“It takes a village to raise a child,” the old saying goes. But for Jeff Nolan, VP of Product Marketing for Get Satisfaction, a better saying might be, “It takes a community to build a business.” In this interview, Brent Leary talked to Jeff about why online customer communities are especially important for small companies and how they can give you the competitive edge.
Jeff Nolan: Get Satisfaction is a hosted platform for online customer communities. We provide a place where companies and their customers can share ideas, answer questions, resolve problems and provide positive feedback.
My personal background is quite diverse. I’ve had a variety of technical roles, marketing and some limited sales exposure but my formative experience is as a venture capitalist. I was one of the founding partners of SAP Ventures. At the end of my duration with SAP I moved into the global marketing organization, then ran NewsGator’s media and consumer application business.
Small Business Trends: Everybody is talking about online communities, but for years I’ve heard the saying, “Customer service is the new marketing.” Do you think in 2012 customer service really does become the new marketing, and where do online communities fit into that equation?
Jeff Nolan: Get Satisfaction was founded around the premise that by providing superior customer support, companies would not only achieve a sustainable competitive advantage, but would also see their business grow at a more efficient rate than if they just plowed money into marketing for the sake of marketing.
It’s no longer just about advertising or driving people to a website. There are two important things going on. One, you have to engage consumers where they are. And where they are is at the intersection of your brand and whatever social network or technology they’re using at that moment.
Two, it’s not just where you do this; it’s how you do it. Consumers are increasingly sophisticated about marketing and advertising, and they’re demanding a more human approach to how they interact with a company.
Small Business Trends: There’s the saying, “It takes a village…” and it seems like today, you could say, “It takes a community to raise a company.” How can small businesses take advantage of online communities?
Jeff Nolan: Customers exist in a context of a life cycle – acquisition, transaction, delivery, support and then advocacy. Your objective is to move your customers through each stage of that lifecycle and then repeat the process. Not just with a new customer, but also with the ones you already have.
Online communities are very important in realizing this goal because they provide an effective, repeatable technology solution for engaging your customers around questions and ideas—from the engagement they have with you before they buy to resolving inevitable issues they have when they do buy. Those interactions create advocates.
Small Business Trends: A lot of people, when they think about online communities, focus on B2C. Do you see a community strategy that will also help B2B?
Jeff Nolan: I think that B2B vs. B2C is somewhat of a red herring. It’s rooted in the old ways we used to sell stuff. There are many B2C products that exhibit the same dynamics of what we would normally consider B2B. They’re highly deliberative in nature. They have a longer sales cycle. They rely heavily on influence from third parties.
Small Business Trends: How does a small business determine the mix between having their own community and also engaging on general social networks?
Jeff Nolan: With Get Satisfaction, we’ve undertaken great efforts to bring those social networks into the fold. We’re providing your [brand] with a consistent community experience, not just on the Web, but also in Facebook, on Twitter, in your mobile applications, in different languages and so on.
One of the challenges businesses have when approaching community through several venues is ensuring the consistency and reusability of content. We see this in Facebook a lot. Companies that are trying to do customer support through the wall on Facebook face an unenviable challenge, because that is not scalable.
Small Business Trends: Talk a little about the importance of creating real-time good answers as opposed to just marketing content.
Jeff Nolan: When you have a question, you want an answer. If you are investing your time to share an idea with a company about how their product or service can be better, you care about them responding to you, rather than it going into a black hole. Get Satisfaction has a technology solution that humanizes the interaction between company and customer. [Users] get a very authentic behavior that reflects how people talk to each other.
Small Business Trends: How important is it for SMBs to have a strategy of engagement that fosters a community that helps each and creates answers that are important to individual customers.
Jeff Nolan: It’s incredibly important that companies of all sizes do this. But it’s more critical for small companies. Community, superior customer engagement, customer insight and knowing more about your customer levels the playing field.
Small Business Trends: How easy is it for a company to get started creating an online community?
Jeff Nolan: Well, it’s very easy with us because we are a freemium business–we have a free product that is fully functioning. From that you can upgrade into various plan levels that have increasing feature sets, capabilities or customization opportunities.
Small Business Trends: Where can people learn more about Gets Satisfaction?
Jeff Nolan: Go to our website at GetSatisfaction.com, and you can also find us on Twitter, Facebook and all the popular social channels.
This interview is part of our One on One series of conversations with some of the most thought-provoking entrepreneurs, authors and experts in business today. This interview has been edited for publication. To hear audio of the full interview, click the right arrow on the gray player below. You can also see more interviews in our interview series.
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This is part of the One-on-One Interview series with thought leaders. The transcript has been edited for publication. If it's an audio or video interview, click on the embedded player above, or subscribe via iTunes or via Stitcher.