Ep#32: Creating a Customer Community

Customers as Community – what does it mean, how will it benefit you and how you do it

In this episode I chat to John Baxter, communities and collaboration expert, about the concept of treating your customers as a community and some of the methods of building and fostering that community.

We cover

  • What do you mean by ‘customers as community’
  • What are the benefits of thinking of your customers as more of a community
  • What are some of the tools, platforms and strategies we can use to create these communities
  • Collaborate to Innovate events



[media url=”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MldvM_Gb-uE” width=”560″ height=”315″] [spoiler title=”Transcription” open=”0″ style=”1″]

Nick: Welcome back to the Web Marketing Adelaide Podcast. I’m your host, Nick Morris and this week, we’re talking with John Baxter about Customers as Community.

Good day John, welcome to the show.

John: Hi Nick.

Nick: John’s joining us from Interstate today. He’s actually from Adelaide but he’s in Melbourne today, is it John?

John: Yep, in Melbourne.

Nick: Great. The topic we’re talking about, as I said, is Customers as Community, sort of a new way at looking at your customers but I’ll get John to explain a bit about that in a minute.

First of all John, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and a bit about what you do.

John: These days, I’m setting up the business, real ones about realizing the potential in changing the way that we work, which is, mostly, I’ve realized about tapping into potential networks. So, networks at the community level, supporting community groups, networks around organizations, say around business and customer networks and that sort of thing and between businesses [Audio distorted 00:01:29], so things like giving back and collaboration, cross hours and [Inaudible 00:01:30].

Nick: How about you tell us a little bit about this topic, Customers as Community. What do we mean by this, so what do you mean by this?

John: Well, I sat down this afternoon and think about it, and you’d have read Tribes by Seth Godin?

Nick: I haven’t actually read it but I’m pretty familiar with the concepts.

John: Well, Tribes are more or less, the same thing as community and in some context people use the word tribe slightly differently, and often a tribe is much larger and much less connected than a community but most of the things that Seth Godin was talking about in his book about engaging customers and leadership and that sort of thing, is pretty much is the same as with community.

Community, you might look at a more closely knitted group and tribes can be very, sort of desperate and people acting as individuals, community tends to be more inter personal interaction but then I know Seth Godin also talks about those sorts of things in Tribes and bringing customs together, and tribes and followers together so a lot of those ideas are pretty familiar to a lot of people.

Nick: Yeah absolutely. And I guess these days with technology and social media and all those sorts of things it’s become much easier I guess, to create these communities and to think about your customers in that way. Did these ideas sort of exist before the internet for instance?

John: I don’t know, to be honest. I know it certainly would have been, it wouldn’t necessarily be that productive to think about communities, that custom is because of the relative difficulty of engaging with them and being aware of their inter personal connections, I guess. It’s no use having a community of customers if you can’t see a type of connection and [Inaudible 00:03:34] and being a community if all you can do is put up billboards or something like that and broadcast that to them, then it’s just not that productive and I think that fostering communities means [Audio distorted 00:03:48] community. So it might be a relatively new concept, it’s relatively new to me. [Audio Distorted 00:03:55].

Nick: Cool. And what are some of the benefits of creating communities and thinking of your customers as communities?

John: It comes down to the way that target brings its net, organizations, companies, whatever it might be, it’s a vehicle for getting something done and if you look at your organization, you look at your company and you take the mission of that organization, fostering your customers as community enables you to involve them in the pursuit of that mission, of that purpose, enables them to step into participating in that, whether it’s through sharing information or contributing to your product development or whatever it might be. And also has benefits like customer attention, improve customer loyalty and things like that, that thrive on a customer level, and customers to keep in good customers. But also enable you to tap into them as a resource for doing things. So whether you’re running a social enterprise and your business is about raising awareness, then it is your customer community and help spread word about it.

Nick: Yeah. I think that makes a lot sense, especially trying to leverage your community for raising awareness as you just said and also the research or the product development idea that you can draw on the feedback from your community or your community of customers to get their sort of thoughts if you’re thinking of going in this direction or that direction or what do you actually want. That perhaps can be a difficult thing to determine. I was talking with Trevor Glen about sort of Lean Methodologists last week. We were talking about its important to do that customer research and make sure that what you’re delivering or trying to deliver is actually matching up with what your target market wants. I guess if you have this community well set up, that makes that process much easier.

John: Yeah. And especially if what you’re engaging the community is something that has a co-creation element to it, then it’s important that you understand their context and that they might be involved in the creation. So something like, Nike is a really good example of a company that is really supporting its community and its products. I mean, I’m not a Nike customer myself but I hear about them and the work they’re doing with their apps and their bit-git things and all that sort of stuff. And all those things just would not be possible whatsoever without the cooperation with their customers. So, it is not just about understanding how you can feed that information back into your development of products also being a [Audio Distorted 00:06:58].

