Industry Stories

Creating a Community-Based Approach to Engage with Customers

I have been working with high-tech enterprises for more than 15 years, and one of the most common challenges they all seem to face is this: How to boost engagement with customers in order to establish a deeper connection? The ultimate goal, of course, is higher customer retention rates and improved revenue performance.

Here are my answers to that seemingly simple, but important question.

  • Find new opportunities available to high-tech enterprises that allow you to engage with more customers by leveraging a platform-based approach.
  • Consider developing an online community to garner interaction and a higher level of “stickiness” amongst the users of your products.
  • Continue to enhance your online presence as well as combine those efforts with offline events and activities to ensure well-rounded visibility and customer engagement.

Let’s explore how enterprises can establish new ways to improve customer retention in light of the typical challenges they face today.

Traditionally, high-tech enterprises have relied on their customers or retailers providing (or volunteering) feedback so they could share it with their product teams to incorporate it into new or enhanced product versions before launch. This would often lead to long delays for market-validated new product releases, and even if they did manage to accelerate the process, it often meant the new features did not align with customers’ expectations.

With advances in technology, high-tech enterprises are now able to engage directly with end customers and consumers by using social platforms, such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, and others. Some companies even build their own unique platforms to engage directly with their own customers.

Let me share with you an example of one company that created their own community of users, and several of the best practices learned from that exercise.

A Community of Design Engineers that is an Industry Benchmark

My example is Avnet, a global technology solutions provider with an extensive ecosystem of experts that support customers at every stage of the product life cycle. Avnet is ranked #165 on the FORTUNE 500 and has customers in more than 140 countries.

Those customers include more than 2.1 million design engineers — from large enterprises to scrappy startups. To ensure that these diverse customer needs are met in their next generation of products and solutions, it was critical for Avnet to engage early and often with the core of their customer base—design engineers who are working on new products and new technologies.

These engineers could be working out of a garage in the Bay area, or from a college dorm in the UK, or on a factory floor in China. To engage with such a diverse group of target design engineers and developers, Avnet saw the need for a way to provide easy access to all of its offerings. They also wanted to provide insights into the various components that went along with their product offerings to ensure a seamless design process. It was critical to receive input on how other design engineers were using a particular product and for them to share their feedback. Avnet chose to develop a very engaging and resource-rich community for design engineers—one which could provide Amazon-like reviews coupled with a Facebook-like interactive approach, all while tailor-made for developers and engineers.

To move quickly on their strategy, Avnet acquired Farnell (based in the UK), which is a leading distributor of products for electronic system design, maintenance and repair. This move provided Avnet access to their element14 community, a discussion-based forum where engineers collaborate to help solve one another’s design challenges. Shortly thereafter, Avnet also acquired, another online community which offers education on programming and building hardware.

These two strategic investments have helped Avnet engage with design engineers early in the design process, leading to more engagement because of their end-to-end ecosystem that supports product design—from an idea on a napkin to mass production. In addition, it has also created a very vibrant community that fuels innovation of new product ideas as well as peripheral cross-sell and upsell opportunities for the company.

Avnet is an expert in the latest technologies, including IoT and AI, and has two powerful online communities, element14 and Hackster, that are at the heart of our end-to-end ecosystem. These communities are key to our ability to help developers take an idea from the back of a napkin and turn it into a full-fledged product. Through them we are able to provide greater value for our customers as well as receive better insight into their needs.

- Dayna Badhorn, vice president emerging businesses, Avnet

Since the launch of its community-based platform strategy, Avnet has seen great benefits in terms of:

  • More stickiness to the Avnet brand
  • A higher degree of customer retention
  • Better insights into customer needs
  • Direct feedback on new products
  • Greater opportunities to upsell and cross-sell

Avnet also realized that having one’s own community helps a business have better access and responsiveness compared to relying solely on other social media channels.

Best Practices for a Community-based Approach to Customer Engagement

  • Offer a platform for open dialogue - One of the key tenets of an online community is to provide a safe and secure platform for everyone to share their views—organizations have to be prepared for both constructive and negative feedback. Also, they need to set up norms to ensure that the interaction on the forum is restricted to its objective.
  • Offer value that compels customers to stay in the forum - It is important to keep customers engaged in various ways like newsletters, interviews with industry leaders, knowledge sharing sessions or access to the latest product information. The company has to continuously find new ways to motivate customers to stay active and more importantly return to the platform on an ongoing basis.
  • Encourage and reward top contributions - Top contributors create new content, provide a response to user issues and keep the platform alive. The company must acknowledge and reward the most active contributors with special incentives like early access to new product launches, special rewards, special status mentions, etc.
  • Offer education and training - Communities provide an inexpensive way to provide user training by hosting online interactive webinars, training sessions, or even client testimonials and stories to enable product adoption.
  • Platform for early product feedback - An online platform provides a great avenue for companies to try out new product/service offerings before they are launched into the mass market. If the feedback is handled well they can be converted into strong advocates of the new offerings.
  • Bringing online and offline worlds together - Many companies are looking at ways to convert their online community into offline “fans”. The online community can be a great multiplier to annual conferences, road shows or local events for the company. They can also make these events accessible to the global user base who may not be able to attend these events otherwise.

To summarize, the top three takeaways for high-tech organizations are:

  1. Leverage a platform-based approach if you want to uncover new opportunities to engage with your customers and develop new ones.
  2. Adopt a community-based approach for deeper customer retention, improved revenue performance, and to gain higher level of stickiness amongst users of your offerings.
  3. Enhance your online presence as well as combine those efforts with offline activities and events to ensure well-rounded visibility and more options for multiple customer engagements.