In this interview with Mike Rowland of Impact Interactions, a consulting group advising B2B companies such as Cisco on social media and online community strategy, Mike covers the top 5 myths about building B2B online communities and then offers his top tips for successful community building:
Myth #1: B2B online communities must have a serious tone
MR: When you look at B2C communities, the perception is that they are fun and entertaining, but B2B communities have to be cut and dry. But for B2B, the facilitators, like in any community, need to haveboth a sense of humor and people skills to be effective. They don't have to be serious and focused all the time. B2B doesn't have to stand for "no fun." That is not true. Think "measured fun" -- for example, the kind of discussion that happens at the watercooler.
Myth #2: New B2B online communities need a presence on all major social networking sites
MR: We see communities that get launched with webcasts, blogs, Twitter, Facebook. If you are in too many places at once, you fragment your audience, and they never link all of your efforts together. Start small with your feature set, so you can aggregate people first, before giving them multiple tools. Too much focus on tools, rather than the behaviors you're trying to get, can backfire.
Myth #3: B2B online communities need active moderation to start but eventually run themselves
MR: When building a B2B community, you should expect that your company will always need to be actively involved. When companies stop actively engaging in community, it alienates people. If you see zero responses, it feels like the company doesn't care. For example, I've seen cases where companies will launch an open Q & A channel, but they don't set up a team of subject matter or community experts. It becomes a virtual wasteland. Companies underestimate the work communities take.
Companies think that there's a magic formula, and that once there is active community participation then the company can pull back because they are no longer needed. That's not true. Companies must maintain their activity level, not just at launch, but have a plan for what they'll be doing in three months, and into the future. Don't expect to start out heavy, then back out substantially. B2B relationship-building is much more intense than B2C -- you can't just back out.
Myth #4: B2C and B2B online communities have similar participation rates
MR: The 90-9-1 participation ratio (90% lurkers, 9% intermittent contributors, 1% active participants) that community managers often cite as a benchmark is a myth, at least for B2B communities. In my experience, that ratio doesn't fit well. That model doesn't take into account what the community is trying to accomplish. In a B2B support community, if users don't see their issue and need support, they post it -- it's different than a gossip community where there may not be a high user incentive to post as opposed to lurking. Support communities still have lurkers, but the intermittent contributor participation percentage can be as high as 25-30%. On the other hand, active participants in B2B communities can be more like 0.1% or a tenth of what community managers expect to see in B2C.
Myth #5: Social networking site metrics indicate the health of B2B communities
MR:The main problem with participation in B2B Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIngroups and so on is that you're able to identify active participants and intermittent contributors, but you can't see who's just reading. Social networking site follower or friend counts can also be misleading because not all of these people could even be considered lurkers. Instead, use social network sites as beacons to point traffic to your site so you can measure community participation more actively.
Mike's top tips for building B2B online communities:
MR:What does the audience hear from you over time to make you want to take action? You can't just blitz people -- you have to be providing info over time -- it's more about brand awareness. B2B companies are playing catch up a lot -- but things are moving faster now. Dell and Cisco are examples of B2B companies on Twitter -- that's a big growth market.
To B2B companies getting started, ask yourself what you are trying to accomplish. Lead generation/sooner-faster sales, support? Companies need to put that into a goal -- and really think about their business objectives. What would the KPI's be? Success indicators can come from CRM, the community, the website, the ecommerce website.
After that we start talking about tools. What are you offering? If it's perceived that you're not offering something of value, you'll have a low conversion rate. And --- how good is the user interface and navigation? With each extra step you lose more people. How passionate are people regarding your product or brand? Higher passion equals a higher energy rate for your online community.
We get asked questions like -- for 100,000 visits per month, how many registrants should we have? It depends. There are so many variables. Compare the percent of registrations to traffic. The ratio is dependent on value exchange --- what are you offering?
An example of a passionate B2B community is Cisco Networking Professionals. The power of that brand is a combination of everything they do in the marketplace ---good products, people, treatment of customers -- and how they get the message out -- that ties directly into their community metrics.
A smaller company without brand awareness can use social media to get started --- online community must come later. Create an executive level blog to set the tone --- talk about where the company/industry is going. Set up Twitter --- feature your blog and call attention to yourself as a company that's willing to communicate.
Everyone thinks they're a social media expert. The key is to understand people, not tools. Understand what drives behavior, and why they'd want to interact.