The One Thing That Can Save Your Company’s Dying Community

Columnist Jim Williams explains the difference between an online community and an advocate marketing program and how the two can work together.

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Customer engagement has long topped the CMO’s list of priorities.

Marketing executives know how valuable it can be to their bottom line.

Highly engaged customers result in increased retention, loyalty and wallet share. More importantly, customer advocacy is the best way to boost demand and accelerate sales.

The top marketing technology investment for 2014 was the customer experience, according to Gartner. In order to capitalize on this cycle, marketers have invested significant portions of their budgets into customer experience tools — among them, online communities and advocate marketing software.

Many people have asked me what the difference is between an advocate marketing program and an online community, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to clear up the confusion with a quick explanation of each, followed by how they can work together to maximize ROI.

Your Brand’s Proprietary Community Probably Sucks

The concept of community varies widely depending on the role you play in your organization. While many businesses have traditionally seen customer communities as a way to cut support costs, marketing leaders are now interested in leveraging them as a way to:

  • Improve the customer experience
  • Build relationships with buyers that eventually convert into leads and sales
  • Differentiate your brand against competitors

Either way, there’s one thing you can’t afford to have in your community: silence. Too many communities end up closing their doors: Almost 70% of proprietary communities are destined to fail, Gartner reports.

So, while communities may seem like a great strategy for engaging customers, the real trick is sustaining that engagement over the long-term. Too many communities launch with a flurry of activity and die down after a few weeks or months, if you’re lucky.

Why is that? Consider the experience of a typical community member. They register, ask a question and…nothing. Crickets. They’ll probably get a reply from an employee of the company that “owns” the community. Or they respond to someone else’s question and…what now? There isn’t much incentive for them to return and continue to engage.

Now compare that to the organic communities that already exist across the social Web, like Quora or StackOverflow. There, the best posts are upvoted by other members and the most active members build capital within the community for their ongoing participation. They become thought leaders and influencers.

Why would someone ever join your proprietary community when they have so many other (better) options? What’s in it for them?

Advocate Marketing + Community = Engagement

Advocates are customers who love your brand and are thrilled to tell the whole world about it no matter where they are. They do this by contributing product reviews, referrals, references, content and testimonials. They also speak at events on your behalf, and will promote your brand across the social Web.

But you can’t leave it to chance. The most savvy marketers have recognized this. They’ve started to implement formal advocate marketing programs that engage, mobilize and recognize their company’s biggest fans to boost sales and marketing effectiveness.

Naturally, this should include your community too. The Community Roundtable — one of the foremost expert groups on online communities — recently published a report which found that advocate marketing programs boost engagement and increase the value of communities.

Advocates fulfill their desire to help a brand they love while simultaneously gaining recognition and status from both the company as well as other advocates and community members. Community solutions that integrate with advocate marketing software create additional motivation, allowing advocates to build the social capital they often find in other communities.

Whether you’re still considering a community, or you’re trying to revive a quiet one, advocates are the only way to generate the sustainable, long-term engagement you need. Your community will not survive without their help.

Leading community marketers are already leveraging their advocates to build their community. Jeanette Gibson, Vice President, Customer Experience and Community at Hootsuite, recently shared her community commandments, to which advocates are central. “We’ve taken our fans, and turned them into advocates to build and sustain our community,” she said.

Here are just some of the ways you can get your advocates involved in building and sustaining your community:


Seed your community with both members and content by identifying advocates who would be willing to participate. Ask them to generate the initial content for your community, including questions and answers, blog posts, videos, and other material that will entice members to interact. This early content provides the social proof future members will look for before they decide to participate.

What’s in it for them? Recognize these early participants as “founding members” or with some other special status.

Launch Phase

Ask advocates to help manage your community by taking on some everyday tasks such as recruiting new members, responding to new posts and comments, and giving pointers to newbies. Get them to share the content they create with their networks to increase visibility and attract additional participants.

What’s in it for them? Keep advocates informed about the progress of your community as it grows — after all, they have played a significant role in its success.

As Your Community Grows

Encourage advocates to engage community lurkers and other less-active members by interacting with them and starting to build 1:1 relationships. Allow your advocates to act as mentors and community leaders, and position the networking opportunities as a significant benefit of your community.

Along the way, don’t forget to keep it fun and fresh. This is not a one-time initiative. It’s every day, every month, every quarter, every year. Creativity will be key to keeping your community alive with the help of your advocates.

What’s in it for them? Ensure your community allows members to build their reputation and compete with peers. Within your advocate marketing program, reward and recognize advocates for participating in contests or participation drives related to your community.

By recruiting your advocates to become involved in your online community, you will not only provide a richer experience for your advocates, but help build the relationships and trust necessary to develop a vibrant, sustainable community.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily MarTech. Staff authors are listed here.

About the author

Jim Williams
Jim Williams is the VP of Marketing at Influitive, the advocate marketing experts. He is a veteran marketer for early and growth stage tech companies and loves bringing transformative concepts to market. Before joining the Influitive team he held marketing leadership roles at Eloqua, Unveil Solutions, Lernout & Hauspie, and several PR agencies.

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