The less companies try to control the activities in their online communities and the easier they make it for customers to interact and initiate dialogue, the more vibrant and valuable the community will be for both.
New research published by Communispace, analysing activity in 84 private, branded online communities, suggests that companies' interests are best served when they enable customer-to-customer dialogue and activities but don't try to control or limit them.
According to the study, Beyond the 'Other' Box: Giving Customers an Independent Voice in Your Community, these customer-initiated conversations yield valuable marketing insights and customer engagement with the brand.
The study found that those communities with a higher proportion of activities initiated by members had greater overall participation in terms of participation rates, volume of contributions and frequency of activity.
Some of the key findings included the following:
- Initiation stimulates usage
When customers initiate the conversation they say more and contribute more often over time. On average, members generated nearly half (44.1%) of all activities on the community sites, with individual communities ranging from 4% to 82% of member-initiated content. These 'ownership' rates, as evidenced by members initiating and directing many-to-many conversations, were found to be positively correlated with weekly member participation rates, number of weekly contributions per contributor, and the percentage of active weeks a member contributes during their tenure in the community. In other words, a higher percentage of members are visiting more often and saying more in communities that have a good mix of voices and topics.
- Ownership stimulates interaction
The more people 'own' the community, the more they talk with the sponsoring company. People in high-ownership communities engage more with the company sponsoring the community. For example, a financial services community with a 58.9% ownership rate averages 78.7 contributions per client-generated activity, while a comparable community with 38.9% ownership averages only 56.6 contributions per client-generated activity. Even in relatively 'high-ownership' communities, the majority of contributions still go to company sponsored activities, for example asking members to take polls, brainstorm ideas, share journals or report on shopping experiences. The mere presence of multiple voices seems to promote overall community participation.
The implications are interesting, too. For example:
- By allowing members to engage with each other in the context of a brand, they will engage more with the brand itself.
- Not limiting conversations to topics determined by the sponsoring company allows 'outside-the-box' ideas to come to light - ones that might otherwise be overlooked.
- The more member-initiated conversations, the more likely that community discussions will stay relevant and engaging without facilitators having to predict what topics will be of interest to members.
- Ensuring that members can make their voices heard independently of the sponsor's agenda and making the dialogue truly reciprocal may also help members feel valued and listened to, and thus promote participation.
The complete study has been made available from the Communispace web site - click here.