10 Tips for Creating Successful Online Communities

Yvonne Brandon
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 in loyalty.

So compelling is this belief, that Microsoft is actively engaged in conducting Voice of Partner Research to understand the expectations of business partners regarding online communities.

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.

Building Community
click here to view this PowerPoint slide

Per the visual above, there are;
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  1. Case Studies, “"Best Practice” Articles and Columns are vehicles for publishing information.
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    They provide the Building Blocks for learning. However, these vehicles are clearly “one way” communications.
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    Blogs provide “interactivity” by enabling partners to provide comments and feedback regarding the “building blocks” events.
  2. Partners also requested Information Dissemination mechanisms in the form of Audiocasts, RSS Feeds and Webcasts. They identified portability as important.
  3. Structured Vehicles such as Forums were identified for “live” interaction between partners and Microsoft and partners.
  4. Forums should continue the information flow by generating FAQ Information for dissemination.
  5. Blogs should be deployed as the interactive mechanism for each of the vehicles above.
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    Blogs are also viewed by partners as the one vehicle that comes closest to delivering in-person interactions.

5 Components of the Community Experience

1. Focused Content

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

5. Ongoing Support


Policies
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.

Privacy
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.

Results

VoC Research conducted among Business Partners identified:

  • 5 Vehicles for Building Community
  • 5 Critical Components of the Community Experience
  • Exceeded online monthly unique user traffic by 17%
  • Exceeded monthly repeat visitors by 33%
  • Increased time on site by 15%
  • Increased click-through rates by 78%.