Hosted Communities Are Facing A ‘Retail Moment’
Perhaps the best analogy to describe the challenge facing hosted communities today is retail stores (or the ‘so-called’ retail apocalypse).
Like hosts of communities, retailers want people to buy in their stores. They can customise the store the way they want, gather loyalty card information, and deliver great customer support.
It’s harder to do that when you sell your goods on Amazon.
But, despite all those obvious benefits to both the customer and retailer of shopping in a store, a growing number of us simply prefer to click a ‘buy’ button.
Convenience reigns supreme.
The needs remain the same, but the preferences have shifted.
And, like hosted communities, this doesn’t mean retail stores are doomed. Some sectors are doing well (clothing, baked goods, antiques, groceries etc.) while others are struggling.
But it does mean there are some sectors where opening a retail store might be a good idea and some sectors where preferences have changed in such a way that it would be a bad idea.
This is pretty much where hosted communities are today. Whether it’s a good idea or not depends on the environment and whether we’re going to pursue an org-centric or member-centric approach (with the pros and cons of each).
The Organisation-Centric Approach
The organisation-centric approach is about control.
You launch a community on a platform you control (and are paying for). You can customise the community to suit the needs of your organisation and your members. You own the data and can integrate community engagement activities with your existing CRM to build a rich dataset.
This makes it easy to track behaviour and you can do things like create member segments, send email newsletters out to members, and measure the value of your community. This also gives you peace of mind that the platform provider won’t (usually) pull the rug out from under you or a new platform CEO won’t burn the place down.
The other benefit of the organisation-centric approach is it creates relatively clean distinctions between key functions of the organisations (support, marketing, customer success etc…).
It’s not a surprise that the majority of organisations looking to build a community today want to follow an organisation-centric approach.
The Member-Centric Approach
The member-centric approach is where you design a community experience solely around the current needs and preferences of your members.
In this case, you find out what their needs are and then identify the tools and methods through which they prefer to satisfy those needs.
For example, if you ask members where and how they wish to connect with others, the answers are typically very different from the experience an organisation would typically provide.
In a member-centric approach, you might take a decentralised approach to building your community.
You might support members to satisfy different needs on different platforms vs. a centralised platform. You might host learning content on YouTube and engage in the comments. You might have a Facebook group for members to chat directly with one another. You might host meetups on Bevy or Meetup.com. You might have a Substack newsletter etc…
The advantage of this approach is you’re always going with the flow. Your goal is to stay closely aligned with the current trends and preferences of your audience.
Begin With The Needs, Then Align To Preferences
The needs members have in social situations have remained the same, while the preferences changed. As you can see below, the needs are belonging, learning, support, and influence.
Your first step is to determine what needs you’re trying to satisfy.
If your goals are to get customers to learn from each other, the two needs to satisfy might be learning and influence (you need people to create the knowledge other people can learn from).
If your goal is to improve customer support or reduce support costs, then the member needs to satisfy might be support and influence.
If it’s to increase brand loyalty or retention, you might focus on belonging etc…
The first step is always to match your goals to the needs of members.
Match Needs To Preferences
Now comes the part of the journey that’s different in the Community Everywhere era.
In the past, you would typically create places within a central platform for members to satisfy those needs.
But it’s becoming increasingly difficult to persuade members to go to a central platform today for non-support needs.
In the Community Everywhere era you select the platforms which reflect the preferences of your audience.
So if you want members to feel a sense of belonging, select the places most likely to encourage that. This might be hosting events, creating chat-based groups, or maybe even a LinkedIn group etc…
Likewise, if you want members to learn, select the platforms where most people go to learn today. This might be YouTube, online course platforms, or work with influencers. You might even promote people who are already sharing great expertise and help build the influencers within your sector.
If it’s customer support, then select the places members prefer to go to receive support. Sometimes that’s social media, other times it’s 3rd-party sites or hosted forums.
Just remember that it’s unlikely a single platform is going to be the best place to satisfy all your members’ needs.
“But My Organisation Wants Control!”
This makes sense.
Who wouldn’t want control?
The problem is you often trade control for participation. The more control you exercise, the less engagement you might get.
And if you exercise too much control, you might lose the entire audience to a third-party community. I.e. If you require everyone to jump through several hoops to regularly engage and participate in your community, they might turn to a subreddit instead.
And, in mature ecosystems, you’re going to lose control regardless of how much you want it.
This increasingly presents a choice.
1) Do we want better outcomes which are harder to measure
2) Do we want worse outcomes that are easier to measure?
When we put the choice in these terms, the decision should be obvious. Let’s pursue the option with better outcomes and treat measurement as a separate challenge to solve.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to measure worse outcomes.
If your ecosystem suggests you should take a member-centric approach, take it.
Understanding The Trade-Offs
Both approaches have very obvious upsides and downsides as you can see here:
|Solve member needs on the platform we’re paying for.||Solve member needs on the platforms they prefer to use.|
|Gather more information about our members when they register.||Gather more engagement by not requiring members to register.|
|Integrate the data with our CRM||Build a dataset using third-party tools.|
|Measure community outcomes to a clear ROI by analysing relationships between community data and CRM||Measure community outcomes by using reach, surveys, and changes in member attitudes.|
|Have a clearly defined community team to manage a clearly defined community platform.||Develop a clearly defined community philosophy each function can embrace to engage members on preferred channels.|
|We have full control and responsibility to customise the experience for our audience.||Platforms optimise largely the experience to maximise engagement.|
The upside of the organisation-driven approach is control, measurement, and durability.
The downside is sustaining participation and finding yourself on the wrong side of current trends.
The upside of the member-centric approach is it’s easier (and cheaper) to initiate and sustain engagement. The downside is it’s harder to measure and you’re more vulnerable to sudden changes in the environment.
In the past, we’ve skewed more towards the organisation-centric approach.
In the future, we probably need to skew towards the member-centric approach.