Why C-suite executives must build strong online communities of their own

Like it or not, what lives online has become just as important as the “real world” – including for enterprise executives.

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There is nothing more anachronistic than the idea of corporate leadership dictating the direction of a company from behind the closed doors of an ivory tower. That approach may have worked in the days of Carnegie and Rockefeller, but in today’s business environment, C-suite executives can’t afford to disconnect themselves from the day-to-day operation of their businesses.

There’s simply too much at stake to delegate important tasks down the line of authority.

One responsibility of C-suite executives that is too often abdicated is the important task of community-building—not necessarily in a civic sense (although there’s business value in that too), but in the sense of finding, gathering and engaging people online who are ready to support their companies.

Here are a just a few reasons why executives need to take the lead in this far-reaching work:

Whether you like it or not, people will talk

Unlike small business owners, C-suite executives have been slow to appreciate the power of creating communities and steering online conversations. Forbes reports that 61 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs have no presence whatsoever on social media.

Executives can choose not to participate in online discussions—and many do—but that won’t stop the conversations from happening, and that’s a problem. When it comes to important conversations, if you aren’t at the table, you’re on the menu.

By being active participants in the online dialogues surrounding their companies, executives can help shape the conversation and inject it with real data and hard facts—elements that might otherwise be lacking.

Even better, when executives take the time to build the digital forums and venues where the conversations happen, they can track, measure and capitalize on those discussions, gathering valuable data.

Building a community is customer acquisition

At the risk of being obvious, building a community shares important similarities with general marketing. In both cases, you’re identifying people who are prepared and willing to support your business. In both cases, you’re broadening the reach of your company’s messaging and ultimately driving sales.

The difference is that marketing is often faceless: for most companies it tends to be value-driven rather than personality-driven. Community-building is different. It requires a certain amount of gravitas and charisma to get people to rally around a cause or community.

An entry-level marketing associate can build an effective click funnel campaign but might lack the clout to build a healthy online community around a business. Generally, the more senior the executive involved in community-building, the faster the community will grow and the more sales potential will result.

For an example, look no farther than T-Mobile CEO John Legere, who acts not only as the leader of the company, but also of the massive community he governs through his Twitter account

Thought leadership adds company value

The T-Mobile example is an enlightening one because it reveals an interesting facet of thought leadership: an individual can almost always speak better for a brand than the brand could speak for itself.

Legere’s personal account has 5 times more followers than T-Mobile’s corporate one (a terrific achievement considering that the corporate account has more than a million followers, so you can imagine the kind of audience Legere is reaching for free every time he tweets).

When C-suite executives take control of building online communities, rather than delegating the responsibility to marketing teams, they not only broaden the platform for their own thought leadership, they also step into the role of advocates for their companies, in many instances doing a better job of spreading important marketing and PR messages than the company could do alone.

Direct feedback is essential for business agility

Of course, community building isn’t all about broadcasting messages…

A significant part of the value inherent in building and maintaining healthy online communities comes from listening. Communities empower customers to share real-time feedback and suggestions with decision-makers within the company.

With the threat of disruption ever-present, the ability to hear, process, and act on feedback quickly is imperative for staying relevant in today’s absurdly fast-moving business landscape. An engaged community of fans sharing thoughts and feedback on your products or services is worth its weight in gold.

Of course, feedback is only as valuable as its potential to spark change. The shorter the path feedback has to travel between users and decision-makers, the more likely it is to result in positive change.

When C-suite executives take the lead in community-building, that path becomes very short. Leaders can keep their finger on the pulse of their customers, gaining invaluable insights through the community.

Obviously, a company’s leaders shouldn’t be expected to be the only ones engaged in building online communities. Regular employees can be valuable contributors too, adding insight from different perspectives that community members can relate with.

However, when top-level leadership is absent from these forums, it is missed, and when it is present, it unlocks a myriad of positive marketing and customer experience opportunities that would be otherwise unavailable.

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