To make their online brand communities more effective, companies should strive to improve the quality of four key components of customer-to-customer communication.

Managers of online brand communities can improve the frequency of posts by hosting the communities on popular social networking applications with which many customers are already familiar. For example, Procter & Gamble Co. hosts a discussion board for its Pampers diapers on Facebook.

Online brand communities can bring customers closer to a brand, generate “buzz” and enhance brand loyalty. Yet, important as online brand communities are to consumer markets, little is known about the role they play in consumer decision-making. Although the popularity of online brand communities as a means of gathering pre- and post-purchase information continues to grow, knowledge about how to effectively manage those conversations remains scant.

To learn more, we studied the active discussion boards of two competing makers of high-end woodworking tools. After members read replies to their posts, we measured several outcomes, including forum members’ confidence in the company, their perceptions of the customer-brand relationship (consisting of relationship satisfaction, trust and commitment), and the members’ self-reported purchase behavior. We contacted 394 forum members via e-mail. A total of 212 completed our survey, representing a response rate of 54%. Next, we downloaded conversations between members from the company’s online forum, and analyzed the downloaded text. Finally, to assess the reliability of customers’ memories, we checked what the customers reported about their purchase behavior against one company’s sales records; the results indicated high reliability. (Further details of our study and results were reported in an article in the October 2010 issue of the Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science. See “Related Research.”)

Related Research

M.T. Adjei, S.M. Noble and C.H. Noble, “The Influence of C2C Communications in Online Brand Communities on Customer Purchase Behavior,” Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science 38, no. 5 (October 2010): 634-653.

Generally speaking, marketing scholars believe that more communication increases customer confidence — and our study of member-to-member conversations largely confirmed this theory. Forum members who obtained higher levels of relevant, frequent, lengthy and timely information experienced reduced feelings of uncertainty (in other words, their confidence in the company increased) and developed stronger relationships with the sponsoring companies. Interestingly, we found that no single dimension of communication quality was enough to reduce uncertainty. To encourage purchases, the communications must be relevant, frequent, lengthy and timely. According to our study, only members who received higher levels of all four dimensions of communication ultimately made purchases from additional categories of products and also bought more products from the same category.

We also found that the kind of information received matters less than one might think. Although positive information is always a good way to enhance customer-brand relationship quality and encourage purchases, negative information may not be all that bad. Our survey found that negative information may discourage purchases when the information concerns the core product (such as assessments of quality, durability or basic functionality). However, when the negative information is about supporting elements (for example, customer service), the effect on purchases is minimal.

Four Ways to Improve Online Communication Quality

These findings mean that by improving the quality of all four components of communication, marketers can make their online brand communities more effective. Specifically, companies should try to:

1. Enhance the timeliness of information exchanged.

Increasing the timeliness of message posting can be the first step in improving communication quality. Enhancing timeliness, however, may be one of the more difficult challenges facing forum operators because having experts always on call can be expensive. However, there are ways to meet that challenge:

Appointments. Community managers can set “appointed hours” on various topics, moderated by experts with drawing power. For example, in one of the contexts we studied, table saws were a major purchase category. Offering a periodic “Table Saw Hour” led by a company expert or master craftsman might help draw prospective buyers and generate questions that participants would be likely to answer efficiently. The prominence and drawing power of the moderator would be an important aspect of making this strategy successful.

Rewards. Awarding more points to respondents who reply to a question quickly may encourage members to post replies in a timely manner. Apple Inc. provides an excellent example of how a reward system can enhance the various dimensions of communication quality. Apple’s strategy enhances the timeliness of communication in that only two replies can be marked “helpful” and only one can earn the distinction that it has “solved” the problem; both kinds of ratings improve the community ranking of the person who replied. With such a system, it is likely that community members will reply to posts quickly in order to win the reputation points available.

Increase access points. Timeliness can also be improved by offering multiple access points to the community. For instance, the sponsor of an online brand community may find it worthwhile to create a version intended for access from mobile devices. This gives members added flexibility and may help them better integrate board visitation into their daily lives.

