How to Overcome Challenges and Use Community as an Integrated Service to Improve Business Results

Community Strategy // Companies sometimes struggle to integrate community into their offerings. Learn how to use your online community as an integrated service.

Scott K. Wilder
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Historically, organizations have struggled to integrate community into their infrastructure and customer-facing offerings. Community is often looked at as a standalone application or service that’s tacked onto a company’s overall suite of platforms, such as their corporate website, their marketing automation platform, their email engine, and their CRM.

Such a lack of integration makes each platform, and even the entire company, less efficient because they create a fragmented view of customers. Your email engine gives you one set of data, while your CRM and community give you two more. That information is never combined to give a comprehensive dataset including transactional data, demographic data, and behavioral data that you can use to provide a better customer experience.

Many leaders also wrestle about where community should sit in their organization. Should marketing own the community? What about customer support? Many organization never fully answer this question or define their community’s business goals, so it becomes just another relatively isolated tool among many. When I worked at Intuit, we dodged this question and treated it as a Center of Excellence. The team moved around to different parts of the organization at different times: Marketing, Support, Product Management, Advocacy, and others.

Community should not be thought of as just another platform, or even as just another offering from an organization. It should be part of a larger suite of platforms, all of which work together to forward business goals like customer acquisition, engagement, retention, and revenue. Community as an Integrated Service,’ or CIS, is: a community that’s fully integrated with technology stacks across an organization (Support, Marketing, Sales, IT, etc.) and enables the company to tailor the entirety of the customer’s online experience toward each individual’s specific needs.

This holistic approach leads not only to improved business outcomes (targeted marketing and care, sentiment, retention, etc.), but also to a better customer experience. It is a key driver of the customer’s overall digital experience (and to some degree his/her offline experience) because it impacts a company’s business processes. It is part of a larger integration tying it together with marketing technology stacks and support systems, and it drives the overall ecosystem of customers, partners and other stakeholders.

Community Should Fit into Your Company’s Big Picture

Community is part of a much larger company PIE (Processes, Integrations and Ecosystems). I recommend that you focus equally on these three components—of PIE—no matter the size of your community:

1. Processes

Customer engagement and employee workflows impact numerous processes.

Examples of employee-facing processes include how content is created and curated, as well as how it is remixed and reused across various channels. More and more of this content is being created by customers and partners vs. employees.

Examples of backend systems include how a lead is identified on a community or partner platform, and how it is scored and tracked in your marketing automation and CRM systems.

2. Integrations

Community should not be looked at in isolation. During the evaluation process (or even after you have launched), it’s important to determine how community fits into your company’s marketing stack, sales tools, customer support systems and IT infrastructure.

If users are logged into community, for example, you could track their lurking or commenting behavior and feed this information into your Marketing Automation or CRM instances. Suddenly, a lead becomes more qualified because you can tell what blogs, videos or discussion threads they are looking at. This information can be forwarded to your sales rep. And, better yet, you could roll this data up at the Account level and gain insights into the community behavior of everyone from a certain company. (Why isn’t this part of Account Based Marketing?)

3. Ecosystems

When it comes to ecosystems, most people think of customers, employees and partners. But not all these people are created equal. Some customers become advocates for the company. Others become behind-the-scenes product experts. Or both. It’s important to understand how different segments interact with your products, services and your company so you can engage your audience strategically, putting more resources into more valuable segments.

There are also other important constituents such as ex-employees who might still have a strong affiliation to the company, alumni of your clients’ companies, and influencers who engage with relevant tribes. Each of these needs to receive an invitation to the table—a place to engage, learn and transact.

7 Challenges to Implementing Community as an Integrated Service

CIS is the foundation for implementing processes, handling integrations, and engaging ecosystem members. There are some real challenges, however, to get companies to think of Community as an Integrated Service.

1. Every Platform Is a Ship with Its Own Captain

The average number of technologies in an enterprise marketing stack is 12. But some marketers are using more than 31 tools to manage campaigns and data. Almost every marketing company has their own digital landscape portraying marketing stacks. But where is community on this list – the place where people have the most opportunities to interact with your brand?

To be honest, I make a nice living showing companies the benefits of reducing the number of their cloud based platforms and technologies. And that’s because I often see employees managing their own platforms in isolation. The demand generation team runs Marketo, the customer success team runs Gainsight, sales enablement runs Salesforce, the community team runs Higher Logic, and rarely do the operations leaders of all these platforms ever get in one room to discuss how they can market to their customers more efficiently. So much for a holistic approach to tracking the customer’s digital journey.

