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Charlene Li Shares Insights on Building Online Communities


As part of our ongoing series on connecting with experts to bring insider’s knowledge on community building in front of community owners, this post showcases our discussion with Charlene Li — founder, and CEO of Altimeter Group (part of Prophet Consulting).

Charlene is a seasoned professional who helps organizations and leaders with digital transformation to thrive with disruption. As a prolific author, she has five books under her name and going for the sixth currently. Apart from writing, she conducts workshops, handles consulting projects, and serves as a board member in several companies.

Recently she was featured by the Washington Speakers Bureau as a woman leader making a difference in 2019.

We got valuable tips from our conversation with Charlene and are sure that our readers are also going to take away practical insights.

[Tribe] First of all, thanks a lot for joining us. Let’s start by learning something about you that’s not known to many people.

[Charlene] Oh, so many things to share. I think one of the things that I want to share on a personal level is that I have a cat. It’s a very silly thing, but people would have dogs as they can be trained. So I figured I’d try to train a cat and I have to update my blog post — but he’s now jumping through and I’m teaching him how to find food underneath. People think you can’t train cats; now we see that you absolutely can. It’s sort of an interesting analogy to the way I think. People who think they can’t disrupt themselves must learn new ways to lead.

[Tribe] That’s amazing, we look forward to your cat videos on Instagram. So, coming to community building, how should a brand approach community building when they’re just starting out?

[Charlene] I think it’s more about what does a community want from a brand more than what a brand wants from the community. So what is it that the community you are pulling together ⁠— you have identified⁠ — has some sort of affinity to each other? What is it that they need? And what of those needs can you provide? So looking at it from their point of view first rather than looking at it from the brand’s perspective should be the very first step.

[Tribe] That makes a lot of sense as that would pave the way towards coming up with the right set of requirements. On to our second question now — when a company starts building a community, what are some of the most common yet high-risk mistakes they should take care of?

[Charlene] I think it’s related to how to get started. I think the biggest mistake that brands make is they think it’s all about them.

And the perspective is, of course, if you go to join my brand X community, we’re just going to talk to you about our products and services. And they get surprised when nobody wants to join or if they join they never come back. So I think the biggest mistake is that you think that your services, your content, your brand is something that people really want to talk about and know more about.

[Tribe] Well, yes. We have seen that in a majority of the communities, the members want to first solve their queries and share personal experiences more than anything.

Once a business starts building a community, what kind of metrics they should focus on or how should the metrics change depending on the lifecycle stages of the community.

[Charlene] That’s a great way to ask. The metrics definitely change; I think in the beginning it’s all about people joining the community. But I think later on it’s the depth of engagement with the brand, but also with each other. And I think that part is really underestimated.

[Tribe] So, peer-to-peer connections.

[Charlene] Yes. Because the more you create a sense of belonging and a sense of a tribe — this is unique in that there is something to the community. They not only get to meet the brand but also meet other people.

I think a great example is Harley Davidson. Clearly, people are there because they love the brand Harley-Davidson. The community lives in many different places, not just sponsored by Harley. There are independent user groups communities. So the connection there is with people who are like you in terms of your interests, your spirit, the way you look at the world. Think of a Harley owner or aspirational Harley owner that attracts people to each other.

So I think the more you can recognize that and measure that (you can call it engagement), you would meet your community goals.

[Tribe] Essentially two types of engagement — between the brand-to-member and member-to-member.

[Charlene] Yes. I think that understanding the different times of engagement that people have inside a community is very important. And I would say the ultimate measurement is relationship how people would describe and define what that relationship looks like.

If you think about it as a very superficial level, very high-level engagement and relationship mean I’m an owner and a user of that brand. And I just want to have a little bit involvement, I see my relationship as fairly decent.

However, consider someone wearing the brand’s t-shirts everywhere, talking about the brand all the time people, friends. That’s a very different type of relationship. So if you as a brand could define what types of relationships you are looking for and are willing to support them, then I would measure across a life stage. As you were saying as a life stage of that relationship, understanding who wants a very light touch, who wants a deep engagement and deep relationship with the brand is the key. They are both valuable and you can treat them very differently.

[Tribe] Yes, that’s a great way of explaining it.

Ok, so do you think there are some real differences in the way B2B or B2C companies generally approach community building?

[Charlene] So I think when it comes to consumers, you are more likely to have sort of a light touch because they have relationships with many different types of brands. In B2B, in many cases, they’re looking for a deeper relationship because there is a process of purchasing B2B products and services tend to be much more involved. So the community becomes what I call a lifelong connection for that person, but also for their larger team as they implement. So they think about technology services and the community becomes a big part of the support.

You may have somebody who manages the whole project with somebody who’s a technical engineer on one part and someone doing customer communication. Getting answers to questions from different departments in that community becomes extremely important.

[Tribe] Yes, it is critical to cater to different departments with a different persona in the B2B scenario vis-à-vis B2C setup.

The next question is about user-generated content — what are some robust system to generate content from users?

[Charlene] So the best practices! I think most of the people who are in a community, maybe only 10 percent, actually write or contribute something.

And this is outside of a support community. But even in a support community, there are a lot of people who would join the community, won’t post anything. They might be just searching for answers.

So I think the biggest point is what drives the community and the engagement that makes people come back so it can support different kinds of issues. Because it’s driven by problems that people may have. But I’m also thinking this is much more of an engagement community that a brand would want to have. There must be something that addresses the needs that they have.