2. Enhance the relevance of information posted.

For customer-to-customer communications to be effective, they must be relevant to the topic at hand. Accordingly, marketers should implement strategies that enhance the relevance or usefulness of the information shared on the brand’s online forum. They can do this by heeding the following guidelines:

Image courtesy of Procter & Gamble

Keep the focus on topic. Marketers can enforce that posted messages are on topic by using a moderator empowered to steer or delete inappropriate discussions. For example, Mazdaforum.com utilizes a “report post” feature in many places on the board so that members are able to alert the moderator to postings they consider off-topic, offensive or bothersome to other members, in order that the moderator can delete them.

Divide the forum into categories. Forums can be created with detailed category frameworks for topics, including higher and lower headings to allow for precise posting of questions. For example, Dell Inc. organizes its support forums into broad categories such as “Desktop,” “Disk Drives,” “Laptop” and “Mobile Devices.” Within the broad category of, say, “Laptop” are more specific subtopics, such as audio, video and hardware. This forces forum members to post under precise topics and helps prevent off-topic messages from distracting the community.

Encourage users to preselect interests. Another way to increase the relevance of the information obtained is to allow the forum members to preselect topics of interest so that when they log into the forum, they are shown those topics first. This way, forum members are more likely to have some expertise or special interest in the topics shown and thus more likely to provide useful and relevant responses.

3. Extend the conversation.

Our research showed that lengthy, descriptive and detailed replies or interactions are associated with higher levels of online consumer-to-consumer communication quality. Marketers can help reduce uncertainty about their products and drive sales by implementing strategies that make it easier for posters to express themselves as much as they want. Here are some strategies that can increase the length of customer-to-customer interactions.

Make it easy for users to express themselves. Maximizing the ease of use of the forum, particularly for individuals who are expressive and detail-oriented, is a powerful way to extend interactions. For example, Mini Max USA, a manufacturer of woodworking tools based in Duluth, Georgia, allows its forum members to use a rich text editor, with which they can add web links, underline, use boldface, change font size and color and use emoticons.

Don’t set limits. One way to allow message posters to be expressive and detailed in their posts is not to limit the length of responses. That way, posters can use as many words as they need to respond to the questions on the boards, enhancing the quality of the information exchanged.

Allow evaluation. Additionally, managers of online brand communities can enhance the relevance of the information posted by allowing posters to evaluate the replies to a question. Hewlett-Packard Co. implements such a strategy by allowing readers to award “kudos” to particularly informative and helpful replies. These awards draw attention to potentially meaningful comments and seem to help refocus and extend the conversation. They also become part of the profiles and scoring for effective responders, increasing their prestige within the community.

4. Increase the frequency of information exchanged.

An increase in the volume of communications is directly associated with higher levels of communication quality, which reduces uncertainty and ultimately improves sales. Here the goal is to improve the frequency with which members post timely, relevant and lengthy messages to each other. Among the best tactics to encourage frequency:

Launch contests. Increasing the traffic to the forum by organizing contests and other rewards specifically for the most recent posters can enhance the frequency with which members post on the board. For example, a moderator can randomly select a contest winner from those who have posted messages within a certain time period.

Use familiar social networking tools. Managers of online brand communities can also improve the frequency of posts by hosting the communities on popular social networking applications with which many customers are already familiar. For example, Procter & Gamble Co. hosts a discussion board for its Pampers diapers on Facebook. Hosting the discussion board on Facebook makes it easier for members to find, navigate and post regularly on the board.

Create special opportunities. Another way to motivate forum members to post messages frequently is to create special opportunities for forum visitors. For example, the forum can be the place where new products are first announced. Marketers can also periodically offer discount coupons and deals on the forum as a means of attracting customers.

Acknowledge helpful members. Acknowledging individuals who provide a high volume of replies in a specified time period may enhance the frequency with which forum members post replies.

Online brand communities are powerful mechanisms for bringing customers together to enhance brand enthusiasm. Sometimes they even create brand champions who dispense helpful advice and purchase recommendations to scores of potential buyers. However, our results show that the mere existence of a forum or message board is not enough to strengthen relationships and drive sales. Rather, it is the exchange of high-quality information on these sites that drives a strong customer response. Providing that quality is an important challenge — and opportunity.

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