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More companies today are waking up to the idea of becoming insight-driven. As a recent Forrester report makes clear, the businesses that use ongoing customer insight are on their way to dominating their industries in the next decade.

But companies like Nordstrom, the Biltmore Company and the Center for Creative Leadership started their journey to becoming insight-driven long before it became fashionable. For 10 years now, these companies have been engaging with their customers through insight communities and have been using customer feedback to make better decisions.

At the Customer Intelligence Summit, these companies shared solid strategies and tactical takeaways on how to establish insight communities that last for years. The special session featured Joelle Cann, manager of strategy for Nordstrom, Peggy Dalman, senior manager of research and CRM at the Biltmore Company, Paula Morrow, global marketing research manager at the Center for Creative Leadership.

Here are their top 10 lessons from 10 years of managing insight communities.

1. Be a strategic partner to other departments.

If you’re just starting your insight community, you might need to convince multiple divisions that customer intelligence is a valuable investment. The idea of engaging with customers for insight may be new for many of your colleagues, who may be more used to making decisions based off gut feeling.

Dalman from the Biltmore Company overcame this challenge by partnering with different divisions in the company. She takes the time to understand what stakeholders need and help them accomplish their goals using feedback from the insight community. Doing this not only raised the profile of the insight team, it also filled in critical knowledge gaps across the company.

Cann added that building trust for your insight community takes time, but it is well worth the effort. In the community’s early days, only a few Nordstrom merchant leaders used it. But as one merchant after another began tapping into the community, more leaders saw the value of it. Today, merchant teams are some of the biggest fans of the Nordstrom insight community.

2. Leverage and showcase the speed of your insight community.

Because the retail industry is being disrupted by technology, traditional retail has to move faster. One way to move faster, according to Cann, is to quickly test and iterate offers, messaging and design with your insight community. You can quickly share messaging and design with your community members, get their feedback and refine it as necessary. According to Cann, engaging the insight community allows Nordstrom to get customer-validated insight in a matter of hours or days instead of weeks or months.

3. Market your insight community internally.

Thinking like marketers will help you increase adoption. For example, Dalman shares infographics about the company’s insight community to new members of the marketing team to familiarize them with the value of the community. In addition, she takes the opportunity at monthly staff meetings to ask the entire marketing department what questions they would like to ask their community. Directly involving stakeholders in community activities is one of the fastest ways to create buy-in and momentum.

4. Set expectations early. 

Once internal stakeholders get excited about having an insight community, you need to set the expectations about protocols for engaging with the insight community. Doing so ensures that community members don’t feel like they’re taken advantage of. It’s important to respect people’s time: shorter surveys are better, for instance, than longer ones, and activities need to be engaging for members.

Morrow shared, “I train our stakeholders to get used to the rhythm of our insight community. The more upfront boxes you can check off, the better and the quicker you can get insights.” Morrow also ensures community activities have clear objectives, specific target audience and focus, adding, “I have learned, for example, not to program a survey until it is final and has the necessary approvals.”

5. Plan and prioritize. 

There are endless questions internal stakeholders would like to ask their customers. Dalman shared a simple process she uses to plan and prioritize what to ask their community, and when. To start, she asks each business unit leader what they need to know from their community over the next 12 months. From there, she prioritizes the questions based on how closely they’re tied to business results.

Training your team on insight community best practices should also be part of planning, added Cann. When new people join her team, she takes the time to familiarize them with the Vision Critical platform. Cann and her team also developed guidelines for questionnaire design and regularly talk to the Vision Critical customer success team to explore engagement strategy.

6. Take results in context. 

Insight communities provide an invaluable window into what your customers are thinking; however, it’s important to remember that your customers may not be as invested in some things as you are, according to Cann. She explained, “It’s essential for stakeholders understand what’s really important to our customers so they can invest strategically to improve the experience. Learning something we think is a great idea doesn’t work for our customers is great insight to have to help re-evaluate our efforts before implementing them.”

7. Determine what’s in it for your customers. 

Exchanging gift cards for customer feedback will work in the short term, but may not be the best strategy for building a strong relationship. Morrow explained, “Intrinsic incentives are more important and effective than extrinsic incentives. We don’t offer monetary incentives in our insight community. We incent them with leadership information.”

Morrow’s advice: Take the time to find out what really matters to your customers, especially if you’re running a B2B insight community. Meeting that need will put you on a path to a long-term mutually beneficial relationship with your customers.

8. Learn from other customer-led brands. 

To be at the forefront of customer-centricity, Morrow shared that she prioritizes going to the Vision Critical Customer Intelligence Summit. “Each year I go to the Summit and make a list of the cool things people are doing with their communities,” she explained. “They might not always work perfectly with your community as presented, but you can normally figure out a way to change it up so it does. Use other community ideas as a spark.”

9. Keep it interesting. 

Traditional surveys can get stale for longtime community members, causing engagement to go down and the quality of insight along with it. Morrow prioritizes new and interesting ways of keeping her community engaged, including an “Ask an Expert” activity where a subject matter expert engages in a two-way dialogue with customers. Community members get to ask the expert anything, and in return, the brand gains new insight from its members.

10. Adopt an experimental mindset. 

Finally, Morrow perfectly summarized the most effective mindset for research teams: "Don’t ever be afraid to try something new. Even if it tanks, you will have learned something. Be brave. Don’t overthink it. It doesn’t need to be perfect."


Some lessons can only be learned through trial and error over a long period of time. As Cann, Dalman and Morrow shared at the Summit, you won’t be able to anticipate every insight community hiccup, but if you plan, prioritize, and remain open to new ideas, you can improve the adoption and stickiness of your insight community over time.

Insight-Driven Decision Making

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