You either are pushing it out through social media or news notifications that are making people come back to the community, to the network with fresh content, fresh perspectives. They are addressing their needs. And as long as it is relevant, they will keep coming back. So I think that the best practice is to constantly focus on what we talked about in the very beginning. What are the needs of this community? What is it they are looking for?

Only you as a brand can find that.

[Tribe] So, what are some of your favorite online communities and why do you do love them?

[Charlene] Yeah, that’s a pretty good question. I should have prepped better.

I think some of the communities that I enjoy are B2B communities. Not that I’m active on them, but I think the SAP Support Network and SAP Developers Network (SDN) are absolutely amazing.

They have invested a huge amount of money in the communities. And what I like about it is that anybody who is in the SAP ecosystem can join and get support. But they also have these closed spaces allow people to collaborate. So just are very attached and highly supportive with a lot of content.

I think they have the best of any technology community that’s out there.

[Tribe] Yes, we absolutely admire them.

[Charlene] I’m also in a community, just so you know — one of my favorite ones is a community for other authors, it’s called “write and rant” on Facebook.

It’s great because it has other authors coming in, sharing best practices, talking about new services, new things. You can ask questions anytime and people point out plenty of resources. So I found that to be, again, very relevant to me as a writer.

And then there’s another one that I’m kind of not in as much, but it’s also very similar from the same group of people. It’s called “speak and spell”. It’s about speaking as an author. And how you do that and build best practices. These two are not much from a brand as it is a group of people coming together to actually help each other and meet the needs of each other.

This could have been just as easily supported by a speaker bureau or a publishing company. They could have supported it or built it. So the question for brands is does an author want to go to a place where you feel like the publisher is kind of looking over the shoulder and you can’t really have a full, complete conversation about things? So I think there are limits to how much a community like that could live inside of a branded community vs. needing to have its own independence. That’s one of the good things to consider for a community as a brand that you’re trying to create.

Why would someone go there?

[Tribe] That’s really interesting. There would certainly be an inherent limit to what can be done inside a branded community.

So since we discussed a little bit about Facebook groups, does it make sense for a band to build community on Facebook groups? So one of the things that come to our mind is that Facebook groups are a really closed system. They don’t have any indexing via search engines and metrics reported in the groups are limited. Content organization and knowledge discovery also take a back seat in these groups.

Do you think bands can actually use these groups to build actual customer communities or support communities?

[Charlene] I think Facebook is a really hard value prop. I think maybe five years ago you could have made a case for it. But, you’re always limited in a sense it’s only available to members on Facebook. It’s one thing if you are a consumer brand. If you’re a B2B brand, forget about it. But that said, it’s super easy.

You can quickly create a group. You don’t have a lot of control over it, which is why it makes sense for maybe our author group because we all have Facebook. It could have been on Facebook or LinkedIn. It really doesn’t matter.

The Facebook interface is a lot better than LinkedIn. The other part, though, is that I think again, a lot of brands are interested in building community. And so if you want to build community and own it — being on a platform versus having to go and create your own community on something like WordPress or BuddyPress makes it easier. Especially having mobile apps available ready-to-go so that you don’t have to go and create that.

We know that the notifications that make people come back and check the community are essential. Having that available as desktop notifications and also through your phone notifications is a real thing to have.

[Tibe] Completely agree with the notifications part. We send notifications via popular messaging apps and allow members to react to community activities right from the app as well.

This brings us to the last question — what should we look forward to in terms of trends in the coming five years for community building?

[Charlene] Yeah, I think that we’re seeing Facebook put a big stake in the ground with its move towards more private groups. Yes, so I think that is going to raise up a lot of issues. And I think that is the biggest problem with Facebook has always been context.

It’s one thing for me to post everything to my feed, for the whole world to see but different groups don’t really want to see all of that. So I call the friend management a nightmare. But when you have all these groups inside of it, it starts changing.

And I think the biggest challenge will be how do you have private groups are still discoverable. For example if you are from an alumni group, you want people to discover you, but you still want to be private.

How do you balance out these two things and how do you ensure that what’s said inside a group, stays inside? Is it truly that private? I mean, just take a screenshot or downloading something and is no longer private. So I think it’s a fallacy to say these groups are private. They’re just not discoverable or visible.

They’re not visible, but they’re not. You put it out there, it’s no longer private.

I think there’s going to be a greater sense for people managing their community participation by being part of a community or a tribe or network, whatever it is. So I think it’s an interesting opportunity for brands to get in on this early and to really figure out and identify what does it mean to be a part of my brand community.

They really don’t have a good sense of what they need right now.

I think the other interesting thing is a growing focus on customer experience. It will help this whole effort around brands. Again, people always say, yes, I want to be customer-centric. I want to be customer-obsessed. But when you go look at their dashboards, look at their activities, look at who’s actually in charge of the customer experience, there is almost always nobody.

So I think, again, branded communities, brand communities really thrive in places with a strong customer experience strategy or at least an appreciation for it. Because then those communities are focused more on the customer experience vs. pushing through a brand as such.

[Tribe] Well, bad customer experience is the major reason for churn and companies are definitely working on delivering the best possible experience. Customer communities and support systems play a big part in that.

So thanks again for your time, this concludes the interview. Believe we had a really insightful discussion.

[Charlene] All right, thanks. Wish you good luck!

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Marketing at Tribe. I raise ARR for a living! Love motorbikes and new cuisines.

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