In today’s business climate, faster is better. If you wait too long to respond to a customer’s inquiry or address their grievance, you’ll be reading about it on social media before you’ve even had a chance to compose your reply. If you’re pursuing product development with an ambiguous path, then be prepared. Someone may launch before you do or, at best, you’ll be spending unbudgeted resources and taking longer than originally planned. Both these scenarios highlight the many ways your business can benefit from online communities. It all comes down to being digitally connected to your audience and how those online communities drive better decisions.

Customers at your fingertips

Although it sounds a little silly, having customers at your fingertips is something that you can cultivate as a business. However, doing so takes work. Businesses will be required to vocalize how important customers are to them and, even more importantly, demonstrate that you act on what you learn about. Customers want to feel valued.

Building trust may also need a little help in the form of incentives, giveaways and rewards. Some customers are content with just pride, but a large chunk of the $400B spent on gift cards each year is doled out by businesses who are courting customer support. This opens the door to 2-way communication which is essential to sustaining open dialogue between you and your customer at any time that it’s warranted.

Having a user base just a few keystrokes away lends itself very well to better informed decision-making. Online communities , with speedy responses being an inherit part of the advantages they offer businesses. Admittedly, recruiting your audience and establishing a rapport with them to queue up repeated, future interaction requires considerable time and effort. That said, once you have the demographic population(s) that you’re seeking represented within your online community, you can begin to selectively or broadly engage its members.

Large toolbox for online communities

There are a vast number of digital and in-person market research tools available with a variety of methodologies to fit every need and objective that you may have. Some of those tools, such as CrowdWeaving™, have been designed to facilitate co-creation through collaboration between stakeholders and customers. Other tools, including polls can lob a question out to the crowd with the expectation of instant answers.

On the other hand, can be a little more detailed and hence, more informative and data driven. Yet, at the same time, they often only scrape the surface of an issue and deeper dialogue with the customer is necessary. In this way, your business can benefit from online communities by accommodating a  high-level or in-depth look at your customers’ behaviors and experiences. You can choose any of the above, as different objectives call for specific methodologies, or a combination, to meet your needs. Approaching your market research questions with a combination allows you the opportunity to ideate with consumers, gather input, adjust a concept or product based on feedback, then work through multiple rounds of iteration until you get it right.

The move away from in-person focus groups to online communities has accelerated research as well as reduced costs. Projects that formerly required months to execute can now be completed in days. Moreover, online communities allow for multiple projects to be conducted in parallel which further stretches budgets and pulls timelines forward.

Online communities drive better decisions

Yes, it’s really that simple. The cumulative value of each and every benefit of online communities is that they enable better informed decisions.  Management wants some level of assurance that the resources they are about to allocate to a project or new product will confer some level of advantage to the company. Additionally, product developers want to feel comfortable that they are building the “right” thing which will drive revenues and success for the company, thereby ensuring continuous employment. In the absence of market research, a business takes a large risk that could have been reduced via interaction with an online community.

On the flipside, bad decisions can have dire consequences. Speaking of which, do you remember Motorola’s RAZR® flip-phone? They failed to engage consumers on how important the then nascent smartphone capabilities were. Ironically, they were building a smartphone but didn’t get an accurate read of how critical that functionality was going to be. Nor did they catch wind that iPhone® was soon to launch. As a result, they lost 90% of their share value from 2006-2009 which equated to $4.3B in direct losses. Indirect losses have been even more significant as they gave up their mobile throne dynasty to Samsung who, of course, now shares it with Apple.

Online communities drive better decisions because those decisions are informed by data. Everything from the overall business strategy to brand positioning, pricing and the product development life cycle can be enriched through consumer insights. Even seemingly small nuggets of wisdom, such as topics for a content marketing plan, can be gleaned from online communities.

Now that you’re aware of how your business can benefit from online communities to make better informed decisions, the next step is to reach out to your audience. Take a close look at your business plan to ensure that you are making choices dictated by insights collected from your customers. Doing so will drive greater success with product and service launches, company growth and morale knowing that you have a customer-driven strategy.

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