Schmoozing Online

By Joe Dysart
With the phenomenal success of social networking sites like Facebook, LinkedIn and YouTube, optical lab leaders are creating their own online communities, where they can promote their brand, glean valuable feedback from customers, and find future staff amidst the online message posts.

Says Paul Gillin, author of The New Influencers: A Marketer’s Guide to the New Social Media: “Blogs, discussion boards and other forms of interactive media are the most cost-effective customer feedback mechanism ever invented. You won’t get a representative sampling of your customers, but you will get your most passionate customers.”

So how do you build your own sense of community online—with an eye toward building the customer relationships for your lab?

Model Communities

Without question, in the optical industry, the pre-eminent online community is Optiboard (www.optiboard.com). Optiboard brings together eyecare professionals from every facet of the industry—optical labs, doctors, retailers and more.

Driven by numerous online discussion boards featuring posts from across the industry—and across the world—Optiboard currently has more than 28,000 members, an archive of more than 500,000 posts and a history that dates back to 1995.

“Part luck and timing, part hard work and education, part finding the right audience,” explained Steve Machol, OptiBoard's president and founder, in describing the community’s origins and rapid growth. “I had been in the optical industry for 22 years by that point. So I combined my knowledge of optics with my love of computers.”

While Optiboard has always been an independent community populated by pros throughout the industry, a number of businesses do get recognition on Optiboard by helping to sponsor it. It’s also a great study for any optical business that is looking to create it online community—given the fact that Optiboard has been able to generate and sustain its digital neighborhood for more than 20 years.

One key, Machol said, was the strategy to avoid needless controversy. “One thing I’ve always tried to do is ensure that OptiBoard is a welcoming place for everyone,” he noted. “This means avoiding topics that only serve to alienate and divide us. That’s why I have prohibited the talk of politics on the board. There are already plenty of places where people can engage in that kind of discourse, but I saw no benefit to the OptiBoard community.”

David Rips, CEO, Younger Optics, is one of the online community’s believers: “Optiboard was out there before social media, and for a long time, it was the only way for optical professionals to connect with a large number of peers outside their local area,” he said. “People may think that social media is replacing forums, but Optiboard is still the only place where people can have work-related discussions with a group that is exclusively optical pros.”

Adds Chris Ryser, owner, OMS Optochemicals: “OptiBoard has the highest Alexa ranking and still is the most popular forum of the still existing 13 professional optical forums worldwide.”

Other optical industry related online communities to check out include:

Ask the Lab Guy:
https://www.facebook.com/groups askthelabguy

Eyewear to Eyewear Dealer:
https://www.facebook.com/groups/eyewear.dealer2dealer

Optical Lab Technicians:
https://www.facebook.com groups/335873626475657/about

Wholesale Optical Lab Managers and Opticians Plus:
https://www.facebook.com/groups/209415609268689

Selecting a Community Type

Before launching your own online community, it’s critical to decide which of three primary community categories you'll pursue.

Most popular are simple social hang-outs, which attempt to attract as many members as possible by replicating the communities on Facebook and offering as many community features as possible.

Meanwhile, other online communities are solely dedicated to market research, and often opt for an invitation-only model. Such communities generally result in smaller memberships that are by design more intimate. Users—generally highly valued customers who offer dependable insights—usually post more often and more regularly than those in purely social networks. Sometimes, specific discussion threads on company products and services in the online communities last for years.

The third genre of online community is designed for one purpose only: to gather customer reviews or testimonials on company products and/or services, and to publicize that feedback to prospective customers. The first and third types, of course, place no restriction on who can visit and participate in the online community.

Not surprisingly, so-called social hang-outs or “everyone’s invited” sites often have more community-building features than the smaller sites, and sometimes even have the overall look and feel of a Facebook or LinkedIn site. If you’re interested in starting this type of online community, you’ll want to offer slickly designed tools like discussion boards, chatrooms, instant messaging, blogging, photo posting and similar services offered by the global social networks.

Experienced company community builders also say you should jump-start the community’s nerve center—the discussion board—by posting commentary on a dozen or so industry topics, and then encouraging visitors to offer their own reactions and opinions to the discussions you’ve started.

