Build Community By Encouraging Customer Participation

Posted on by Chief Marketer Staff

When someone makes a purchase or performs a desired action on your site, do you sit back, kick up your feet, and pat yourself on the back for a job well done? You shouldn’t. That’s because you’d be missing an opportunity to solidify your relationship with the customer—by encouraging the development of an ongoing chain of participation.

One large retailer practicing the participation chain methodology found a surprising driver of additional sales. The company sent e-mails to reviewers after their product reviews were either posted or rejected. The messages linked back to the e-commerce site, but featured no product promotion. Those simple functional e-mails produced a higher open rate and greater sales per e-mail than nearly any promotional e-mail the retailer had sent to customers. Why? Because they were an important link in a participation chain—they helped foster a feeling of goodwill among people who had contributed content to the site, and encouraged them to further interact. They went back to the site, probably to look at their own review, and then, perhaps feeling warmly about the retailer who had published their contribution, decided to buy something else.

The act of participation itself causes people to feel more warmly about your brand. Harvard marketing researcher Michael I. Norton has found that labor undertaken in association with a brand—such as assembling Ikea furniture or building teddy bears at Build-a-Bear Workshop—increases people’s positive feelings about the results of that labor. Contributing reviews, stories, wishlists and the like on a Web site is similar, in that people are helping build the site and therefore feel invested in it.

People’s original motivations for contributing are to help others (90%, according to a Keller Fay and Bazaarvoice study) or to help the brand (80%), but they also do so for more self-interested reasons. They seek to show off their judgment, or writing, or creativity and therefore gain “ego capital,” or look good in front of the community. As a marketer, it’s important to be aware of these motivations, and continually present site visitors with new opportunities to fulfill these needs, keeping them engaged for longer periods of time and building a participation chain.

While the appropriate opportunities to offer your site visitors will vary depending on the purpose of your site, following are a few actions that you could ask a user, visitor or customer to take:
· Submit a photo, such as a shot of the product being used by a family member.
· Take a poll or survey.
· Write a review.
· Answer or ask a question.
· Share a story.
· Leave a comment.
· “Like” or vote up someone else’s contribution or content on the site.
· Create a wishlist or other type of list.

Encouraging users to chain together acts of participation and contribute content has real impact on the bottom line. Bazaarvoice has found that more reviews drive higher conversion, more search traffic, and lower returns. Bazaarvoice client Canadian Tire implemented Ask & Answer application and found that products with one answer per question had 28% fewer customer service calls per product, and products with more than three answers had an 81% drop in calls per product.

This result highlights one of the important side-effects of participation chains—that user contributions not only foster warm and fuzzy feelings toward the brand, but also offer the opportunity to begin building relationships with new, non-participating site visitors. As the number of reviews increases on a site, Bazaarvoice has found, the review volume increases further. The theory is that more content engages more buyers, and those people then return to write reviews themselves, returning the favor to those who helped them make purchase decisions.

To get started with participation chains, take a look at your site and identify any dead ends. When a user submits a review, she should get, not a generic “thank you” page, but an invitation to rate other people’s reviews. When a person uploads a picture, rather than a dead-end “success” notification, the site should suggest that he share the picture with his friends, post the picture to Facebook, or look at other people’s pictures. When a person answers a question, she should be served a few other questions in the same category, to see if she would like to answer them, as well. Each action builds upon the one before, creating value along the way — not only for the original user or site visitor, but also for any site visitors that interact with the content contributed by others.

Marketers have grown accustomed to the idea that engagement is the new key metric by which to judge the quality of their brand’s relationship with customers, but engagement is not a binary thing. Through building participation chains, marketers can ensure that customers are not only engaged, but closely engaged, and engaged long-term, as they take action after action — creating content that draws in other site visitors.

Sam Decker is CMO of Bazaarvoice.

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