Expert interview with Vikki Chowney of TMW on the community revolution

Vikki Chowney thumb

About Vikki Chowney

Head of Community Management, TMW.

Vikki is head of community at intelligent influence agency TMW, where she's responsible for community management and influencer outreach for a range of brands within Unilever, Nestlé, General Mills and Reckitt Benckiser, as well as Sony Mobile and Infiniti. A former journalist and editor with Econsultancy and Reputation Online, Vikki was voted one of The Drum's top 30 women in digital under 30 in 2012, and she currently sits on the IDM's digital marketing council.

On Twitter: @vikkichowney      On LinkedIn:

Tell us a bit about why businesses should be building customer communities? What are some of the key benefits that you see?

There’s such a broad range of benefits that can stem from building a community around your customers or fans. Even if you step back and forget the online component, and focus on just TALKING more to your customers – and allowing them to talk to you – you end up truly knowing what they want and like, their problems and more. Basically you understand how to better relate to your customers. Great community management, supported often by social technologies that allow P2P interaction, can build on this to support the adoption of products or services, advise on the design, development and deployment of strategies that encourage engagement between a business and its clients, create brand advocates and change perception of the brand in the process.

And what about the benefits for the customer in these communities? What are customers looking for?

Largely; answers. There’s a huge focus on content marketing from the industry at the moment, which is great for brands since (when it’s done right) they can captivate consumers by providing entertaining or valuable content on a day-to-day basis. However, this doesn’t always stem from a desire to be given content by a brand! The bottom line (which many forget) is that basic customer service - How does this work? Why isn’t it doing what it should? Where can I get help? – is still the most important thing.

So what are the best ways for a business to find and engage its customer community?

You can’t beat good old-fashioned research. There are no tools that can provide a true shortcut here. Every company has a preference, but pick a monitoring tool that can show you where people are talking – then go and see what they’re saying.

Social strategy should be informed by existing behaviour, so if lots of people are complaining about your product within forums – get a community manager to go and help them. If people love to post pictures with great reviews on Instagram; create an official feed to interact with them.

What are the different ways in which brands are using social customer communities today?

There are many, many different answers to that. I guess the smart ways in which brands are getting the best out of their social communities is threefold; advocacy, feedback and support. Here, advocacy means finding and highlighting superfans, right through to just discovering amazing pieces of user-generated content that can be used as social proof. Feedback can be used in multiple ways; to direct marketing and comms plans, for research & development, even helping to shape the business strategy for a business. And finally, support covers both the brand providing customer service through social channels (like @o2), or peer-to-peer support, whereby fans will interact will each other and often help each other out.

Can communities be focused on more than one of those element you mention? And should you introduce a sales messages to a support group, for instance?

Communities can definitely be focused on more than one element, if there’s complete transparency and communication is approached carefully and appropriately. If you’ve got a community manager working with a specific, smaller forum for a few months where there’s a lot of unrest, and there are a few people that are particularly active – talk to them privately about running a focus group to find out why. But think longer term, rather than immediately. You can’t just rush into selling people something, but you can listen to their feedback and involve them in the process of making it better. When you’re then looking at scale, being selective is key – and working out who the right people to form close relationships with really are.

Does the size of the community matter?

Yes, because approaches should change and develop accordingly. If you’ve got a handful of super passionate people to work with, you can create more intimate offline events to work with them, and you’ve got the luxury of being able to spend more time one on one. When you’ve got a community of a million plus fans to manage like we do on the Lynx Facebook page, you’re unable to do that. You can still pick out superfans to work with, but there are other things you need to put into place – new processes for moderation, more comprehensive guidelines for what is and isn’t allowed within house rules etc – to cope with scale. Plus, you need to look at resourcing that in a different way, with more support there when it’s needed.

And what about running B2C and B2B communities – is there a difference? Do those audiences have very different requirements?

In a way, yes, in a way no. The practice of looking after and listening to a customer is the same, but often the tactics are different. For huge FMCG brands, conversation often happens openly on the ‘big four’ platforms – as that’s where people go day to day. For many B2B brands, conversation about theirs products resides in other places – LinkedIn groups, blogs, forums – and is more in-depth, more detailed. For marketers as well the motivations are different. Ascend2 released data this month that suggested that for B2B marketers, increasing the quality and quantity of sales leads are top objectives, followed by boosting lead conversion rates. By contrast, B2C marketers are primarily focused on increasing lead conversion rates and driving website traffic.

So once you’ve found your community, what, in your view, are the essential elements of good community management?

You’ll see HUNDREDS of ‘top things a community manager should have’ lists online. They generally all say the same thing, but this is my personal checklist when hiring:

  • An understanding of what good content is and isn’t
  • A proactive, ‘problem solving’ mindset
  • Passion for the subject or brand – you can’t fake it
  • Confidence
  • Organisation and flexibility
  • Open to collaboration
  • Aware of analytics and what they mean

And finally, how do you think social community management will develop in the next 12-18 months? What are the important trends?

We’ll see the more progressive brands take it in-house (though not as many as you might think!) - with support from agencies on content creation and best practice. A greater focus on co-creation (working with bloggers and influencers on collaborative projects rather than just pitching them) and much, much more video.

We’ll also see ‘real time’ really come into its own. We apply reactive design to all of our social communities (where our community managers work alongside a designer to quickly produce images that can be a response to a news story, seasonal event or even a fan comment) – but as we see more examples of this from brands, with fans’ lack of tolerance for anything that’s not immediate becoming more of a pressure, brands will have to evolve quickly to take this on board.

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