With just a little luck and perseverance, these discussion boards will take on a life of their own, with community visitors coming up with their own follow-up topics, and others volunteering to moderate special interest groups they are passionate about. Some members will even volunteer to guard your forums for the occasional visitor who shows up to make mischief.

Such discussion forums, Machol said, are the lifeblood of Optiboard. “I’m very proud of the fact that OptiBoard is full of smart, dedicated eyecare professionals who love to help each other out,” he noted. “As an old lab guy myself, I greatly appreciate the interaction and helpfulness of the members. Optiboard serves as an information hub—our knowledgeable members provide every-day, on-the-ground technical information.”

After your discussion forums have been up-and-running for awhile, you may want to bring in professional moderators—experts in fields like law, accounting and technology—who assume responsibility for moderating and managing their own forums.

These “expert” forums are a win-win for both parties. You, as the sponsoring company, yield the prestige of having industry recognized authorities contributing to your Web site on a regular basis. And the experts get valuable exposure to an audience of potential customers. Within these ongoing conversations or “discussion threads,” you’ll also begin to glean valuable insights on how customers truly view your document imaging company, and freely sharing what’s working, and what’s not.

Not surprisingly, some companies also use discussion forums as an incubator for prospective employees, and sometimes offer staff positions to qualified discussion board posters who are enthusiastic about their company.

In many cases, you’ll be able to learn a great deal about a potential employee simply by observing what he or she is posting, and how he or she is reacting to what is being posted. If you’re looking to create one of these “everyone’s invited” online communities, you can reach out to service providers that make template communities you can bolt-onto your Web site or other Web property. Examples include:

Elliptics: http://elliptics.com/

eXo Platform: https://www.exoplatform.com

BuddyPress: https://buddypress.org

Meanwhile, the second flavor of online industry communities, small, private, invitation only affairs, are often used by companies to conduct market research they’re looking to keep quiet. Fostering these kinds of communities is the specialty of online service provider C-space (https://www.cspace.com).

“When a few hundred members are participating on a regular basis, the quantity and quality of the content is deeper and richer than from large public sites,” said Katrina Lerman, associate director at C-Space. “For companies that truly want to connect with their customers, smaller may in fact be better.”

Under the C-Space model, private customer communities are generally housed on a password-protected site, where an intimate group of members spends months—and sometimes even years—together, brainstorming ideas for a company, sharing conversations with other company customers, and essentially playing a pivotal role shaping the company’s future.

“Several facilitators guide the conversation and help bridge the gap between customer and company,” Lerman explained, adding that the intimacy and invitation-only factor also tends to result in greater numbers of members participating in the ongoing discussions. “When members contribute, they participate at a high rate.”

Finally, the third type of online community—sites dedicated to netting customer reviews and testimonials—appear to be cropping up in virtually every industry that regularly interfaces with consumers. One of the leading service providers in this space is Bazaarvoice (http://www.bazzarvoice.com), a review community builder that urges companies to be transparent by publishing both negative and positive reviews filed by customers.

“Marketers increasingly understand the importance of product reviews in driving consumer adoption and purchase conversion in the channel,” noted Loran Gutt, vice president, product strategy at Bazaarvoice.

If you’re a bit skittish about Bazaarvoice’s belief in publishing the good with the bad when it comes to reviews, you may be more interested in a solution offered by Zuberance (http://www.zuberance.com). Essentially, Zuberance uses a glowing, testimonials-only approach to community building, through which extremely enthusiastic customers offer accolade-filled write-ups on your business. The company solicits the testimonials with contact tools it places on your web site, as well as via marketing emails it sends to your customers on your behalf. Customers who decide to respond are directed to a post-your-own-testimonial module, which includes tips on how to write a humdinger of a fan letter about your company.

“It’s a good time to become a niche online community and do it right,” said Don Philabaum, CEO of Internet Strategies Group (http://www.internetstrategiesgroup.com). “You have millions of people who have learned the value of being a part of an online community, and they’ll bring experience, enthusiasm, content, and their network, to your online community.” ■


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Labtalk May/June 2018