Nick: Great. So let’s move on with what are some of the tools that people can use to create these communities and the platforms?

John: The sort of number 1 tools are being able to reach out and communicate in whatever form that might be, then number 2 is the social media platforms of any variety that’s where you’re customers are talking to one another because that’s what drives the community element, obviously being able to engage them and get customers engaged in your brand, in your mission, in your vision. And then number 2 enabling them to talk to one another.

I did a workshop with a friend earlier this week and as he put it, using social media intelligently, a big element of that is understanding the conversations that your customers want to have to one another, with one another and providing them the platform and the means to have those conversations. And that’s really what fostering community is all about, so it’s conversations, drive relationships to bring people close together around the mission and the next step is your brand in the business.

Nick: That’s an interesting part about the customers talking amongst themselves without you necessarily being there. Is this something you want to try and guide to make sure it’s to do with your products, or do you want to see what are the conversations that they might want to talk about first and sort of let that happen and help that or do you really want to try and make it more related to your business and your product or is there a way of doing that?

John: There’s really no need or purpose to restrain conversations to being about your business but you do want to, I guess keep the conversation in line with your vision I guess, and your purpose and potentially, depending on the form also can be in line with your values. So I mean, customers having conversation about your business, online say on Facebook, if they’re discussing your brand, associating with what you do with that mission, that purpose and that spread then that’s very productive. On the other hand, if you’re hosting a forum, you probably want to be more aware of customers that are acting inappropriately, whereas on Facebook, it’s only acting appropriately, mentioning your brand really doesn’t make that much of a difference to you, whereas on a forum, you have sort of have a responsibility for that conversation in a way that you’re doing otherwise but in general, anything that’s the sort of conversation that people want to have with one another around your community, around your brand, that’s brings people together and targets that community, is a good conversation pattern.

Nick: Yeah, that makes sense. You mentioned forums just a second there. From my experience, forums are really difficult. If we’re talking about forums that are hosted on a website, like a discussion forum, that can be really difficult to kick off. Is it a good idea for businesses to look at these forum ideas first or should they maybe release it to social media to sort of test it out first then maybe to a forum later?

John: Definitely don’t jump into trying to create platforms and bring people to platforms unless there’s a solid reason for it. It comes back to creating platforms and supporting your customers to have the conversations that they want to have and if your customers don’t want to go to a new forum, if they’re not that interested that they want to have conversations on a new platform without the customers, then really that’s no benefit to anyone in trying to start something up.

If on the other hand, you’ve got, I don’t know [Inaudible 00:10:55], they might not have forums but they seem to have a really strong customer and community base, they’d be the sort of institutions that would be another value added, supporting your customers to talk to one another about their habits and their achievements and that sort of thing. That’s the sort of conversations that customers in community are going to be interested in not travelling to another platform.

Outside of that, you wouldn’t want to start something until you have caught strong conversations going through other platforms like Facebook and that sort of thing, which in all other ways, you take note of what forums used to do sort of like ten years ago and anyway, and a pretty good enabling rich conversations without the need to support people somewhere else.

Nick: Yeah, I think that makes sense. You don’t want to force people to a new platform which may in fact lead to them not embracing the community aspect when you can engage with them on an existing platform like Facebook, when they’re already used to using that platform.

One thing I would sort of add, as perhaps a cautionary thing or something that people should think about is that you want to perhaps build in some kind of, another way of contacting people in case your Facebook page gets shut down or something like that, like a mailing list or some other way that you can connect with them so that you don’t lose all your hard work if something happens. Because Facebook, as big and sort of strong as it is, there’s a possibility that they could shut down a page or they could fall out of favor in the future, so you want to have some safety nets built in.

John: Yep. And then I have figured out, you’re probably a small fish as far as Facebook is concerned so they do something to you and you don’t like it, there’s probably not that much you’ll be able to do about it.

Another thing, as far as forums and independent platforms and that sort of thing, another thing that has come up is, if you’re hosting a platform for other people’s conversation, in general, you’re responsible for those conversations. So, that means you need to actively manage that in a way that [Inaudible 00:13:14] places like Facebook, you really don’t. If people start getting rebellious and that sort of thing on your website, you really need to crack down. It’s a resourcing issue in a way that conversations elsewhere are not.

Nick: Yeah, that’s another good point as well about the platform. What about offline interactions, perhaps events. Does this also fit into the model of communities for customers?

