Why Online Communities Should Connect To Commerce

Steve Hamrick

As digitization continues to gain momentum, consumers have become more and more comfortable researching and buying goods online. By 2020, an estimated 30% of all purchases will be influenced through an online community. Not only are consumers going online to make their purchase, but a recent Forrester study found that customers typically complete 70% to 90% of their buying journey prior to engaging with a vendor.

Companies and brands that can seamlessly integrate commerce and communities will increase customer engagement, improve customer loyalty, and significantly improve the number of initial and repeat purchases a customer makes.

Companies that leverage communities as a cornerstone of their customer engagement initiative will also gain tremendous amounts of customer data and insight that can be leveraged to shape future incentives and loyalty programs. Creating brand ambassadors will be a critical factor for success in the future because brands are losing control over the customer experience as consumers increasingly trust peer reviews and peer-generated content.

While online communities are increasingly important, they’re not well-connected to the customer buying process and are often set aside as “yet another destination.” As a result, brands miss out on huge revenue opportunities and fail to provide material improvements leading to customer satisfaction and loyalty. Because there is no call to action, the ability to capitalize on that customer’s interest and intent to purchase is lost. The brand’s inability to show customers an offer for a product that might fit their needs results in a missed opportunity and a lower return on promotional content.

This leads to two major problems: missed opportunities to provide a consumer with a personalized solution recommendation and failure to integrate the purchase journey into the early stages of the customer experience. All of the effort and expense in crafting these communities, engaging with members, and creating valuable content is at risk of going to waste. More importantly, these brands are missing an opportunity to better engage with customers, build brand loyalty, and cultivate brand ambassadors they will need in the future.

To make communities more effective, it’s important to understand the types of behaviors customers display based on their purchases, as customer journeys can vary significantly in both transaction and emotion. If the goal of one customer’s journey is to buy a simple product such as a phone charger, brands need to provide a quick form of validation, such as user ratings, and get the customer to the shopping cart as fast as possible. However, if a customer is looking to find support for a more complex product purchase, such as a vehicle accessory, sporting equipment, or a household appliance, directing them into user ratings without context may add anxiety or purchase uncertainty.

Online communities must respect these varied paths to purchase as a starting point to solving customer journey issues. Customer journeys need to be positive throughout, or the outcome can spell trouble for a retailer. An expert-authored blog post or a question-and-answer facility included on the product page can prove to be beneficial, but nothing is more valuable than enabling customers to read peer reviews—in fact, this is one of the most important and reliable factors for millennial shoppers. If the goal of another customer’s journey is to learn and share their experiences with other relevant peers in a product community, they will not want to be rushed into a purchase; rather, they would want to learn and contribute.

In today’s digital economy, even something as seemingly simple as buying a pair of running shoes can become complicated considering the different customizations and personalizations available. Online communities that support consumers who are evaluating a product by providing tools such as questions and answers, along with moderator and extension capabilities (for example, a question that is unanswered for a period of time can be automatically escalated to a call center representative) can help drive sales of complex goods. By enhancing an online community to meet the criteria of millennials and future shoppers, brands can build trust and loyalty among these groups.

Without online communities that are connected to commerce, brands are missing a huge opportunity to provide customers with deeper insights from end users, as well as the chance to gather data that creates a more comprehensive product profile based on customers’ questions.

Online community solutions built for commerce can provide a wealth of helpful insight on consumers’ buying journeys: What questions and answers were asked or viewed before a decision was made? How many conversations and interactions did it take to make a final purchase decision?Which social content — such as blogs, reviews, or discussions — helped to influence a purchase? Which pieces of paid content actually drove sales?

By integrating the commerce catalog within the online community and knowing which customer journeys relate to which products, forums can provide deep, meaningful engagement metrics on what drives successful conversions. This in turn enables more successful transactions and boosts the number of satisfied, loyal customers.

A community integration does not start and end with community content, however. Retailers must look at integrations that translate across other channels, such as incentives or loyalty programs. The content from online communities creates non-promotional dialogue that impacts buyer decisions. As brand awareness blends between the promotional and organic content, smart retailers are putting that quality content to their advantage across a wide variety of channels.

By identifying and solving real-world, everyday business challenges, successful online communities can bring organizations closer to their customers. Communities can offer deeper insights about why customers choose the products they do and why customers become loyal advocates of a particular brand.

Brands need to stop thinking of communities as “nice to have,” one-off places for customer dialogue and integrate them more closely into their online marketing strategies.

To learn more about supporting the online customer journey with communities, read this Forrester whitepaper.