It’s always hard to make predictions for the future of Community Management, without falling into the trap of writing your own wish list. Especially when you’re an enthusiast and evangelist of Online Communities like myself and fervently wish for the wider industry to see the light and get into the game. It’s much easier to make long term predictions, instead of limiting yourself to a one-year time frame. When looking forward to 2016 only, I will have to add a dose of realism and take into account that change comes slowly to most branches of industry.

So things like companies creating full integrations of their Online Communities in all their business processes is out immediately. No matter how hard I wish for more companies to do this, this kind of change means a complete overhaul in the way most companies work and act, so it will take time and patience.

Similarly, it will be a few years before we see companies being able to accurately predict the Return on Investment around communities they’ve implemented. We all know it’s there and although we can make good predictions, and are able to accurately calculate some of it, it will take time and effort from the host company to ensure they have the right processes, tracking systems and links to the wider business in place, before such calculations can become sufficiently accurate to be accepted at face value by higher level management.

Neither is our Online Community industry mature enough to come up with a system such as NPS or CSI to be able to attach a value to a metric that would be generally accepted.

Service and software providers such as ourselves at Standing on Giants can only do so much to help get value out of the customers these companies serve. We can teach and advise. We can help engage their customers and show them how they can add value to a business and ultimately create a better product for themselves. But there is a limit to what software, consulting and managing communities for other companies can achieve, no matter how clever each of these elements is. At the end of the day, there has to be a wish and a will from everyone, at all levels in the company, to want to do the right thing and engage with their customers. To allow their customers to influence what they do and the decisions they make. To put their customers on a pedestal and truly integrate their feedback and willingness to help at the centre of the business.

So with that in mind, let’s look at some more realistic changes that will likely see the light of day in 2016:

Online Community Prediction # 1

More integration of community software and customer service software

A lot of companies these days are seeing their customer communities help them out with answering questions other customers have. This peer-to-peer help can quickly amount to high ROI and great Call Deflection rates. However, accurately calculating the number of Call Deflections is still often very hard to do. Mostly because the Community Software sits separately from any other system the company uses and lacks the necessary integrations to give a complete view of the customer.

I think that in the coming year there will be a strong push from companies to start this integrations process to ensure companies and customer call centres have the ability to create one view of the customers they serve and give themselves the ability to compare those customers that use the Online Community, to those that don’t. Being able to calculate the average contact rate per year, per customer and the average length of such a call, by subject, will greatly enhance the understanding we have of the value an Online Community brings to a company when it comes to Customer Service cost reduction.

Online Community Prediction # 2

More communities in retail

The Online Customer Community space is largely dominated by the Telco industry, with some forays into other industries where the volume of Customer Enquiries is large, such as Internet Service Providers and various banks. Although these industries will continue to grow and gain momentum for the Online Community industry, I predict that in 2016 there will be the start of an influx of more traditional retail companies creating their own brand communities.

Use cases such as Sephora, and Home Depot are finally starting to create some understanding of the true value a community can deliver for those companies that do not look for their communities to solve or reduce the volume of customer queries they get in, but instead look to sell and upsell to their customers, while at the same time create a customer experience that is both desirable and great fun. Customers of retail brands want to share their enthusiasm and knowledge of the items they feel connected to and are looking for ways to connect to others that share their love of the brand. This is an area of Online Community space that I am really looking forward to working with.

Online Community Prediction # 3

More focus on engagement, rather than call deflection

Although the case for creating an Online Community to help with Call Deflection is a strong one, I feel that more and more companies are starting to realise that engagement with your customers is a goal in and of itself. I believe that going forward we will see many more companies choosing to create a community to ensure they get closer to their customers and engage with them at all levels of the business. Understanding the way your customers think, the feedback that they give and allowing their stories to permeate through to the business, and other customers, will be key to ensuring they create the right products and deliver the right level of service.

Sure, if customers help out with peer-to-peer customer service as well, that’s a great benefit, but that is not the intention the community was set up with. Here the community is really a place where those heavily engaged with the brand can find out more of what is happening behind the scenes, are the first to hear what the latest developments are, and have the ability to really connect with the different people within the business and other customers who share their love for the brand and product. Ensuring these customers are part of a content strategy, market research, focus groups and product innovation are likely to be the key deciding factors in judging whether the community is a success or not.