John: Definitely, sure. While the challenges would be having the density, maybe even a place to support face-to-face interaction and also whether or not that’s getting too far away from your core business. So you really want to be involved in it. You can do little things to support people, coming together, whether it’s a meeting you have on an online platform, supporting people to connect online and just making it easier to find people locally and that sort of thing but then at the same time, you have organizations like Yoke, which do a really good job of putting on events which try connecting millions and it’s a big part of the raising it, people really dig it and Yoke is [Inaudible 00:14:31] contains it, because they’ve fostered that community out of that [Inaudible 00:14:37] community with marketing things like face to face events.

Nick: That’s interesting. Events is something, I’m really interested in and I haven’t really sort of cracked it so I came to ask someone like yourself about what your thoughts are for someone like and me who’s in the marketing space, having events with small business owners and stuff like that, that’s really my target market so there’s a direct reason for that, whereas for another business that I have purchased which is B to C or even another B to B business, it may not necessarily be beneficial to run events. So I guess the key is making sure there’s actually a reason for doing it and not sort of just doing it.

John: If you can run an event that enables your customers to have the conversations that they want to have and do what they want to do, then that’s sort of what it comes back to.

Nick: Great. You mentioned that once you sort of get this community going or even to get it going, it can take quite a lot of work, and investment of time and investment of money to sort of promote it, especially the time thing is something that a lot of small business owners are going to be struggling with. Are there any good, best practices or tools or ways that you can minimize the work required to try and get something going and to maintain it?

John: I guess the main thing is just to be aware of community building and the people and conversations outside your business as part of your regular social media, communication strategy and that doesn’t necessarily require any more of it than just being conscious about it.

The second bit would be not to push it, but if you can tap into energies that your customers have, the interests that they have and pull on that and support them rather than trying to push it and get people to engage online, or engage face to face for that matter. If you’re pushing people to engage, then that requires a lot more resources and I guess the full method of identifying where there’s energy and doing that later on.

A change of techniques and specifics, because it’s so broad and a number of platforms have different methods of engagement, it’s hard to make any overall statements on that. The philosophy for efficiently using your time to get rewards and to generate good community engagement is to pull on the energy.

Nick: Do you have any tips for how businesses can discover where these existing interactions are happening and how people do want to interact? Is it just by sort of looking using these tools out there like social mention tools which you can see where people are mentioning your brand or related topics? Is that sort of the way to go or is there anything else?

John: I’m not really very familiar with social media tools that much, as sort of the concepts and that sort of thing, but if you do have a presence online, the first place to start would be the immediate conversations around that. So, who’s talking on the Facebook page, who’s commenting on the blog, all that sort of thing, the biggest majority of discussions around your brand in terms of tools to identify what’s outside of that, that’s [Inaudible 00:18:17].

Nick: No that’s fine. There are lots of people in the social media space, I guess, who can talk about those sorts of issues. I’m going to move away from the topic a little bit, and talk about Collaborate To Innovate, which is an event that you helped to organize. How long has it been going for now?

John: Wayne Darby and Vanessa Picker started it up. I think maybe about 12 months now, when we first met in Adelaide. Yes probably about 12 months, and they since moved on doing other things and so it’s now being 2 months of this year, since it started back this year that I’ve been meeting up and it’s going pretty strong.

Nick: Yeah, I’ve been along to just those 2 months so, I have nothing to compare it to but it seems to be going well from my perspective as well. Can you just tell us a little bit about what it is, exactly?

John: It’s a meet-up group, a regular monthly meet-up, people will meet face to face and a space where people want to take action. We’d provide speakers and a little bit of an excuse for people to come along and basically it’s a community-building sort of thingp providing people the opportunity to come along and have conversations they want to have and meet like-minded people.

Nick: Great, and given that you’ve only sort of leading it for 2 months as you say but are there any techniques or community-building ideas that you’ve applied to this group that someone else, we could learn from? What are some of the ideas for growing into group, is there anything specific you’ve been doing?

John: I suppose I’ve applied, I was involved with Lehman’s in this last year, sort of regularly having conversations about it and how it looks for a little while. Most of the concepts and that sort of thing meant to me [Inaudible 00:20:27]. One of the obvious sort of barriers that we’ve looked at in the last 3 or 4 months, particularly in the change over. Lehman was forming a team to support the return rate moving forward, which is getting into more of the details of this sort of community building, community cultivation practice.

I tried a few like this, but it’s about providing people, nurturing their steps, closer into the center of the community, providing open invitations for people to come along have discussions about future and to come along and join the team and have conversations about our week as it should be. [Inaudible 00:21:09] instead of being me and one or two other people actually to run it. We now have a team of about 5 or 6, fair enough and we are able to contribute, able to bring up ideas and connections and really a big core that supports the community as it reaches out and provide strong culture and make sure we have a good community of decent people and that’s the sort of thing.

