Free workforce? Marketing substitute? Unpaid website content generators? If you’re hoping for a way to ‘exploit the well-proven willingness of loyal customers to contribute tirelessly to your online promotion, generating enormous traffic and business, and asking for nothing in return’ you need help

Just because they’re asking for nothing, it doesn’t mean they’re expecting nothing. If you’re a startup, doing little more than ‘letting visitors know that they should use the online community facilities on your website’ will probably produce levels of ‘content contribution’ which fall well below your expectations and generate comparatively little additional traffic and disappointingly small levels of additional business.

If that happens, you might be tempted to conclude that “customer loyalty doesn’t produce the  online community-based content bonanza we’d been promised” and that “the whole online community thing was probably mostly hype” or “it just doesn’t work for us”. And you’d be wrong.

  • You need to share more than ‘interest’ in order to get real engagement
  • Shared interest is too abundant online to be highly compelling
  • Instead, personal sharing of real-world experiences needs to be offered

When ‘user generated content’ expectations are not being met, it is because the users, even in many cases the most loyal ones, such as your most loyal customers, have  (mostly unspoken, probably subliminal) expectations which are not being met.

In fact the problem that produces ‘online community underperformance’ (lack of take-up, or lack of valuable participation) is almost certainly not any inherent sense of scepticism on the part of the prospective contributors. Instead it is the absence of those essential things which drive sustained voluntary activity.

“But I thought shared interest drives community activity and that customer loyalty represents a shared interest between the company and the customer”

Shared interest in something which certainly does produce some potential motivation for online community participation, but it turns out that for most, shared interest is at only a pretext for initiating occasional and fairly superficial activity.

Online, ‘occasional and superficial’ can equate to little more than ‘checking out the community home page and perhaps coming back for a visit once in a while, maybe adding a comment, and at the very most contributing a solitary brief review once a year’.

It may come as a bit of a shock, but for all its importance and its apparent relevance to the company and the customer, shared interest turns out to be nothing more than a starting point.

The online world presents so many opportunities and encouragements to address so many shared interests that the power of any one shared interest to act as a basis for sustained involvement is diluted to the extent that it cannot be relied upon as a strong motivating force on its own.

Shared interest represents an opportunity to initiate and invite community involvement and offers a significant prospect for success in attracting relevant attention, but from the point of ‘attention initiation’ onwards, shared interest is not a basis for further participation that can be taken for granted.

Once you’ve got their attention, and you want their participation, start ‘giving back’ straight away

Shared interest is good for initial attention and it is good for reinforcing involvement, but only if it has some other basis for involvement which it can reinforce. That other basis has to be something which (and this is not so intuitive) connects ‘irrelevant activity’ (activity which is not directly relevant to the interest that is being shared) with the ‘interest sharer’.

What is that ‘irrelevant activity’ that also needs to be shared? Well, it doesn’t have a name, but for a good reason.

Most of our lives consist of things that are not that ‘special interest’.

When we connect with people (enough to be prepared to start a conversation, or at least when we briefly listen to what they have to say) the connections between us may be initiated through ‘special interests’ (being relatives, neighbours, colleagues is usually ‘special’ enough to make conversations or at least to make ‘momentary attention’ happen).

But that degree of special interest is not enough to make us want to regularly engage in sustained activity with them.

Special interests, whether ‘thematic’ (i.e., a subject you find interesting) or demographic (proximity or some shared characteristic) or behavioural or even social (even relatives and ‘friends’: Facebook has taught us to treat that term with caution) do not necessarily guarantee that you will ‘want to do more than the absolute minimum’ in terms of interaction with those that share it. Customer loyalty is no different in this respect.

The nameless thing that does make us want to engage in a more significant way with most of the people that we do engage with, most of the time, comes under two fairly interchangeable headings: ‘the rest of our lives’ and ‘personal relationships’.

Notice how it’s fairly meaningless to refer to either of those things as ‘special interests’? They are in many ways the precise opposite! But also how they are in many ways at least as important, if not more important, than any ‘special interest’ that we may have. The relationship itself becomes a special interest, an intrinsically shared interest, but unlike ‘regular customer of Amazon’ it doesn’t have (or need) a name and we don’t refer to personal relationships as ‘special interests’ or ‘shared interests’.

Shared (special) interests certainly do connect people but it’s the ‘the rest of our lives’ that represent ‘the people being connected’ and its ‘personal relationships’ that represent the nature of the connection between us.

The nature of the personal relationship in this context involves ‘reciprocity’, something which falls into the realm of real friendship, by contrast with ‘friending’ in Facebook (which is even weaker still, because it often ‘presumes’ shared interest, but you probably get the point!).

In other words, by ‘attempting to mobilise customer loyalty exclusively through special interest’, we are missing out the very thing which makes relationships work.

Initiating contact on the basis of special, shared interest obviously makes sense, but once we’ve initiated it, we need to proceed to pursue the establishment of personal relationships (relationships which by definition engage with more than just the special interest in your company and its products that customer loyalty represents, i.e., the relationship extends into the rest of the lives of those involved ‘on both sides’).

Shared interest only facilitates attention, it’s real, personal relationships, based upon real, human’ give and take’ that produce real engagement

So now we come to the real question underlying the success of online communities: what do you have to do in order to turn a special interest into the kind of personal relationship that would make customers want to participate?

I won’t attempt to answer that at this stage, but I suggest you watch this video and then ask yourself what it is telling you about why Ligaya Tichy was successful.