss an episode. Finally, if you are interested in the state of community management and where your company may sit in the community maturity model, I encourage you to check out The Community Roundtable's report!
Rachel Happe is the Principal & Co-Founder of The Community Roundtable, a peer network for community managers and social media practitioners. Her prior experience includes stints as Mzinga’s Sr. Director of Social Media Products and as an analyst at IDC.
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