Companies that are most successful at engaging customers in digital communities have created spaces where participants can actively exchange insights with the company and with each other. These companies also win positive reviews for their products, services, and the quality of their online forums, according to a study by Digitalist Magazine and Oakhouse Insights of the top 50 global brands.

Among these top brands (as determined by Interbrand), we identified 26 that own and operate their own digital communities apart from any social media presence. Branded communities like these represent an opportunity for firms that are digitizing their businesses to create more value. They can share ideas with customers and generate new ideas, solve problems, and even get feedback on product roadmaps, says Vanessa DiMauro, CEO of digital strategy consultancy Leader Networks and an expert on online communities.

A few of the companies in the study have even connected their online communities to their sales and marketing systems to improve how they track customer interests and address their needs. “That is the nirvana: that ability to follow the customer journey end-to-end to anticipate and support their needs so that when the final stage of the buyer journey happens, they purchase more,” DiMauro adds. “If the community member is tagged in the CRM system, you can connect all the messages and all the conversations about the brand that occur in the community.”

Terms of Engagement

We rated the 26 brands on a five-point scale according to four criteria: the way the communities engage with members, member satisfaction, technology features, and the way members engaged with the brands. Then we averaged the scores to determine an overall score for each brand. To aid comparison, we grouped the subjects into three industry categories: technology, consumer products, and other, which includes firms in automotive, financial services, and B2B products and services.

  • Community Engagement: Size of community (estimated number of members); number of member-generated conversations; percentage of posts with comments and replies from other members; post frequency
  • Community Satisfaction: Tone of conversations; relationships developed among members; satisfaction with experience of the community; quality of community moderation; number of topic forums
  • Technology Implemented: Depth of user profiles; ease of use; type of content permitted (such as multimedia, videos, and photos); availability of added features (including gamification, likes, and sharing); and degree to which communities are connected to other systems at the company
  • Brand engagement: Percentage of posts with brand voice participation; quality of brand moderation; presence of engagement policy; member perception toward brand; number of brand-generated posts; average rating of brand content

The strongest communities, regardless of industry, share several characteristics. Among them:

Customers own the conversation. Having a high volume of members who initiate discussions led to the highest scores. Leading companies also deployed tools that enabled customers to comment on each other’s posts, increasing community engagement.

The experts are in. Community satisfaction scores were highest among companies that employed experts as moderators to answer questions, offer advice, and at times guide discussions. Even communities with few members benefitted from expert participation. In the case of one B2B firm, the collegial atmosphere of a small forum made conversations read like a meeting among friends.

It’s fun (and productive) to be there. High-scoring communities design their online spaces so that it’s easy for members to ask questions, post comments, and otherwise find what they need. They also offer means for recognizing users who make contributions that the community values. In one community run by a technology company, for example, users can win points and badges for post quality as recognized by peers; high scorers win a place on a best-in-class list. Several firms also provided links from the forum to sales, service, and other functions so customers can take action.

Members are happy. Brand engagement scores were highest when members were able to see that the community as a whole was satisfied with the host company, its products and services, and the online moderators who engaged with them. These forums were chock-full of members expressing positive sentiments about the brand.

Lessons from Technology Brands

Overall, technology companies scored best on every dimension. Paul Gillin, a B2B social media marketing expert and co-author of Social Marketing to the Business Customer, sees two reasons: they sell complex products that may require help to use, and their customers tend to be comfortable in technical settings, making them more willing to go online and engage.

As a result, the conversations in technology-focused communities lend themselves well to so-called gamification techniques that nudge users to post more and better answers to questions. “You have all these super users and they get more points if they respond. That not only creates engagement inside the community, it also makes everyone happy—everyone that’s responding and everyone that’s getting the answers that they’re looking for,” says André Pacheco, founder of Oakhouse Insights.

In comparison, many consumer packaged goods brands and others with mass customer markets are still trying to discover how to manage customer engagement online. “I don’t think they’ve figured out a way in which they can respond to all of the questions that they get through the online channels in an effective way—when they’re actually responding to every question, not with some pre-made answers,” Pacheco says.

These observations help to explain why half of the top 50 brands don’t yet have a dedicated online community. On its face, says Gillin, the decision to build an online community for customers may appear straightforward. Who doesn’t want to find every means possible to engage with people who care about their products and services? But the required investments in technology, labor, and time are not for everyone.

“Building communities and nurturing them is really hard,” Gillin says. “It’s the most difficult form of social media to get right. It can take years of care and feeding and there’s no guarantee of success. And not all brands and not all products will support a customer community,” he adds.

Those brands that do invest in online communities need to design and implement them with customers in mind, DiMauro notes. She observes that some firms launch a forum just so that fans can show up and sing their praises, but customers won’t advocate for a brand that fails to engage with them when they have problems, questions, or suggestions.

On the other hand, giving community members useful information that they can share with others leads to better outcomes. “If you listen to the members, if you respond to the members, if you provide them with thought leadership, they will amplify the message,” she says.

Michael S. Goldberg is an independent writer and editor focusing on management and technology issues. Christopher Koch is the editorial director of the SAP Center for Business Insight.

This story originally appeared on the Digitalist.