Diane Hessan

President and Chief Executive Officer, Communispace

Diane Hessan has been working at the intersection of marketing and customer-focused innovation her entire career. And ever since she opened her first successful lemonade stand in 1960, she knew she was destined to lead fast-growing, exciting companies.

But what gets her really jazzed every day is the changing face of marketing. "Marketing is clearly under siege," she says. "We're moving from a process of persuasion to a process of conversation. And the customer is leading the charge."

As president and CEO of Communispace—the company helps global organizations build, manage, and facilitate private, online customer communities—Hessan has learned a thing or two about customer engagement.

"I wrote a book in the mid-1990s about how to grow your company by focusing on your customer. Most of what I talked about then, applies even more today," says Hessan. "As marketers learn how to listen harder to customers—to what is said and to what is not said—the conversations get better and emotional connections deepen."

Hessan says customer engagement is not instant pudding. But knowing their ideas are valued, customers do share more, which increases their value to the company and the company's value to them. "Savvy executives know that they need to better understand their customers to innovate, develop more successful products faster than competitors, and build loyalty," she explains.

The explosion of online social networks confirms that people want to be part of communities, build relationships with people they identify with, and be heard. This is why more and more innovative companies are creating their own private social networks of customers. Hessan describes them as the ‘anti-MySpace.'

She helped found Communispace in 1999 because she saw nascent online customer communities and forums as an untapped opportunity for marketers to hardwire customers into their businesses. Since its inception, Communispace has created over 225 private communities for Fortune 500 companies. "There's really no other way to get to know so many customers so well," explains Hessan. "Panels, chatrooms, blogs and focus groups just skim the surface compared to what marketers can learn from their own online customer communities."

"If it's small, private and select, you can get more engagement than much larger communities," explains Hessan. "You control who you're talking to. It's not the lonely-hearts club and it's not your competitor pretending to be someone else. Most important, by establishing that continuous connection, companies create a two-way dialog which provides real, on-going value."

Kraft Foods is one of Communispace's clients. Over the past year, the company has introduced an array of new products that were developed in cooperation with their customers. For instance, three years ago, Kraft's Nabisco group asked online participants what diet food represented to them and how they made snack choices. Kraft learned that customers didn't feel they needed to deprive themselves—what they really wanted was the ability to control how much they ate.

"Last year, Kraft sold $100 million worth of 100 calorie packs," explains Hessan, "and the products were conceptualized, vetted, packaged and positioned with the involvement of customers every step of the way."

"Customer engagement is not about just asking questions and getting feedback, although plenty of that goes on in communities," explains Hessan. She also says it's not about responding to and trying to fix negative issues that customers may raise. "It's really about creating a sense of community among people with common interests, and then tapping into the community in multiple ways, through multiple methodologies to get into the hearts and minds of customers."

Hessan says that on average, customers spend 30 minutes per week in a particular community. "One of the biggest reasons why people come back all the time is because it's very cool to think the company is listening to you," she says. "Trust is the currency that organizations need to create. That's the evolution of marketing."

According to Hessan, understanding and insight comes from relationships, not research. And an extraordinary 90% of community participants believe the sponsoring company is going to do something based on their feedback. "It's an usual experience to feel that you really have a voice," she says. "So the secret to customer engagement is genuinely wanting to involve customers, and then being willing to shut up and listen to what they have to say."