Once you get into, know the details of thriving communities, having a structure that these people sort of, inner runs I guess and can simply [Inaudible 00:21:50] people that are more engaged who support the community. So, on the forum online, you’ll have the champions and get your posting of the day and then people would [File Distorted 00:22:01]. So we’ve just sort of made an effort to give people the opportunity to step into the middle of the support group.

Nick: Interesting. How often, that’s monthly usually or do you have some other sort of social events during the month as well, don’t you?

John: [Audio Breaks 00:22:20] And the more the way we’re looking at the moment is main marketing events and then the social greets for next week, so, if people want to catch up or if they can’t make the main monthly event, that’s just sort of their second reach [Inaudible 00:22:33] having a view and we’re also involved in a conference, I’m helping organize a couple other partners and community groups. It starts next month and that’s sort of the half [Inaudible 00:22:47].

Nick: Great. And if anyone’s interested in getting the dates and things for that, you can head to our website, webmarketingadelaide.com.au/events. I’ve got a calendar up there with all sorts of business-related events happening in Adelaide and I’ll make sure I’ll put up Collaborate to Innovate on the calendar there, but you can also go direct to the meet up group which is where you [Inaudible 00:23:16] the events from Adelaide.

John: Yeah the URL for that is meetup.com/C2IADL. Nice and easy.

Nick: Too easy, I’ll also put a link in our show notes on the website so people can click right through.

Just before we finish up, you wrote a book, A Book in a Week, I think it was late last year? Can you tell us a little bit about that project? First of all, what was the book about?

John: Well, the topic of the book was Openness. That’s something I sort of thought of pounced on in a few days before the book [Inaudible 00:23:58] wrote it. It wasn’t sounding out right because necessarily, a thought need to be written, sort of a bit of a back story on how to plan to write a book by the end of this year, by the end of 2013 and I went to Start Up Weekend at the end of last year, Start Up Week Adelaide and one of the teams sat down and wrote a book in about a day and a half. So, seeing there we had a year and a half timeline to write a book, while other people are writing a book in a day and a half and I thought, well it’s a bit silly if my first takes me a year and a half, I should punch out something a bit quicker.

So, I decided, well I will just set aside a week and before the week starts, I’ll work out what I’m going write about and you know, start a book. So I’m thinking about sort of some of my experience in networks, and collaboration and that sort of thing and what haven’t been covered. I found that the concept of openness and how that applies to working in general and connections and collaboration and that sort of thing. I really focused on that as a topic, this is what I can see and this is what it means to you and some tips about doing that. So, that came about that kind of topic and 7 days later, we have a book.

Nick: Great. Did you find yourself able to just knock it out? What were any challenges you faced?

John: Beyond the main challenge was having 7 days of relatively unstructured time that I was trying to feel – it’s very hard to sit at 8 o’clock in the morning and go, okay I’ll have two hours today, I’m going to write a whole lot of book, but not having milestones and not having a sense of exactly where that should be and [Inaudible 00:25:37], I spent a little bit of time actually procrastinating and just mulling around, writing, un-writing, rewriting, not doing all that much. Realistically, what I wrote could have been done in that 4 days, maybe 3 if I was really productive. So, that sort of an indication of how the went. It was 45 what pages in A4 which should be 60 or 70 in a book size, so it wasn’t too bad, but still a week’s work because I hadn’t planned it that well, and partly I think because I was working alone and didn’t have somebody else to telling me I should have written more by lunch time and that sort of thing. I could have gotten a lot more done, so that was the biggest challenge for me.

Nick: Interesting. I think just even going back to the Lean Methodologies Idea which I just talked about with Trevor Glen seems like a very lean way to test the idea of writing a book from the process perspective.

John: To be honest, the book is not that good. I mean, it’s somewhat interesting and I brought some interesting things up, but the good book will be Version 2 and the book that is really worth reading, will probably be a version 3. Version 1 is just a minimum viable product and so, along those lines. If I wasn’t embarrassed with it, it wouldn’t have taken too long. I’m a little bit embarrassed with it so I think it probably took me a lot of time.

Nick: Perfect. Perhaps I’ll hold off for Version 3 then before I …

John: Version 2 will be okay, worth looking into.

Nick: Fantastic, I will do that. I think we’ll finish off the interview there. Thanks very much for coming on the show and having this chat. It’s been interesting and I always like to delve into interesting people’s minds and you’re definitely one of those people.

If people want to find out more about what you’re doing and perhaps connect with you, what’s the best way to do that?

John: Checking out jsbaxter.com. That’s S for Slade, which is my middle name and there’s links from that page to other various things that are going on.

Nick: Fantastic. I’ll put those links again in the show notes for anyone who wants to go check you out there and thanks again for coming on the show.

John: Thank you Nick.

Nick: That brings us to the end of another podcast. For more information about this episode and all our others, head to our website www.webmarketingadelaide.com.au.


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