“We have become digital crack addicts!”
Within my role as Community Manager for the OpenText Web Site Management (WSM) product, I’m close to celebrating a great milestone – 500 registered users. This is a truly great milestone as the platform is open, meaning you don’t need to register to read the content and use the platform. You do however need to register if you would like to contribute to the aggregated feed of external blog posts – called “Community Feed”, contribute to the “Tweet Exchange” Twitter feed, or post to the Forum or Ideas feature. The fact that a vast majority of registered users do not provide their details to contribute to the Community Feed or Tweet Exchange is not necessarily surprising but a significant number also have not posted to the Forum as well, which begs the question why register?
I mention this as it could be inferred as another piece of positive qualitative data – perhaps people simply register to ‘belong’ and affiliate themselves with the community even if they are not participating pro-actively straight away. This qualitative feedback is a great compliment to its sibling, quantitative data a.k.a. metrics.
In some cases it even feels like such qualitative feedback has greater value and context. For instance, the open approach to the community platform was endorsed by some praise provided by a prospect (now a customer) who saw that open, honest, and sometimes critical discussion was ongoing in the platform’s forum. This sounds like it should have been a risk as the dreaded variant of the word criticism was used. What turned it into something positive however, was the fact that this prospect could openly see that there was activity in such discussions, and that any such criticism was used constructively and that the engaged members of the community pulled together on many occasions to share experiences or knowledge around a given point of criticism. Internal OpenText employees along with Partners and Customers have jointly played a role here. This subject of openness and transparency is perhaps a subject for another day.
What does particularly interest me in this space, is how digital marketeers and businesses with online assets in general, have become obsessed with metrics. We have become digital crack addicts!
In many cases this is completely understandable as there can often be a very tangible and clearly measurable route from visitor to lead to opportunity to closed deal within a traditional marketing focused website. But what about community platforms?
How does a conversation between peers in a community platform or a blog post by a customer sharing best-practice knowledge tangibly influence that bottom line? Let’s face it, it is that same ROI challenge around “Social Media” that has been floating around for a few years now and we all know there are no magic rules that provide the answer as the context is all so important.
As I tend to be someone who sees the application of repeatable patterns in everything I do, from Software Development code idioms to Marketing Strategies, I thought that there is sure to be a parallel to this challenge and indeed there is – in the traditional marketing world.
The Traditional Approach
This realisation came to me as I recently visited my home town in the UK and noticed that as I drove to see a friend, a local roundabout that had perfectly trimmed grass and beautiful flower beds also had a sponsor — the local Sports Centre.
This really got me thinking as it made me think about why the Sports Centre decided to invest in this way and because of my (digital) crack addiction, I thought how can they measure the return on that investment?
It is not exactly like the UK’s Health and Safety department would allow the placement of an all so trendy QR code on the sponsorship sign situated in the middle of a roundabout on a busy junction — although that wouldn’t surprise me nowadays as I have seen a few on the back of lorries!. I can see the future: “Is this van driven safely? No, then take a picture with your mobile device whilst driving and let us know!” — I digress.
Maybe the Sports Centre simply wanted to raise a positive profile within the community where many of its clients or potential clients pass through. After all, it was a beautifully kept roundabout that many a competitive gardener would be proud of and perhaps it is that association with something well kept and maintained which inferred a well run Sports Centre.
Whilst looking for an image to accompany this post, I found the image above, which was a stroke of luck. The sponsors on this road sign happen to be CDS, a long-term well-respected Partner of OpenText based in Leeds, UK and one that I’ve had the pleasure of working with on a number of occasions. Given this coincidence, I decided to reach out to Mike Collier who is CDS’ Technical Director to ask directly about this investment. Here is what he said:
“The advertising on the road sign was all about raising brand awareness and coincided with a branding refresh we undertook a few years ago. This was also coupled with advertising on the back of a bus!
The location of the sign and the bus advertising was significant as it was on one of the main routes travelled by business people, into Leeds. The bus advertising was on a route which circled Leeds and in particular the town centre and the main train station.
I am not sure that we generated any real measurable business from it but it did raise awareness of the brand with a number of our existing customers commenting on it in a good way.
We did have a an unexpected piece of good fortune when the bus crashed! (no injuries thankfully) and it was featured on Look North – the local news channel!”
I found this feedback from Mike very interesting as it helps re-enforce the question I’m trying to raise in this post.
Community platforms such as the Solution Exchange are platforms that in the first instance, are there to help serve the community better. Whether that is the aggregation of related articles on a shared context or the sharing and dissemination of best-practice knowledge, the focus is on generating genuine value for end users to help them get their job done without a hidden agenda of lead generation.
Given this thread of thought, is lead generation a feasible goal for such a community of tech savvy users, who often are abstracted a level or two away from key decision makers? You could track activity at an Account/Company level instead of individual but my feel is that such tracking could come at the cost of user trust — a commodity that is hard to establish but so easy to lose.
What this boils down to, is something very simple — should such community platforms where the intention is to do something good for end users be a Brand Awareness initiative or a Lead Generation/Customer Acquisition initiative?
This question depends on many factors and in particular the context as many “social” communities can certainly facilitate nurturing prospects to a conversion goal. A retail brand using Facebook to promote to potential customers presents a contrasting context to that of an multi-product/service enterprise providing value to an existing customer base in an open and transparent way.
Conclusion – Lay off the (digital) crack!
For me, as the Community Manager for Solution Exchange, my focus is on generating genuine value for Users (Customers, Partners, along with internal staff). It is therefore unbelievably clear to me that I am undertaking a Brand Awareness initiative primarily. Yes, lead generation through referrals and soft promotions is and will be possible but it should not take centre stage.
So maybe it is time for us to lay off the digital crack as it clouds our decision making. Balanced use of quantitative and qualitative data is what is needed here to make educated business decisions. This may not be appropriate in every “community” initiative but one that makes a whole lot of sense to me.
What do you think?