Recommendation: Get a cross-functional team to work together on a consistent basis to map out touchpoints, track engagement and consolidate metrics. This approach will create a consistent framework that can be used across the organization. It will also ensure everyone is learning about the customer together.

2. ROI Is Not Straightforward

Most community cost-benefit analyses focus on call deflection and don’t take into account how community can be part of a multi-touch attribution strategy. A multi-touch attribution strategy includes assigning credit or allocating dollars from a sale to the marketing touchpoints that a customer was exposed to prior to their purchase.

Recommendation: Where is community when it comes to multi-touch attribution? With the proper tracking, you can treat community as a channel with multiple programs and touchpoints, making it a part of your marketing automation and CRM strategies as well as your multi-touch revenue attribution approach. I am not recommending that you sell directly to your customers within your community, but think in terms of education, nurturing, etc.

3. Lack of Senior and Experienced Muscle

Companies often don’t treat CIS as a strategic asset, and therefore tend to hire a junior or mid-level person to manage their community. After this person comes on board, senior management often takes a ‘hands-off’ approach and fails to share their business experiences or provide guidance to the community leader. Without a mentor, the junior person tends to operate mainly in reactive mode.

Recommendation: Pay a bit more to play effectively! Hire a more senior leader to drive community initiatives. Someone who understands your customers and also has experience in different areas of the business.

4. Not Treating Community as a Team Sport

This dovetails on the previous statement because division managers often don’t allocate resources to the community. As a result, community, like other marketing or support areas, operates in a silo. Community needs to be treated as a team sport with everyone in the ecosystem involved. At Marketo, we identified key internal captains in each department to participate in managing the day-to-day community operations.

Recommendation: Leverage the captain approach, but make sure department leaders include community metrics on their individual team member’s goals.

5. No Clear Definition of Success Across Departments

There are several issues here. It’s challenging to define the purpose, the mission and even the metrics that multiple parts of an organization agree upon. There needs to be a higher calling than just ‘generate leads’ or ‘increase call deflection.’ You need to know how those goals impact largers business metrics like retention and customer service spend, for instance.

In addition to those business goals, however, departments across your company need to understand how your community impacts customers. Does it reduce frustration when they have a problem with your product? Does it help them connect with peers and make them feel like they’re a part of something larger than themselves? At Marketo, we took the later route. Our CIS was the main platform for The Marketing Nation, the place for digital and technical marketers to connect with one another.

Recommendation: Develop a more human, emotional goal for your collaboration platform. Combine that with business goals to more effectively engage your customers and meet your company’s needs.

6. Lack of Understanding on How Everything Works Together

Rarely does a true marketing, support or IT system’s architect get involved in picking a vendor or ensuring all backend systems and frontend functionality are integrated. That often leads to data silos and a disconnected experience for customers.

Recommendation: Treat your CIS as a product. Get a digital architect involved who can map out how all your systems work together and manage the flow of data and provide guidance to channel owners.

7. Perception of Community as Loss Leader

When it comes to community, there tends to be a call center mentality of how we can reduce head count or how we pay each rep less per hour. As one manager put it: ‘I’m often asked what’s the minimum to put the lights on.”

Because of this, many community managers feel as if they have to constantly prove their value using convoluted metrics. They also struggle to get alignment and clarity about what it means to ‘put points on the board.’ This could be ROI. This could be customer satisfaction. This could be cross-sell/upsell. This could be a retention metric. Etc. At the end of the day, your community’s value is probably a mix of these items.

Recommendation: Don’t invest in community if it is really an afterthought. Don’t think of it as only a call deflection tool. Get alignment upfront with your team about what value the community will bring to your organization and what success (qualitative and quantitative) looks like.

Community Challenges Are Your Biggest Opportunities

The above are not obstacles. They are opportunities for leaders to treat community as an integrated service. It’s an opportunity to take their game to the next level and impact the company’s bottom line. In my weekly blog posts, I will further explore how to create Community as an Integrated Service.


Scott K. Wilder

Global Head of Growth Marketing, Udacity

Scott is Global Head of Growth Marketing at Udacity. He is is an accomplished digital, growth, demand generation, marketing operations and engagement and marketing leader with decades of strategic and hands-on. He has experience in driving digital demand and growth, on a strategic or tactical level. He has been in the digital trenches, building, implementing life growth-related programs, and managing the backend marketing and sales operations. He specializes in driving revenue while optimizing the customer experience and the marketing/sales stack. He has extensive experience in growth marketing and working with platforms such as Salesforce, Marketo, Hubspot, and others.

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