Customer community: Definition, benefits, and tips for building your own
A well-run customer community can be an invaluable resource to a company and its customers.
Published February 24, 2020
Last updated May 27, 2021
All of your customers have at least one thing in common: you. Many of them have a lot of other things in common as well, though—similar job responsibilities, challenges, hobbies, and life experiences. If they can figure out a way to connect with each other, that can bring real value to them. From learning tips from each other on how to use your product more effectively to gaining genuine friends, customer communities are a powerful way to improve your customers’ lives.
But if they’re spread across countries and traveling in different circles, they aren’t likely to find each other on their own.
For that, they need your help in the form of a customer community.
Customer community definition
A customer community is an online or physical space for customers to connect on a regular basis to have conversations, answer questions, and share ideas and information. "A customer community can take many forms, said Nicole Saunders, the Senior Manager of Communities at Zendesk. "It can happen synchronously—such as a meetup or Slack instance—or asynchronously—such as an online forum or email list."
If my business has an audience, does it have a community?
There is a difference between an audience and a community. An audience is a group of people with common interests who are gathered around those interests. That audience might attend a webinar or an event, and even interact with one another in a time-boxed situation, like via a chat for the duration of a webinar.
"An audience only becomes a community when those people start engaging with one another, and do it on an ongoing basis," explained Saunders. "If those same webinar attendees then go to the company’s community forum and keep talking with one another over the course of days, weeks, or more, now they are part of the community."
The business benefits of a customer community
Doing something for your customers that purely benefits them is a nice idea, but if it requires resources—and building and maintaining a customer community does—you need to know the business benefits as well. And the good news is that a well-run customer community can be an invaluable resource to a company and its customers. According to CMX research, 86 percent of community builders believe that having a branded online community will positively impact core operations, while 85 percent believe it will improve the customer journey and increase trust.
86 percent of community builders believe that having a branded online community will positively impact core operations, while 85 percent believe it will improve the customer journey and increase trust.
Now, let's dive into the top benefits of a customer community.
- Brand loyalty
- Evergreen self-service support
- Brand advocates
- Social proof
- Customer insights
Customers that find value in connecting to each other and being a part of the community will associate that value with your brand. By doing the work to bring your customers together and help them help each other, you’ll give them more opportunities to be successful using your product, and you’ll generate the kind of goodwill that builds brand loyalty.
This isn’t just supposition. A study of over 500 community builders found that 61 percent of communities improved customer retention.
"Communities can increase brand loyalty, which can lead to increased customer happiness, retention, and lifetime value," said Saunders. "Customers who feel connected to and well supported by a company will be more likely to purchase more and remain customers longer. A community is a great way to build that relationship and provide that support."
"Communities can increase brand loyalty, which can lead to increased customer happiness, retention, and lifetime value."Nicole Saunders, Senior Manager of Communities at Zendesk
Evergreen self-service support
Customers prefer to help themselves and rely on companies’ online resources more in our digital-first world. So much so, 69 percent of customers want to resolve as many issues as possible on their own using self customer service options, according to Zendesk's Customer Experience Trends Report. A community forum can intercept would-be tickets by enabling a brand to leverage customer expertise and user-generated content to provide evergreen self-service support.
69 percent of customers want to resolve as many issues as possible on their own using self customer service options.
"Users can support one another, and often offer insights based on their real-world experience, which is something that even the best-trained support agent might not be able to do," said Saunders. "Those questions and answers produce a user-generated knowledge base."
"Users can offer insights based on their real-world experience, which is something that even the best-trained support agent might not be able to do."
All of your customers are valuable, but the customers that love you the most are important on an extra level. Customer evangelists don’t just use your product, they’re genuinely invested in the quality of your product and the success of the brand. They’re the loyal customers that will rave about you to their peers, and they’ll also be the first ones to let you know when your product isn’t working perfectly so you can fix it.
When you can identify your customer advocates, you can do more to work with them and reward them for their loyalty. Developing a customer community will help you quickly see who your most enthusiastic and active customers are. Then, you can find ways to provide special perks and opportunities that help you keep their loyalty.
"Customer communities can also help build out your 'fanbase' and engage your most passionate customers," said Saunders. "These individuals can become great promoters of your brand, and can be a great source of referrals and brand ambassadorship."
The customer advocates your community helps you identify can provide one of the most powerful marketing tools you have: social proof. They’re talking to each other within your community about how your product helps them. And chances are, they’re also talking about it to other peers they encounter and on their social media feeds.
You can leverage their enthusiasm by asking to feature them in case studies and putting their testimonials on your website. Their words are a more powerful way to show prospects the value of your brand than anything you could say yourself. And as evangelists for your brand, they’re usually happy to provide the quotes you need to bolster your marketing.
Customer feedback is immensely valuable to companies. It’s how you learn how to improve your products, create new ones people actually need, and make sure you’re providing a customer experience that keeps customers coming back.
"You can learn how customers use your products and services, what they want out of them, and what they’re struggling with."
Businesses often put resources toward soliciting feedback through surveys or focus groups. When you create a customer community, sharing their feelings and opinions becomes something your customers do naturally. You don’t have to make a special effort to hear from them, you simply need to listen.
"By having conversations with users across your customer base at scale, you can learn how they use your products and services, what they want out of them, what they’re struggling with, and more," said Saunders. "These insights are one of the most compelling benefits of building a community forum."
How do you build a customer community?
Here are some key steps and methods for building a thriving customer community.
- Determine customer needs
- Align goals with strategy
- Do a kickoff event
- Expand and iterate on content
- Give members a voice
1. Determine the kind of community your customers need
You want to build a community your customers will use from the start. Not sure what kind of community your customers are interested in? Ask them.
Saunders recommends interviewing several customers representing different segments or demographics of your customer base to understand customer needs and pain points. "By looping customers in early, not only do you make sure you build a community they’ll participate in, but you’ll start to establish who your user leaders will be in the space," she said.
2. Look for places where customer needs intersect with business goals
Your community strategy should be informed by both your customers' needs and your business goals. Those needs and goals will guide how you plan:
- The look and feel of the digital (or physical) space
- Who will lead and staff your community
- What your processes and workflows will be for creating and distributing content, making sure users get answers, and feeding the insights from users in the community into your business
3. Do a kickoff event
A kickoff event gives you an opportunity to get customers excited about your community so they’re ready to participate on day one and spread the word about the community.
"Do a kickoff event with the same customer groups you interviewed to give them a first look before your community goes live and provide them with messaging they can use to talk about the community," said Saunders. "Make sure they are as clear on the mission statement and messaging as your internal teams. Then launch it to the whole customer base letting them know why they might be interested and what they can get out of engaging."
4. Continuously expand and iterate on content
Community management is far from a set it and forget scenario. Community teams need to commit to driving value over time.
"Make sure you have the resources in place to regularly share content community members will find valuable, connect users to one another, answer questions, and engage in conversations on an ongoing, daily basis," Saunders said. "You need a strategy in place to regularly promote your community to customers, and make sure new customers are introduced to it and understand the value proposition."
5. Give members a voice
The beauty of a community is that the members lead. To inspire community engagement, build a process for interacting with members and look for ways to recognize and reward customers and employees who participate often or make meaningful contributions.
"As you grow your brand community, make changes, and add content or events, engage with community members and give them a voice," said Saunders. "This will ensure you’re on track with doing what your customers need and want, and will make sure you’re able to provide value both internally and externally."
Ready to start building your customer community?
With the right community platform, you can create a space for your customers to connect and collaborate. Learn how Zendesk's community forum software can help your customers help each other.