Richard Millington of FeverBee lives and breathes online communities and has helped build them for everyone from Apple to Lego to the UN, but he's not first and foremost an insights professional. Communities have many other uses - so where do we sit in the bigger picture?
I first discovered online communities from playing video games back in 2001 and 2002 - every game had a big community connected with it. Then at university I had a year out and worked for a company with a client that used an online community, and a light bulb lit up. All the things that worked for video gaming communities seemed to work for other sectors as well! Here was an area with huge potential, in which I already had a good grounding and which I enjoyed. I did an internship and started to blog on the subject, and things just grew from there.
Market research / data collection and insight comes into most of the communities we work with, of course, but we don't usually come at it solely from a research perspective. It might be one of the key purposes of a platform but if I had to choose one thing communities have traditionally been about - over the last ten to twelve years - the word would be engagement. In a nutshell, the remit from most companies setting them up has been this: drive as much engagement as you can possibly get.
A lot of organisations have been indiscriminate about the kind of engagement they want. If it's something you can measure - anything - then it justifies the work and expense on the community. As a result, although FeverBee offers a very broad range of services, a lot of our work has centred around figuring out what kind of engagement really matters to the individual - refining the relatively crude model we find in place, or the client's ideas about how a new community should work.
On the whole, an organisation we work with will have a lot of engagement in their community, but they're not always using it in the best way they can. For example, we'll find they are using a community for customer support: in itself this works well. People find they can get answers to their questions in the community and they don't have to phone up the customer support line. And if someone is thinking of moving they can find other people that have had problems, find out how they've addressed them - so this kind of support-driven community can dramatically reduce churn, without specifically generating data or insight for the company itself.
That said, it's very easy to extend this and start generating amazing ideas as well, by finding out exactly what these customers think and feel, and crucially, the language they use to describe it all. Language is so valuable, and should be incorporated into everything from the promotional materials to the products themselves. So the ideation function is coming out more and more - that's one of the simplest things you can add on to a community that's been focused on customer support - it adds a lot of value and doesn't cost a lot more.
There are plenty of other uses too, however: two examples are advocacy - leaving reviews and testimonials for you; or as a place to recruit staff. It ties in with so many of these things at once, and that's what I think the true power of a community is - to expand and support as many areas of the organisation as it possibly can. If you just use them for one function, you're missing out on most of the value that a community could provide.
So where does insight fit in? I guess it might surprise some in the market research sector to think in terms of long-established and otherwise successful communities that don't even try to collect data and analyse what members are saying - but they are out there, and they represent an opportunity, as do the many, many communities where insight *is* a feature but it has not been built in by experts and it falls well short of what might be.
I would argue that this is one of the biggest opportunities that are around at the moment in the wider communities space - doing more with the data that's being generated. Coming back to the ideation, above, I'd say that a list of ideas, by themselves, aren't that useful to anyone. Prioritising the feedback and interpreting the data is critical - and streamlining its delivery is very important too: engineers for example, developing products and services for the organisation, need great feedback but they really need it at the right time. There's no shortage of things coming out of the community that they could use, but they need help in prioritising those things. Very few of the communities that I see are doing it.
In some cases, this may be because they don't even know the kind of services provided by the insights industry exist - not in a communities context anyway. Or for those that do know, they don't see enough value in them. If you imagine a sceptical client, say an engineer, we'll talk to them and establish that they see a need for great feedback, and are happy to receive FeverBee's help (as communities consultants more generally) to know how to prioritise it. But for them to then reach out to somebody else to add more specific expertise, it's going to have to blow their minds. Maybe the challenge for market researchers is to sell themselves in a way we're more familiar with: we all know about focus groups in the real world and how they're valuable, but where insight from the community is concerned, the clients either aren't making the connection, or else they think they have it covered.
Might it be the case that in big corporations, people running communities have no contact with the internal MR team? Possibly, but it's not something I'm aware of. Possibly also the agencies with whom the internal MR people are working don't push their experience with communities enough to encourage the internal discussions to take place. Either way, there's a job to be done communicating, to tap this strong potential.
If that's helpful in putting insight in context within the wider field of online communities, great. Beyond that, there are things happening in that wider field which are worth looking at too - trends present and future. In the past five years the biggest change has been away from the focus on driving 'quantity of engagement', and it's partly because a lot of that functionality has gone to social media now. This leaves communities needing to work harder to prove the value of what they do - and a focus on driving the right kind of engagement - as above. The second big change - mostly in the last three years or so - has affected every sector: data, privacy, GDPR and so on. Organisations are far more concerned about the right way of collecting data, not violating the rights of the individual, and that's led to changes in the tech we use, and in how much research we do on our members.
More generally, this has made companies incredibly careful about how they gather data on their customers: organisations we work with like SAP get a lot of training in what they're allowed and not allowed to do. If you're in a data function, and used to take a huge amount of information, now I think you take as little as you need. It affects administration, for example making it easy for people to have posts removed; and what contact you have when signing people up in the first place. It affects how much analysis you do of who's in the community and how they're participating: but I would say it doesn't fundamentally change how communities are used.
At present, the many community platforms are very comparable in terms of the features they offer: increasingly, what distinguishes them is the level of support they provide to customers, their certifications, the level of training. But livestreaming and podcasts are certainly growing in popularity, being added to communities in new and exciting ways.
For the immediate future, I think communities people need more help with proving the value of their work - the analytics have to get a lot better, particularly in terms of integration. The hard part is integrating social media and community data with an existing database. At present for example, if Apple want to know if someone who's a customer and part of a community, remains a customer for a longer time than those not in the community, that's hard to assess. There isn't really a great tool that's widely used to bring all that data together in one place.
There are a number of opportunities, then, to grow the market for insight and analysis skills used within communities. I see it remaining a niche - I could be wildly wrong but I don't think it's going to explode, I think it's going to be a tool there for organisations that need it. However, the signs are that it's been growing steadily for some time and there is certainly scope for that to continue, and for it to grow its share of the overall insight market. Be aware of those using communities for all kinds of other purposes, and try and ensure that they are aware of you, and insight firms are well placed to continue making inroads in the sector.
Richard Millington is the founder of www.feverbee.com and author of both 'Buzzing Communities' and 'The Indispensable Community'. Over the past 13 years he has helped more than 270 brands including Apple, Google, Lego, Novartis,The United Nations and SAP use powerful psychology to build thriving communities. Through his community management academy, he has also trained 1250 of the world's top community pros. Prior to launching FeverBee in 2008, Richard interned with renown marketing author, Seth Godin, in New York.
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Other 21 YEARS / Online Communities content now available (read and download the full supplement here):
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Ask, Listen and Observe: Andy Buckley, Head of Client Solutions at Join the Dots / InSites Consulting argues that communities need to 'step up their game'
Being Customer Centric, Not Just Talking About It. Verve Executive Director Paul Lawson casts an expert eye over the many great uses of a community panel
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Interview Excerpts: Samsung's David Garcia Pawley
... on work-life and other kinds of balance; the extremes of 'agile'; working on communities with Verve; backing up insights; and why brands should 'get out more'
Interview: Kristof De Wulf
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Lean Communities, smooth pit stops: 20|20's Julia Eisenberg and Isaac Rogers
The rise of the 'smaller, more tactical insights community', and the need to get that 'pit lane' running smoothly.
All articles 2006-20 written and edited by Mel Crowther and/or Nick Thomas unless otherwise stated.