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Diane Hessan of Communispace on virtual communities

Have you ever wondered how a business can get its customers to willingly talk about what they think? Have you questioned whether it’s possible to entice your customers to become advocates for your brand? Or whether it’s worth the effort to start an online customer community? If so, you’ll probably want to read my interview with Diane Hessan, President & CEO of Communispace, a company that’s been helping companies listen to their customers through online communities since 2000. 100 major brands use Communispace, so you might ask yourself whether yours should, too.


Me: Your job sounds like a lot of fun. How did you make it to where you are? Lots of folks would like to learn from your career.
DH: After my MBA, I went to General Foods (eventually acquired by Kraft) to learn marketing. I experienced, time after time, how the voice of the consumer would completely transform how we operated, and it became my passion. So, I have spent most of my career helping execs listen to customers. The Web and consumer empowerment have led to breakthroughs in how companies can listen, and we’ve been able to harness this power to drive our business and inspire what we do every day for our clients. I love being a CEO: it’s a chance to build the kind of company I always wanted to work for.
Me: How was Communispace formed? What did the first few clients do with the service?
DH: We raised our initial venture capital based on an internal community application, helping employees use the Web to share information. It was a great idea (harnessing the collective wisdom of your organization), but it was a total nice-to-have at the time. Our client at Hallmark, Tom Brailsford, suggested that we try creating communities of consumers instead—kind of a focus group on steroids. We listened to him, and the rest is history. Our first clients essentially had a much more primitive version of our software, which we’ve obviously improved dramatically since then. Even more, we’ve learned a tremendous amount over the years about how to engage people online, which is what has made us so unique in the market. Our early clients were incredibly adventurous, and most of them are still with us today. Fortunately, we now really know what we’re doing and our clients are getting fast payoff on their investments. 🙂
Me: What kinds of uses can customers make of Communispace today?
DH: We only create one kind of customer community, which is to help companies listen to—and act on—the voice of their customers. Clients have their fingers on the pulse of their customers continuously, and the most common results are deep insight, faster innovation, and improved marketing effectiveness.
Me: What’s the most valuable result that a client has had with your service?
DH: We have dozens of clients who have developed breakthrough new products and services using Communispace. Those are my favorite stories, but we hesitate to take all of the credit for it. For instance, people like to say that we helped Kraft create 100-calorie packs, but it was the Nabisco team that took those consumer insights and translated them into the marketplace. Of course, these days, our clients are getting a lot of value by having their fingers on the constantly changing pulse of their consumers. Think about it: if you have great customer data, from last fall, you may as well throw it out. I am so proud of what we do, but we are also really lucky to have amazingly curious clients who listen hard and then rally their organizations to leverage what we are learning from their communities.
Me: Are there some companies that should not be involved in building a community of customers?
DH: I think that every company needs to spend significant time understanding their customers. Sometimes there’s a perception that it needs to be a brand or company that has super passionate fans or a really high involvement product to make community work and that’s just not the case. In fact, it’s just the idea that companies are listening that drives engagement.
Me: Do you sometimes need to persuade clients that this is a valuable technique for them? What do you say?
DH: I usually tell prospects to talk to our clients. They are better at making Communispace come alive than we are. Of course, in this economic environment, it’s often easier because it’s a terrible time to lose touch with customers.
Me: Do you have a story about a client who was skeptical of the value and was won over?
DH: Our clients will often be skeptical in the beginning because a community is a substantial investment: usually in the $300,000 range for a year. However, by the end of the first month or two, they begin to see that they are building an asset that is hugely valuable. That’s why we have a 90+% renewal rate.
Me: What’s the most surprising community story you’ve heard?
DH: The surprises are usually related to the members. People always wonder what types of customers would agree to join a community and help a brand for very little in the way of financial remuneration. Yet our members work really hard for our clients and their brands and they have a great time helping companies improve. So, sometimes it’s a surprise that people really do want a voice—but it’s true.
Me: What do you think the big trend will be in community building by the end of this year?
DH: I suppose I’m not objective, but I think the measure of a community’s value will start to be more related to the quality of the membership than the quantity of members. We have small communities (about 400 people) because they are more intimate and exclusive—and thus participation is higher than in much larger communities. People don’t want to have a conversation with everyone in the world, and that will start to become obvious.
Me: Thanks, Diane for sharing your experience with my readers.

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Mike Moran

Mike Moran is an expert in internet marketing, search technology, social media, text analytics, web personalization, and web metrics, who, as a Certified Speaking Professional, regularly makes speaking appearances. Mike’s previous appearances include keynote speaking appearances worldwide. Mike serves as a senior strategist for Converseon, an AI powered consumer intelligence technology and consulting firm. He is also a senior strategist for SoloSegment, a marketing automation software solutions and services firm. Mike also serves as a member of the Board of Directors of SEMPO. Mike spent 30 years at IBM, rising to Distinguished Engineer, an executive-level technical position. Mike held various roles in his IBM career, including eight years at IBM’s customer-facing website, ibm.com, most recently as the Manager of ibm.com Web Experience, where he led 65 information architects, web designers, webmasters, programmers, and technical architects around the world. Mike's newest book is Outside-In Marketing with world-renowned author James Mathewson. He is co-author of the best-selling Search Engine Marketing, Inc. (with fellow search marketing expert Bill Hunt), now in its Third Edition. Mike is also the author of the acclaimed internet marketing book, Do It Wrong Quickly: How the Web Changes the Old Marketing Rules, named one of best business books of 2007 by the Miami Herald. Mike founded and writes for Biznology® and writes regularly for other blogs. In addition to Mike’s broad technical background, he holds an Advanced Certificate in Market Management Practice from the Royal UK Charter Institute of Marketing and is a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. He also teaches at Rutgers Business School. He is a Senior Fellow at the Society for New Communications Research. Mike worked at ibm.com from 1998 through 2006, pioneering IBM’s successful search marketing program. IBM’s website of over two million pages was a classic “big company” website that has traditionally been difficult to optimize for search marketing. Mike, working with Bill Hunt, developed a strategy for search engine marketing that works for any business, large or small. Moran and Hunt spearheaded IBM’s content improvement that has resulted in dramatic gains in traffic from Google and other internet portals.

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