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Making the Case for a Customer Community: Why Data Alone Won’t Win Over Your Executives—and What to Focus On Instead

When building a business case for an online community, many people assume that data is the most important thing to executives.

However, Rachel Happe, founder of Engaged Organizations, explains, “The data is the period, not the argument. Executives want to see the data to be confident they’re not making a mistake, but data alone won’t convince them.”

While figures and stats are important, the context is what truly matters. “All executives are different, and there’s a lot of politics involved. If you treat it like a math problem, you’re missing the real issue,” Rachel adds.

So, how do you get executives on board with your vision? Rachel shares a pragmatic strategy rooted in clear, visual explanations and highlights overlooked resources you can use to make a compelling case.

Watch the full recording below on making a business case for a customer community. Rachel also explores how the dynamics of the internet and AI have made online communities the next big competitive advantage for businesses.

How to Get Your Executive Team to Buy into an Online Community

If it’s not just about the data, then what is it? When building your case, Rachel suggests showing how communities streamline workflows by capturing expertise and making that expertise discoverable and assessable to many others, which creates compounding value.

Visualize the benefits.

Rachel starts by mapping an organization’s current customer workflows and comparing them with community-enabled workflows. “What are the workflows of community members when they come to the community? If they can do something faster or better by engaging with the community, what’s the impact?” she asks.

For example, when a customer has a how-to question about a product, they might use the community instead of email to get answers from others, speeding up the process.

However, Rachel acknowledges that executives may question changing established processes for marginal gain. “With many competing priorities, it can be a tough sell,” she notes. “Better answers, faster answers—that has value. But executives know how hard it is to change behavior. They may wonder if it’s worth it.”

Highlight networked value.

The key, Rachel argues, is to highlight what she calls the “networked value” addressed by communities. This refers to the value that comes from giving an entire community access to the expertise of all its members. As more people join and interact within the community, the benefits multiply and create a network effect. This is different from individual value, where only one person benefits from expertise that is shared in private channels, such as email or an in-person conversation.

For example, in an online community, the first few members might share information and solutions, which helps them individually. As the community grows, the shared knowledge and resources captured—and more importantly, accessed—expand exponentially. This collaborative environment accelerates problem-solving and innovation by:

  • Reducing the need for subject matter experts to answer the same question over and over again, which frees up their time.
  • Improving access to existing expertise, resulting in faster solution times and fewer mistakes.
  • Capturing emerging issues and solutions, extending expertise.

“It’s not just the first person who uses the community; it’s the second through the thousandth person who finds an answer and doesn’t even have to ask the question. This can reduce a workflow from weeks to hours or hours to minutes,” Rachel says. The more people participate, the more valuable the community becomes to all members.

Rachel suggests showing executives a comparison between the old way of doing things and the benefits of a new, community-supported approach—and how that benefits not just the individual who asks but every other person with the issue as well. When you lay it out like that, asking them, “Which one would you prefer?” it’s pretty obvious they’ll go for the fastest, more effective option. Explaining that to achieve that, they’ll need to invest in a community, which will take time and money but enables exponential value that grows over time.

Online communities generate compounding value by making expertise widely accessible.

Translate benefits into practical language.

To strengthen your case, Rachel suggests translating this into clear, practical language for your executive. Avoid technical jargon and use specific workflows to explain how the community can improve programming efficiency, segmentation, and personalized messaging.

Rachel cautions, “If you start your pitch by explaining how communities work—the architecture and mechanics of it all—their eyes will glaze over before you’re done.” Instead, focus on workflow—and value—efficiencies gained by the networked value of communities to make a compelling case.

Pitch Perfect: Four Resources to Strengthen Your Argument

When it comes to pitching your community to executives, preparation is everything. Understanding what resonates with them can make the difference between a successful presentation and a missed opportunity.

Here are four key sources to consider that’ll help you refine your pitch and increase your chances of success:

  1. Learn from failed pitches: Ask your peers what they’ve done, what conversations they’ve had, and what questions their executives asked. Understand their mistakes and what caused their presentations to fail.
  2. Study successful pitches: Talk to colleagues who have successfully pitched the same executives. Discover what matters to these leaders—both their priorities and anxieties—and what arguments or communication styles resonated.
  3. Consult with experts: If you have the budget, reach out to experts like Rachel. She’s worked with many organizations and notes a truism in consulting: executives listen to consultants more than staff, even if they’re saying the same thing. External consultants provide perspective and can confirm that certain strategies work universally.
  4. Use research: Finally, pull in the research and data, like Rachel’s “Self-Evident Value of Communities” charts and other tools, to justify your pitch. Show that it’s not only a good idea and meets their priorities but also makes financial sense.

To get more of Rachels’ tips on how to structure a winning business case for an online community, watch the full recording.