Sticky notes with types of digital communities.

There was a time—back when fax machines and rich mahogany were regular office staples—that product support was relegated to “normal business hours” and customer communities only met in-person about once a year. But as the 21st century marches on, who your customers are, what they want, when they want it and how they get it continues to rapidly evolve. Whether you’re a B2B company like IBM or a B2C behemoth like Coca-Cola, one of the best ways to keep your ear to the ground, connect with consumers and create raving brand ambassadors is by cultivating a thriving community. And in the Digital Age, that community must be…yep, you guessed it … digital.

We developed our online community called PDI Connections in 2010. No, it’s not a dating site. You’ll have to make those connections elsewhere. Since its launch, it’s been a huge hit with our customers featuring blogs, forums, documentation and knowledge base articles that help them find answers to questions, connect with industry colleagues and even contribute to future product development. We haven’t looked back since. If you’re looking to break into the world of online communities, here are a few things that will help jumpstart your journey.

Great Customers and Great Culture

You need great customers and culture to support a thriving customer community. Unenthusiastic customers are probably the quickest way to see your dream of an interactive, engaged community wither and blow away before it gets off the ground. It’s simple. Enthusiastic customers are happy customers. Make sure you’re delivering great customer service and products before you ask customers to help build an online community.

Similarly, an enthusiastic, engaged workforce is critical to the success of an online community. At PDI, team members at all levels of the company—even executives—are active on PDI Connections. Online communities thrive on content and real-time interaction. If you don’t have internal buy-in from your leadership team and the employees who are in the trenches building relationships with your customers every day, the community is doomed to fail.

Goals and Measurement

As with any new venture, setting goals, measuring progress and course correcting as necessary are important to long-term success. If you’re struggling with goals, here are a few to consider: increasing customer and employee engagement by a certain amount in the first year, reducing the percentage of support calls as a result of customers answering each other’s questions, or perhaps seeing a certain number of development projects that originated as customer community ideas. In one instance at PDI, an enhanced lottery scanning feature was added to our store-level handheld because several customers expressed a need on PDI Connections. The new feature, which fully automates inventory tracking for scratch-off lottery tickets, eliminates a manual entry process that was costing one customer nearly 100 hours a week.

I guarantee there will be lessons to learn and areas to improve, so setting up regular progress reports along the way to achieving your goals will ensure you’re delivering increasingly more value to customers with each passing month.

Platform, Platform, Platform

When building your online community, it’s imperative that you choose the right platform. Sure, it can be a long and arduous process, but trust me, you want to get this right the first time. In addition to ensuring the technology is intuitive and easy for your customers to use, it must be able to handle your company’s specialized needs. For example, PDI Connections is more than a communication tool for our customer base. It contains documentation, blogs, forums, knowledge base articles, videos, software release downloads…the list goes on. The extent of our needs disqualified a lot of contenders during the evaluation process. That’s okay. Breathe, and move on to the next option. In this case, getting it right is better than getting it fast. Your customers will thank you later.

The Human Side of Business

As oxymoronic as it may seem, in the Digital Age, the human side of your business is digital. The primary objective of any online community is to humanize the face of your brand with engaging customer-to-customer or employee-to-customer interactions that deliver value to the consumer. If you’re feeling a little shy, don’t. You’re going where many companies have gone before. So, take the leap and empower your people to extend the value of your brand in new and meaningful ways for your customers. We did it; you can, too.