Online Community Prediction # 4

Ideation communities become more prevalent

Similarly to the shift from Call Deflection to Engagement communities, I can see a shift happening whereby communities are specifically set-up with the intention of getting customers involved in the ideation process of a company. I can see a trend happening whereby Ideation becomes more and more part and parcel of existing communities but also one where the Ideation platform IS the community, with no additional community space outside of that. Dell’s Idea Storm, which launched back in 2007 was one of the first where this idea was captured and taken very seriously.

Since then we have seen different iterations of the same principle, most notable giffgaff’s own idea’s section, which ensured the company implements one customer idea every three days on average, in its release cycles. With both receiving tens and hundreds of thousands of ideas from the public, they have really made a strong case for companies including their customers in coming up with new ideas or adjusting how current products and services work, in a way that was not thought possible before. The powerful combination of having millions of your customers being able to express their views on the world, combined with comments to refine ideas and voting systems to showcase those ideas that have the most traction with your customer base, really puts the development cycle back in the hands of the customers, and cuts out extensive and expensive market research that was previously needed.

Online Community Prediction # 5

Utility companies get into the game

Another trend I can see playing out in 2016 is that more and more utility companies will start providing communities for their customers. Here is an industry that is largely unseen by many customers. You simply turn on your heating, cook your food, turn on the lights, charge whatever device needs charging, do the washing and drink a glass of water, without giving it a second thought. But more and more we can see clever technology helping to bring these everyday things to life.

NEST and Samsung’s SmartThings for example allow people to have a level of control around many of these things, from using a thermostat that learns from your behaviour, to ensure you’re not wasting energy, through to being able to turn a plug socket on or off. This combined with an increasing attention to global warming in the news, has helped create a better understanding of what it is you’re using every day, from the amount of electricity something consumes, to when the heating is turned on and if it’s even needed.

With this higher understanding, come increasingly more questions about where the supply comes from and how it is generated. With the down turn in the economy, people have also started to question their bills more, and so utility companies find themselves more often having to explain themselves. There is more scrutiny on the decisions they make, and the levels of investment and the types of investment they make.

People want a voice in how the company that provides them with gas, electricity, and water, uses the money they are receiving. And old models of releasing press statements to appease the public don’t seem to work anymore. People want to feel heard, they really want to influence the way these companies move forward (or switch supplier) and they want to be part of a continuous conversation.

And this is where the use of an Online Community comes in. I predict more and more utility companies will look to Online Communities to provide their customers with this continuous conversation and ensure their voice is heard, as well as ensuring the companies have a platform in which they can explain, at length, the complex problems and challenges that proving their service entails.

Online Community Prediction # 6

Non-tech start-ups with a community at the core

And lastly, I think we will see more and more non-tech start-up companies launch, with a community immediately as part of the offering. We see tech start-ups often starting out with a community, through crowd funding, or simply because their offering in some way relies on the wider audience to make it work. But I think we will see more and more companies that don’t initially or traditionally rely on their customers input to make them work, still choosing to include their customers, by way of community, right from the word go.

These more traditional businesses have looked at the market and seen the power and benefits a community can add to your offering and are looking to create new companies that allow this to flourish. Now there’s no need to retro-fit communities to existing businesses. No need to educate existing staff. No need to change business processes. But a fresh start, where everyone who joins the business immediately knows, that yes, this customer community will be part of what you need to think about when you are running your area of the company.

All in all, I think 2016 will be an interesting year, for our company, as well as for the wider industry. And all I can hope, is that more companies will allow their customers to have some influence on what they do and produce. My view of the world is still this; as a company, you either start engaging with your customers, listen and be honest with your replies. Allow your customers to come up with ideas and to feedback on what you do and produce. Create ways in which they can get involved with your products and services, or they will find a competitor that will.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Vincent Boon

Vincent Boon

Founder

Vincent is Standing on Giants in-house community guru, futurist and troubleshooter. The source of our methodology and a fiery advocate for genuine customer-centric business.