Enhancing Relationships With Customers Through Online Brand Communities

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.

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