10 Tips for Creating Successful Online Communities
Group Manager, Online Partner Marketing (OPM), Microsoft*
As I approach my 2nd
decade as a B2B marketing practitioner, I find there is no more exciting time to be a marketer
than right now, where the influence of digital and interactive media as enablers of online community is so pervasive. Search optimization, webinars, v-casting, blogging,
discussion forums, RSS and podcasting (to name a few), are the many choices marketers have as tools that bring web sites to life and facilitate the growth of online communities.
The importance of these communities is highlighted in the July 26, 2006 issue of The Wall Street Journal®
. The results of a McKinsey
study conducted for LiveWorld, commissioned to quantify the impact of online community found that if done correctly, online communities attract users to return to a web
site nine times as often
, and to stay there five times as long
per visit. This is a hard metric representing a 45 time increase
So compelling is this belief, that Microsoft is actively engaged in conducting Voice of Partner Research to understand the expectations of business partners regarding
The Microsoft business partner portal is a B2B web site that exists for the sole purpose of serving the business needs of our partner eco-system, and to earn and maintain
their loyalty. Collectively Microsoft calls these alternate channel relationships, “partners.”
The team that I manage is responsible for publishing, site management, marketing and user experience on that portal which is accessible to partners in 53+ countries.
Microsoft’s partner eco-system is currently the largest and most highly skilled indirect sales channel in the world. These 700K+ global firms deliver a very high
percentage of Microsoft’s annual revenue. Relationships with nearly 400K of these firms are managed solely on the portal. As a result, partner loyalty and therefore
online community are essential to Microsoft’s program for partners and to its relationship marketing strategies. This article will share those learnings.
True Interaction is Critical
Based on Voice of Partner research conducted for us by Ernan Roman Direct Marketing, partners want online communities for two reasons; first to reach out and connect to
other professionals with similar issues and needs and secondly to obtain knowledge from each other and from Microsoft.
They identified online communities as ways that partners can share common interests, needs and goals for problem solving and support, and where they can easily find and
communicate with each other to establish mutually beneficial business relationships.
Per the Voice of Partner research, a “gap” was found between partners’ in-person experiences with Microsoft sponsored communities and their online community
experiences. While partners agreed that Microsoft does offer well managed communities, they found the partner program to be lacking in those opportunities. They identified
the missing element causing this gap as lack of “interaction” in that communication traditionally flows in only one direction: from Microsoft to the partner.
5 Vehicles for Building Community
Based on the Voice of Partner findings, we are developing a process for delivering increased interaction between partners and between partners and Microsoft.
click here to view this PowerPoint slide
Per the visual above, there are;
5 Components of the Community Experience
1. Focused Content
- Case Studies, “"Best Practice” Articles and Columns are vehicles for publishing information.
They provide the Building Blocks for learning. However, these vehicles are clearly “one way” communications.
Blogs provide “interactivity” by enabling partners to provide comments and feedback regarding the “building blocks” events.
- Partners also requested Information Dissemination mechanisms in the form of Audiocasts, RSS Feeds and Webcasts.
They identified portability as important.
- Structured Vehicles such as Forums were identified for “live” interaction between partners and Microsoft
- Forums should continue the information flow by generating FAQ Information for dissemination.
- Blogs should be deployed as the interactive mechanism for each of the vehicles above.
Blogs are also viewed by partners as the one vehicle that comes closest to delivering in-person interactions.
An online community that offers content focused on the audience’s primary interests is the hook that attracts and maintains active participation. Because the information
will be used in daily partner to customer engagements, OPM must ensure that Microsoft-provided content is relevant, accurate, easy to access, and uses clear, unambiguous
and partner-centric nomenclature.
Partner-provided content must also be targeted and specific and edited to the same specifications as MS content. This targeted information serves as the foundation level
of the illustration above.
2. Flexible Content Dissemination
Partners tell us that time is money and every non-customer facing minute they spend must be maximized. The implication for OPM is to offer portability of information
wherever possible; enabling downloads to DVD’s, MP3, smart phones and other portable devices.
3. Interactive Forums
The interactive design component allows partners the opportunity to weigh in on those subjects that are of specific interest to them personally or to their company business.
Messaging around specific communities must be as specific as possible to encourage the right levels of participation by the right members. Because they are sensitive
about divulging proprietary business information, partners must be assured that their discussions are secure on the site.
4. Listening Mechanisms
- Rate this Page/Contact Us Support:
This feature allows partners to intertwine discussion directly with the content they’ve viewed. Because the forum is in free form, daily reports allow OPM to
maintain vigilance over the performance of the site overall as well as over partner attitudes and impressions.
Partners can report anything from broken links and download issues to concerns and opinions they have about the content. Production uses the former to maintain the
site and marketing uses the latter to refine campaigns and content.
- Blogs and Online Collaboration tools:
Less than five years ago, blogging was widely considered superfluous to most B2B marketing strategies. Fear of letting employees talk directly to customer or partner
audiences without close scrutiny, and the concern for revealing confidential or restricted information prematurely into the market place are some reasons why B2B strategists
tended not to embrace them.
These remain legitimate fears however, the medium itself represents such a powerful marketing channel, companies cannot afford not to include them as integral to their
touch and contact strategy. Microsoft Partners tell us that they want to blog about business issues, thereby providing the partner program with a powerful indicator
of what’s happening in the real world, in real time.
5. Ongoing Support
A partner in one of our research studies asked a question that was so sensible and intuitive. In a discussion about community, he raised the importance of having a shared knowledge
base where partners can post their issues and outcomes, allowing other partners to benefit from their experiences.
The need for an interactive FAQ section by topic is under review and will eventually become a keystone of the online community
strategy, segmented by partner audience.
Policies and guidelines are key to giving partners the control they want over their community experience while protecting the integrity of the information that is published
on the site. Partner participation will be encouraged, but within the boundaries and standards of excellence as set forth by Microsoft, the Microsoft Partner Program and
by the Online Partner Marketing Group (OPM). Strong policy statements will address partners’ personal responsibility for tone and manner for what they post, the
appropriateness of the language they use, the importance of being factual in what they say as part of their responsibility to other partners, along with other specific
aspects of member-driven etiquette. Online, every partner, has an equal seat at the table–an equal voice, regardless of their level of participation in the program.
As such, they assume responsibility for the professionalism of their experiences as well as those of other partners.
Published and enforced privacy policies are likely more important to B2B online communities than they are to their consumer equivalents. Before they share their thoughts
and opinions on the web, Microsoft partners tell us that it is important for them to know that the environment in which they are conducting discussions is secure and trustworthy.
Partner driven infractions and consequences should be clearly stated.
Riding the wave
This process will enable partners to participate in a multi-faceted dialogue with each other and Microsoft. It will also allow Microsoft, the partner program and Online
Partner Marketing (OPM) to keep their fingers on the pulse of this important partner eco-system.
I hope that these insights from Microsoft’s partners along with these tips I have shared will help you succeed in delivering true community experiences online.
*The statements I offer today represent my own personal views. I am speaking for myself and not on behalf of my employer, Microsoft Corporation.