Online customer communities are Web-based gathering places for customers, experts, partners and others to discuss problems, post reviews, brainstorm new product ideas, and engage with one another about a company's products, services and brand.
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Online customer communities have gathered steam in recent years, largely because of social media technologies, mobile devices and the Web. These technologies have facilitated communication, making interaction with companies faster and more possible on the go.
The age of the customer has also been an important factor in fueling customer communities, who have gained power in the dynamic with sellers. Consumers now have greater impact in their buying negotiations in terms of price and other deals.
The age of the customer has also prompted a democratization of how information is distributed online. Instead of just a few expert sources providing information, such as consumer reports, customer communities are now trusted sources. By some estimates, more than 70% of buyers engage in online research before buying a product. Customer communities are yet another outgrowth of the customer voice becoming paramount.
Customers have turned to online communities because they offer more real-time means to engage with a company, as opposed to more traditional communication channels such as the phone or email. Customers in some cases also prefer the anonymity of these online communities, where they can gripe about poor customer service without having their opinions attached to their customer information. At the same time, companies are working at breakneck speed to try to integrate the customer information that resides in these online forums with other data in the back office, including ERP and CRM and financial applications. Online customer communities have also enabled companies to get a sense of sentiment analysis without conducting focus groups or survey, which can be poor representative samples, time-consuming and costly.
Customer communities have provided a low-cost alternative to using contact centers for certain kinds of customer support interactions. These communities have enabled customers to address low-level service issues on their own, through what is known as customer self-service or by engaging with peers and experts.
Some communities also exploit their experts to enable knowledge sharing, brainstorming and crowdsourcing. Industries like chemical engineering and healthcare that require technical expertise are using these communities to create authority among their organizations by assembling experts to answer questions and interact but also to enable customers and other nonexperts to generate solutions to problems.
Product development teams have also been able to incorporate feedback about product flaws or possible product innovations. As customers become more informed about products, companies have an opportunity to integrate their suggestions about features, pricing and more into their development cycles.
As customer communities permeate the four walls of a business, they have forced companies to incorporate the voice of customers into their operations and strategies. In turn, this collaborative model has led to new ways of doing business as well, in the form of the collaborative economy, or the sharing economy. Ridesharing services like Uber exemplify this trend, using the Web, the cloud, mobile devices and a contract model of doing business.
While proponents of collaborative economies cite the openness and flexibility of collaborative economies for companies and workers -- enabling companies to tap global talent at a moment's notice -- detractors also note that the collaborative economy often benefits companies but turns workers into low-wage earning freelancers without healthcare and other full-time benefits.