Three Keys to Creating a Member-Driven Culture within Your Vertical Community

December 19, 2008

A couple of weeks ago I had the honor of presenting to the Professional Marketing Forum in Boston.  I outlined a case study on how professional services firms can leverage a vertical community to improve their lead generation and customer-centric marketing efforts.  One of the main points made was “a well managed and facilitated community will enable your customers (or prospects) to derive value by interacting with each other as well as with your firm.” 


How can your firm benefit from these constituents consulting each other?   If leveraged correctly, peer-to-peer interaction between prospects can be a powerful part of your company’s relationship marketing and lead generation strategy, resulting in healthy increases in brand equity and sales.  However, a self sustaining, member-driven vertical community culture is difficult to achieve. 


I outlined for the audience in Boston three proven tactics that firms can employ when tacking the challenge of creating a community where members produces content, feedback and value through peer-to-peer interaction.  I summarize the three below:


Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs) and Evangelists



Create an advisory board of key opinion leaders within the market.  Allow them to have decision making power as it relates to programming and content within your community in exchange for showcasing their involvement and endorsement of the community.  Use them for advice and gaining credibility.   Encourage their participation but if they are very prominent within your industry don’t expect them to have the time to actively be involved on a daily or even weekly basis.  



To offset KOLs inaccessibility, it is critical to also befriend a group within your market that truly embraces the community-concept and/or your firm.  These individuals must have a certain prominence or stature within the industry but need not be the “KOLs” on your advisory board (maybe their direct reports or two levels down).  Feature these folks around various community content like facilitated online discussions, guest blog posts, webinars and face-to-face events.  Focus on enabling these people to “sell” your community and thus your firm.



Keep Things Simple


Assume your market has very little familiarity or comfort participating in online communities.  Thus the user interface or “UI” needs to be simple.  Copy templates off common sites that your users are already familiar and comfortable.  Specifically, the communication tools within the community must be easy and simple to use, whether it be interacting with each other through blinded email (see LinkedIn), well designed online discussion forums or blogs, these applications must have a clean interface and be self explanatory to use. 


Event Driven-to-Member Driven


You may have a robust database that enables you to quickly fill your community with members, but it is quite a different leap to assume your members will actively utilize the community to interface with you and other members.  To avoid having members be anything other than a dormant e-mail address in your database, focus on value-added events that tackle subject matters that are both highly relevant to your members and can be tied into your firm.  Get the membership acclimated with the community culture through regularly scheduled live, synchronous events like webinars and complement these with asynchronous events like featured online discussions.  Ask members to sit on panels during the webinars, ask members to “facilitate” an online discussion and ask members to be “question askers” or “posters” in the audience.  “Assigning” member involvement is tedious but critical during the first 12-18 months of a community’s life.  The ancillary benefit to your hard work is it allows you to nurture relationships with your most important people. 


In Conclusion, if your firm has a clear objective behind a web 2.0 strategy (see the five “objectives” in Groundswell) then it is likely that building an organically grown, member-driven community can be at the core of your lead generation and nourishment strategy.  None of the above tactics are easy and each has it’s own intrinsic benefits and inherent barriers to execution.  However, nothing I recommend is rocket science (I can address questions or dive into each tactic in more detail in a future post or via email if there is demand for such  a discussion).  Practical thinking and practical applications of a sound relationship marketing strategy will enable any smart company to successfully deploy each of the above three tactics. 



Ultimately, your members will begin showing initiative in organizing their own online discussions and contributing their own insights via posts or document uploads.  This can result in a number of self explanatory benefits to firms (dramtic improvement in lead generation, better relationships, building brand, market research, customer service, etc, etc).  In extreme cases your members will start “Embracing the Groundswell” (the fifth objective outlined in the book) and seeking you out with ideas on how YOU can generate more sales around your services.  The valuable peer-to-peer forum or member-driven community you have created may end up being your firm’s most valuable marketing asset.


See this recent article in Bio IT World on our community the Drug Safety Executive Council as case and point.  


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