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Online communities are now an important tool in gaining ongoing customer feedback and insight. In particular, insight communities—private, online communities made up of carefully selected groups of customers who develop long-term relationships with brands—are now used by hundreds of customer-centric global brands.

To get the most business value out of your online communities, you must work to keep members engaged. The more community members who actively and regularly participate in your activities, the more indispensable your insight community becomes as a key source of data-driven insight.

Member and customer engagement was a hot topic at our Customer Intelligence Summit in Chicago this year. In one breakout session, Molly Schmied, director of market research and insights at the Ohio State University, and Jason Minser, director of customer research at the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, joined Kelly Gartshore, Vision Critical VP of customer success, to discuss new ways of increasing community engagement.

Here are the most breakthrough ideas and tips from the session:

  1. Start with simple, yet timeless best practices.

According to Gartshore, there are five fundamental principles of community management:

  • Membership aims to create a sense of belonging and make people feel like insiders
  • Fulfillment means that community members find immediate value in participating
  • Gratitude requires brands to show appreciation for community members
  • Influence is gained by showing how member input influences business decisions
  • Connection is established when the community supports shared experiences

A theme throughout all of these best practices is to share content, information and experiences of real value with your community members. Close the feedback loop by showing members their input actually influences decision-making in your company.

  1. Have a plan—but be flexible.

Molly Schmied, Director, Market Research & Insights, Ohio State University

To succeed, think ahead. That means developing an engagement plan that outlines a few months worth of activities that you’ll be running in your insight community, including exactly how and when you’ll share back results with members.

Schmied said that having a plan and executing it helps drive engagement among the university’s alumni insight community, the Buckeye Room. According to Schmied, creating a plan that aligns your strategy with your calendar of community activities is key to creating a fun environment for your members. Involve key stakeholders from various departments and consider their needs as you develop a plan.

While having a plan in place is a great idea, Gartshore recommends being flexible and taking advantage of timely events and news. For instance, if you receive an award for an ad that your community helped shape, let members know about it.

  1. Don’t be a bore.

Boredom is the enemy of engagement. There’s nothing wrong with email newsletters, but use a variety of tactics to keep people’s attention.

Gartshore shared these ideas on how to add variety to your member engagement activities:

  • Give a sneak peek into new products before they hit the market
  • Offer first access to new customer experiences
  • Offer discounts on products that were developed through community co-creation
  • Use features in your insight community that solicit questions, comments and suggestions
  • Surprise members with a gift for special occasions

Frequent and fun activities are generally more effective than long, time-consuming surveys.

Jason Minser, Director, Customer Research, Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority

According to Minser, for instance, engaging photo competitions resonates with members of Amplify, Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s insight community of more than 3,000 transit users.

Schmied concurred, saying that evolving the engagement strategy helps maintain people’s interest. In the past, the university found success with newsletters, holiday cards and fun quizzes. More recently, however, it’s embraced other innovative engagement activities. For example, they leveraged the university’s annual #BuckeyeLove campaign into a competition where members were asked to provide photographs of their Buckeye decorated spaces at home. Community members then voted on their favorite spaces and the winner received a prize.

  1. Experiment, measure, repeat.

When it comes to engagement, the worst thing you can do is fall into a routine, said Minser. Gartshore encouraged attendees to borrow new engagement ideas from marketing practices to keep things fresh in the community. Schmied offered a similar idea, explaining how community managers should find out what other communities are doing to get inspiration for new activities.

When it comes to engagement, the worst thing you can do is fall into a routine.

One interesting tactic from Minser was the use of ‘cascading activities,’ which are promotional activities that lead to other engagement exercises. For instance, a press release could link to a quick poll that members are encouraged to participate in, or a survey that links to a discussion forum.


Experiment with new tactics and track how they do. “Don’t let perfection be the enemy of good,” shared Schmied.

Engagement, not entertainment

Gartshore ended her presentation by reminding customer intelligence pros that while it’s important to keep activities fun and engaging for members, your insight community should ultimately drive business results. Don’t confuse engagement with entertainment.

Boosting member engagement is one part art and one part science, but it should be informed by your business goals. In the end, the most effective member engagement tactics are those that are relevant to both your brand and your customers.

The enterprise guide to online communities

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Kelvin Claveria

Kelvin Claveria was formerly a Content Marketing Manager at Vision Critical.

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