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How to Approach Community Experience Design for Your Digital Product

Authenticity travels far in product marketing. Investing in word-of-mouth (WOM) advertising and marketing is simply good business. And if you’re looking for data to back up that argument, Semrush presents a convincing narrative

  • 64% of marketers agree that WOM is the most effective form of marketing
  • 70% of marketers are looking to increase their online WOM spending 
  • Most marketers (83%) use WOM marketing because it increases brand/product awareness 

This last insight is the most meaningful for product leads shepherding products through the early stages of development and user adoption. For products emerging into the marketplace, exposure is extremely important. When the market is not engaging with your solution — or, worse, if no one even knows your product is out there — a small group of eager, early adopters spreading your product’s gospel can be a boon for any brand or business.

If your digital solutions have struggled to gain traction with your target audiences, or you simply want to get a jump start on developing a dedicated user/customer base, designing an inviting, engaging, user-centered digital product community could be the start of your product’s journey to mass adoption. 

However, building an organic community to support your digital product is not quick, cheap or easy work. What are the secrets to success? What returns could you expect to gain from your investment of time, resources and patience? 

Advantages of Digital Product Communities

Product developers must be clear-eyed about the long-term commitment community building requires. A considerable amount of work needs to be done before you send out your first invitation. You should not expect to see results overnight, but the right approach and a steadfast commitment will help you realize impressive benefits. 

Short-Term Benefits of Community Building

If no one is talking about your product, just getting the conversation started is a big win. 

For product development projects in the early stages, that first introduction and exposure to real users is incredibly valuable, especially when those users are willing to describe their experiences.

Making that introduction in an environment you control offers other advantages, such as maximizing the opportunity to collect actionable feedback. With the right motivation or incentives, you deputize your community members to provide invaluable user insights that optimize, iterate and accelerate the adoption of your product. 

If your community members are willing to talk to you, they’d be willing to talk to others about your product, especially if you make them feel heard and valued for their observations and contributions. Turning your community members into product testers, early adopters and product champions helps you to spread the word (building awareness) and cultivate a natural customer base. 

Long-Term Benefits of Digital Product Communities 

Building a community not only helps with short-term product goals. The impact of positive digital interactions extends far into the future. However, it’s important to cultivate a digital community the right way, by focusing on user interests and needs and prioritizing relationship building. Committing to this approach is the best way to grow the community, drive more attention to your product and lay the foundation for future sales. 

Eventually, your base of potential customers will turn into real, paying customers, and a satisfying community experience will keep them engaged after the sale.

Continued participation in the community keeps your product top of mind and increases the chance of your community members turning into repeat customers. It always costs more to acquire a new customer than to keep an existing one. Customer retention is a huge bottom-line benefit of an active user community. 

Your digital community helps your bottom line in other ways, too. Users help other users answer questions about your products, explain new features or troubleshoot through known issues. These actions align with your business goals. Additionally, when your community members step in to assist, your paid customer service staff has one less problem to attend to and you realize savings on your operational costs

Product Communities: What They Are and Are Not

Building up a community is a solid investment. However, not every product or service needs one. 

“There are simply too many communities around today competing for a finite share of audience attention,” says Richard Millington, founder of FeverBee, a community consultancy that uses social science to help solve social problems. “Not every organization should build a community and those that do are going to struggle in the war for attention at the moment.” 

If you’re committed to winning that battle, your community will need to do an exceptional job of meeting user needs. What do users expect and want from digital communities? According to Millington, users join and stay for four basic reasons: 

  1. Mutual support 
  2. Influence 
  3. Sense of belonging
  4. Innovation and exploration of new ideas 

Notice that shopping or product exploration isn’t on this list, meaning you shouldn’t treat your community as a sales channel. To design an effective digital community experience, you must bypass your immediate, profit-oriented business goals. 

Approach community building purposefully and with empathy for your future members. A community is a network of relationships. It’s a resource to grow and cultivate, not a product or a tool to build. A digital community is an investment in people first; the tech comes second. 

How to Start A Digital Community to Support Your Product 

Establishing a digital product community takes work; as in, it’s a full-time job (we’ll return to this in a minute). It’s also not a “build it and they’ll come” proposition. It takes research and targeted outreach. 

At its core, a community is a place for conversation. Your first order of business is getting someone to talk to you (just like in high school). And like high school, you’ll need to figure out how to get noticed without appearing too eager, overbearing or needy. It helps to know what all the “cool kids” are into. 

Do Your Research and Engage with Purpose 

To get users to pay attention you need to do three things: 

  1. Overcome the attention barrier
  2. Define a particular purpose
  3. Present clear value to your members 

“We’re slowly getting better at having a clear case for the community,” says Millington. “We’re seeing fewer communities for people to chat about whatever they like to in the morning and far more communities where people visit for a particular reason.”

To come up with a conversation entry point relevant to your users, put yourself in your target audiences’ shoes and dig into their interests, motivators, needs and concerns. Your goal is to identify a niche issue (related to the problem your product solves) that has not yet been addressed, or has not been addressed well. Observing existing social communities and digital networks is time well spent at this stage.

The Nike Run Club is a great example of filling a niche need. The app allows running enthusiasts to connect with each other, plan group runs, and track and share their performance. Runners have always done this, but the Nike Run Club makes it easier. The app doesn’t sell shoes, it provides a branded experience based on user interests. However, the resulting user interactions cultivate and sustain a relationship with the brand, which increases the chances of users choosing Nike shoes the next time they need a new pair.  

Choosing the right concept for your digital community will require time and trial and error. However, it should be easy to identify your most impactful idea. It will be the one that gets a quick response from your target audience. 

Start Small And Focus on Culture and Relationships First

Getting participants to join your community is a huge milestone and where the real hard work begins. In the early going, your community will need care and attention. You will need to continually push the conversation forward and drive engagement with and between users.  

Some product development teams make the mistake of assigning this task to a social media manager or another existing role. However, as we mentioned previously, managing a community is a specialized skill and a big job, not a side responsibility. Your community manager should develop relationships with early users to understand their core motivations and explore why they chose to engage and participate. They will also need to establish an inviting, supportive and engaging culture. 

This work should be done before any large-scale investment into technology. In fact, you may not need to design your community platform for quite a while. Take advantage of community tools wherever you find your target audience, whether it’s on LinkedIn, Facebook, YouTube or other digital platforms.

At this stage your most important investment is in people. Establishing a strong community culture early will help you draw users whenever/if you do decide to design a custom digital experience platform for your community. 

A Community to Help Your Digital Product

Creating a digital community achieves a number of mission-critical goals, in both the early stages of product development and throughout the life of your product. However, the process requires a long-term commitment and a considerable amount of work. 

The competition for your audiences’ limited attention is fierce. Your best bet to build an organic community that supports your product and authentically represents your brand is to prioritize relationship-building and establish a culture that exceeds user expectations.