The Real Value of Your Brand Community
Forming, growing, and maintaining brand communities can be expensive endeavors. To understand if the cost is worth it, the author convinced a client to hide their community for four months. By doing this, the author discovered it was 72% cheaper for the client to answer a question via the community than support. They also found that during the experiment, when the vast majority of customers turned to customer service instead of the community, the satisfaction scores of customers plummeted to one of the lowest levels on record.
Often the benefits of a brand community seem so obvious it’s not even worth measuring. After all, which organization wouldn’t want a group of customers who like and support them? Yet a brand community has the same opportunity cost as any other investment. Every precious dollar invested in the community is a dollar that can’t be invested in anything else. And a successful brand community doesn’t come cheap; a typical community budget for a major brand ranges anywhere from from $500,000 to $10 million+ annually.
But how do you know if it’s working? Last year, my community consultancy, FeverBee, persuaded a client to hide their community for four months to see what would happen. We hypothesized that by appearing to shutter the group, we would learn what its true value. And we did. Quickly. During the closure support staff became overwhelmed with customer queries which would otherwise have been handled in the community. We discovered it was 72% cheaper to answer a question via the community than support. And we found the satisfaction scores of customers plummeted to one of the lowest levels on record.
What Is A Brand Community Today?
If you imagine a brand community, you might imagine Harley Davidson riders going on long adventures together or Apple fans queuing around the block to buy the new iPhone. But these are cult brands, not brand communities. They’re fun to talk about, but almost impossible to replicate. The number of cult brands is very few.
The majority of brand communities today are hosted on an online platform where members ask questions and share advice with one another. For example, in Sephora’s community (a client), customers can help each other find the best beauty products for them. In Atlassian’s community, developers can ask questions and get help to setup and use Atlassian’s products. And the Apple brand community lets you ask questions and get help to fix Apple products.
Unlike a cult brand, the real benefit isn’t some fuzzy idea of loyalty or brand love; it’s to reduce support costs and increase customer success.
The Value of Being Findable
The overwhelming majority of visitors to most brand communities come in via search; they type a question (typically a problem) into a search engine and arrive at a discussion posted by another member. This works because very few problems are unique; most have been asked (and answered) before. In the case of our client who wanted to test the value of their community, a stunning 93% of visitors arrived from a search engine.
We assumed if we removed community content from appearing in search, this audience would have to go elsewhere to get answers. This is like removing a popular restaurant or tourist attraction from all the maps and street signs. The locals still know it’s there and can visit, but the visitors don’t and won’t. When we did this, the number of visitors plunged by an average of 83%. While some found the community through other channels (the website), most simply filed support tickets or called customer support instead. The number of tickets (calls/online ticket form) to other support channels increased by 58%. The increased volume of tickets overwhelmed the support team and led to a sudden drop in the average speed of response to customer queries by 35%. In turn, this precipitated a decline in customer satisfaction scores from 4.3 (out of 5) to 3.8. This suggests the majority of community users prefer the community as their primary support channel.
Based upon this data, we could also determine precisely how many people who visited the community would otherwise have contacted support. For every 207 unique visitors to the community, just one would otherwise contact support. This metric alone doesn’t sound too high. But the community attracts 2.95 million unique visitors per month. We can therefore determine the community is resolving approximately 11,840 ‘contacts’ per month which would otherwise have gone to customer support.
Knowing this, we can also calculate the value of the community. We ascertained the cost per contact was $18 through typical support channels. Which meant we could estimate the community was reducing support costs by around $213,000 per month (or around $2.9m per year). We also discovered some support staff, when stumped by a question, were searching for answers on Google and arriving at the community.
The most exciting discovery for executives was just how much cheaper it was to resolve a question in the community via other support channels. If the community is deflecting approximately 142,000 calls and support tickets per year with an annual budget of $725,000. This means the ‘cost per contact’ in the community is just $5.10 (or 72% cheaper than support channels).
Even this data notably understates the value of the community. For one, we didn’t close the community down entirely, a significant percentage of people still visited the community. Second, this data only covers benefits through a single prism; reduced support costs. It doesn’t include the value of customers reading articles created by members of the community to get more from the product. It also overlooks just how valuable the community is for gathering insights, identifying the bigger customer concerns or quickly spotting issues in the community before they blow up into a major PR disaster.
Once the experiment was over, we found that the conversation within this company shifted from whether a brand community is worth the cost to how do we drive as many people as possible to visit the community before calling support?
Becoming a ‘Community-First’ Business
There are some very practical things most brands can do to drive customers to the community first. The obvious one is to give the community more prominence and visibility on the homepage. Make sure community support is positioned above options to contact support channels. Before filing a ticket or picking up the phone, a customer can be guided to check the community for answers. Brands can also implement a federated or cognitive search tool which will show results from the community alongside any other documentation listed on the site. This helps guide more people to the community. Or brands can show related community discussions as a customer begins typing their support ticket. If the customer begins writing a ticket and sees answers from the community popping up in the side-bar, they don’t need to file the ticket.
But the biggest win is simply to have a thriving and fully supported community in the first place. Invest in the community’s development, give the team the space to nurture it, and support them as it becomes increasingly integrated into the community’s system. Communities need internal champions to thrive. Be that internal champion.