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Sarah Judd Welch is CEO and Head of Community Design of Loyal, one of the very first community development agencies in the world. At Loyal, she helps brands inject community into their businesses and puts people at the center of all of her work.

She started Loyal in 2012 after working across community, product, and business development at TaskRabbit, Catchafire, Kik, Contently and more, and working with Hillary Clinton and at Goldman Sachs.

With this diverse background, she brings with her a perspective unlike any other community professional we know. She has a keen eye for what works in big business and government, but she also works with the stealth of a growing startup and the mind of a community designer. At CMX Summit, she will share what she has learned working with Fortune 50 brands, including General Electric, creative startups such as NeonMob, global institutions such as NYU, and national nonprofits.

“Only some brands care about community right now,” Sarah admits. “Many brands look at community because they need to, because their competitors are doing it, not because it’s something that they deeply believe in.”

But Sarah believes that this will – and must – change in the coming years to make businesses sustainable.

In this article, Sarah gives us a glimpse into some of the big changes that businesses and community builders need to embrace in the coming years. Here’s how you can stay relevant.

1. All companies will invest in community thinking.

Customer-responsive startups and small businesses are “disrupting” long-held institutions at an unprecedented rate. Even industries like finance and cable are not immune to this corrosion, and their business models and ignorance toward their customers will need to change to keep them afloat.

What does this mean for these long-standing businesses? They must begin to listen to their customers, to operate from a vantage point of empathy and care.

“It’s not acceptable to not be a customer-centric company anymore. That’s why companies like Time Warner will be threatened. You can’t be that kind of company anymore. How many times have you called a cable company and waited on hold for 30 minutes?”

Sarah shares examples of companies that are turning directly to customers to serve them better: Oscar in healthcare, Casper in the mattress industry, etc.

“The first thing to focus on is a really phenomenal user experience,” Sarah explains. This means not only building an amazing website, but also allowing your customers to talk to humans rather than automated messaging systems when they call. It means handwritten notes for VIPs and loyal members and community spaces for engaged supporters.

“It’s not just about what happens on your website, but throughout the way people use your product.” Every single touch point now matters more than ever before.

Sarah also says that explicit community building is not for everyone. There are ways to make community thinking viable without going all-out into a multi-million dollar community strategy.

Companies, therefore, do not always need to invest in full-blown community strategy to meet these ends, but they will need to invest in community thinking.

“Community thinking is approaching any sort of challenge or opportunity with a mindset of how can you put your users first and ultimately provide the most value to them, specifically with how you collaborate with them or how they collaborate with each other.”

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2. Companies will turn to community to make their businesses responsive to the competition.

Sarah explains that a big reason that companies should invest in community development is so that they can become more responsive to how people innovate these days.

“Most innovation is not happening in big businesses anymore. It’s happening in people’s garages, in home offices, on the Internet.” People are creating Kickstarter campaigns to fund innovative projects, creating community organically, and thereby threatening these entrenched technology companies.

“With GE, for example, their reason for pursuing community was for IP [intellectual property] value.” That this, they wanted to be able to gather the people who created the ideas so that they could incorporate them into their business, rather than be threatened by them.

“They’re trying to become a more digital company. They want to be around for the next 100 years, so they need to look at how to stay competitive when innovation is coming from everywhere.”

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3. Companies will seek to retain both customers and employees through community.

The sheer amount of options will force big companies to invest in both their customers and employees so that they can keep them for the long haul.

“Today, the cost of continuously acquiring both new customers and internal talent is increasingly high. In a digital world, both customers and talent have increasing options. Don’t like your email marketing software? Your twitter friends recommend another one. Don’t like your job? Work remotely for your favorite company on the other side of the country.”

“There are some really amazing stats from UserVoice that show it’s much more lucrative to focus on retaining customers and employees than acquiring new ones.”

With regard to internal employee retention, Sarah refers to Rick Webb’s book, Agency: Starting a Creative Firm in the Age of Digital Marketing, which states: “Companies with highly engaged people outperform firms with the most disengaged folks – by 54% in employee retention, by 89% in customer satisfaction, and by fourfold in revenue growth.”

That is, when you focus on creating internal community, you can increase retention rates of employees by 54%.

“Highlighting thought leadership of employees increases retention. Companies should give employees the ability to create a platform at their place of work, and that also allows them to have deeper relationships with their fellow employees.”

Creating collaborative spaces can even, as a Harvard Business Review article suggests, increase significantly increase productivity (by up to 7x the productivity levels without it!).

“There is no way to uncover these insights right now. Honey and Brave New World [two community platforms] are bringing these insights across the company.” Other custom platforms will also crop up, and many big businesses will build their own to meet their unique needs.

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4. Companies will turn to community to reach new markets and develop new products.

Some companies, like Lego, have known about the power of community for over a decade. In 2005, Lego launched a massive Ambassador Program aimed at reaching their adult customers. They started working with them in User Groups and in online community spaces to develop new products and make them feel heard. This community program has therefore opened up the door not only to existing, vocal customers but to adults who were already using Legos in creative ways but who were not the company’s main market at the time.

Sarah says she refers to this MIT Sloan piece on the effectiveness of Lego’s community outreach program time and time again when explaining the value of community building.

Lego is not the only brand getting community right. Many other big brands are building community and reaching new audiences to invite them to be a part of what they are building.

“I’ve seen this happening with food companies. They will gather customers and show them test samples. They’ll ask, ‘What do you think about X? What do you think of these recipes you can try with Y?’ They create community spaces for that discussion, and sometimes it’s offline.”

For big companies, Sarah says that this type of community work is often done by a “Relationship Manager” or someone other than a traditional community manager.

“Sometimes it’s a relationship manager who maintains relationships with 30-50 people. It’s not always happening online.” And many of these companies are not calling it community — yet. Over time, these relationships can evolve either within branded communities or outside in the social world at large.

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Image Via Ricky Lai

5. Community builders in-house need to improve how they sell their work internally and to external agencies.

In order to make sure that businesses are heading in the right direction, it is often our responsibility as community builders to sell community. We must do this both internally and externally.

Selling Community Internally

If you’re a community professional, listen up: “The number one thing to learn is to sell into executives why community is important and why a community should be invested in. You need to be able to sell that in a politically-savvy manner.” You must explain community to executives in a language that they understand.

“It’s about understanding what executives’ incentives are and what they need to be successful. You have to be sensitive to their challenges and speak in their terms.” If their job is on the line because they must meet X metric, find a way to frame the community around that metric.

Selling Community to External Agencies

Public relations agencies and social media agencies will also need to find better ways to work together with community professionals.

It’s often the case in big companies that outside agencies run marketing initiatives (especially PR), so community builders need to streamline how they work with them.

“You can’t neatly fit community software into a PR agency or a social media management agency. They’re used to working with influencers, which is very different from managing your top users. Community professionals will have to work really closely and nicely with these other agencies.” This may mean that software needs to be built to help community and PR work together and manage relationships, or it may mean that we simply need to find consistent communication channels to follow.

“I don’t think PR agencies are equipped to run community relationships. That’s something that will be figured out in the next five years.”

The beauty in all of this growth is that, as community professionals, we can all have a hand in shaping the future we wish to create.

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For more insights on how community + big brands can work together, and how community will shape business in the coming years, don’t miss Sarah’s talk at CMX Summit East on May 19! Get your tickets today before the price goes up!

Carrie Melissa Jones

Carrie Melissa Jones | @caremjo

Carrie is the COO and Founding Partner of CMX. She has built community at Chegg and Scribd and has consulted with community companies around the world. She lives in Seattle, WA with her pup, Bruce Wayne.