An open letter to companies planning online communities

by Martin Reed on 30 April 2010 in Articles

open letter for community builders

To whom it may concern,

It’s great that you’re thinking about building an online community – but please make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons, and in the right way. Make sure you know what you’re getting yourself into.

Before you build an online community, make sure you have complete management buy-in. It’s no good going into such an important project if there are still hold-outs in your organization.

If you only have limited time to build an online community and want immediate results, you should probably shelve your plans for now. Successful online communities aren’t built overnight. Yes, you can spend money advertising your online community and even bribe people to join. However, you won’t have a real community – you’ll just have an expensive ego stroke. Relationships aren’t built quickly – they take time, and they take effort.

You believe your products are exciting and inspirational. Your customers (even if they love your products) probably don’t agree. It’s most likely they simply find your products functional – they fulfill a need. They might mention your products to their friends, but that doesn’t mean they want to join an online community that discusses nothing but your products.

Your community shouldn’t necessarily be about your products – it should be about what is relevant, interesting and exciting to your customers. A furniture maker should consider developing an online community for home renovators – not an online community about office desks. A manufacturer of energy saving light bulbs should consider developing an online community for people looking to live an eco-friendly lifestyle – not an online community about light bulbs.

If you’re unwilling to accept that people in your online community will be talking about subjects other than your products, don’t build one. If you’re unwilling to accept that people in your online community may discuss your competitor’s products, don’t build one.

You need to offer value to your audience. You need to give them information that is relevant and useful to them. You need to serve your audience. This means giving genuine advice when asked – this might mean mentioning the product of a competitor. If you’re honest, you’ll be respected and trusted. You can’t build a successful online community without those two ingredients.

In some respects, when you build an online community you are giving up a certain amount of control – you’re giving your members more influence over your company and its processes. Make sure you understand and accept this before building an online community. People shouldn’t just be talking about you and to you – you need to be listening and responding, too.

You need to accept that in some ways, you’re stepping into the unknown. You’re encouraging and promoting discussion amongst real people. People can be unpredictable. They might say things you don’t expect – things that might be bad, things that might be good. Make sure you’re prepared and have procedures in place beforehand so you know how to react.

Your online community isn’t to be used as just another sales channel. People won’t stick around if you try selling to them. If you build a thriving online community around your brand, you’ll naturally build brand equity. It’s OK to post special offers on your online community, just don’t continually post press releases and reviews of your products. This isn’t about you – it’s about your members.

It’s no good building an online community and then ignoring it. Representatives of your organization need to be active and involved in your community. Ideally you should hire a community manager to be that representative. Make sure your community manager has specific contacts within your organization – they will need to have someone to report community feedback to and receive any information you want shared with the community.

Make sure your community manager is empowered. You won’t have a successful online community if your community manager has to get approval for any comment or post they make within the community. Of course, some responses will require approval – but most should not.

You can’t measure the success of an online community using traditional benchmarks. Just because an online community has 10,000 members it doesn’t mean it’s more successful than a community with a hundred. You need to look at other metrics – think about mentions of your brand/community and time spent on your site. Your community manager will help you draw up relevant benchmarks.

You need to be willing and able to change as a company – if your online community is successful you’ll have access to a huge amount of information and feedback. You’ll get to know your customers intimately – make sure you change in response to what you’re learning, otherwise the whole exercise is pointless.

Building an online community signals your commitment to becoming far more customer focused. If you’re unwilling to change, if you’re unwilling to be more open, if you’re unwilling to be more ‘human’, then an online community probably isn’t for you.

Don’t go into this blindly. Make sure you know what you’re getting yourself into.


Martin Reed

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Alex May 1, 2010 at 12:02 pm

I think this it the most important point of all:
Your online community isnít to be used as just another sales channel.

People will run pretty fast when they smell that you are just trying to sell them more stuff.

A online community is something grown so any control is illusory. You can set certain directions but the rest is up to the people that join your community.

It’s really hard to set up a online community for success. Sure there are some steps you have to take and some rules to follow but the rest is mainly about the people that join.

Mr Woc May 2, 2010 at 3:39 pm

Hi there

Excellent post and all very good points, was interesting to see you say at the end dont go into this blindly, which is what a lot of people do (including me when i first started lol)

People build and site and expect it to be the next Facebook over night, it just doesnt work like that, it takes a lot of hard work and you need to be focused and ready for any bumps in the road that will undoubtably appear !


Mick St James May 3, 2010 at 7:30 am

Many large companies are leary of building a community because they know they can’t always control the message. Its a risk but the payoff can be significant.

Heather Strout May 5, 2010 at 12:27 pm


Thanks so much for this post. It really resonates with me as a strategist who has helped dozens of people think about launching and managing a community. I think you have hit all of the points I lead with when I first start talking to folks about their online community strategy.

Having read your blog for a long time now, it does not surprise me that this post is so thorough but it is a great, well written reminder of all the points an organization needs to think about in preparing for an online community.

Thanks for such a great blog and blog post.

Heather | @heatherjstrout

Brandon May 23, 2010 at 9:48 am

Personally, I’ve seen too many companies fail at creating online communities. They usually lack purpose and direction UNLESS they are support-based communities, in which case they are a necessity and will thrive. Great article and wish more companies would read it.

Meesan May 30, 2010 at 12:54 pm

Great post! This will definitely help everyone looking to create a business community. It’s just another strategy to help your business become more personal with the other people around you. If people can see your business in a more accessible yet professional way, you’ll get more interested people! Anyways great advice, i know i first blindly went into this myself. This’ll keep me from making some other mistake too! Thanks again!

Matthew June 15, 2010 at 5:42 am

Great post! I agree that online communities need to be about the bigger picture, about what the customers want, rather than focussing on individual products. You need to get to know the consumers. This is the mistake many companies make – not mine however!

Mark June 23, 2010 at 5:48 am

Most businesses fail to define how they will benefit from an online community. This is what can lead them straight into a sales pitch, make them impatient for results or make them measure the wrong outcomes as you mention in your post. For most businesses, the best benefit they will achieve is a close dialogue with people who care about and buy their products or services. They will get to know their market better than anyone else. For this reason, your points about universal buy-in and support for the community are critical – there is no point in only the community manager benefiting from this dialogue. Everyone needs to be involved.

Jerome Pineau July 8, 2010 at 10:09 am

I’m a day late and a dollar short to this party (should have discovered this blog a long time ago) but I have to say the key phrase is “You need to be willing and able to change as a company”. As a matter of fact, in my experience, as Ron White would say, you can’t fix stupid and, applied to this context, you cannot fix a company not wanting to change – no matter what technical or intellectual resources you throw at the CM endeavor. At the end of the day, nothing overcomes a stagnant corporate culture. Just my 2 cents :)

Simon July 12, 2010 at 12:58 am

Businesses still dont understand the importance of online communities and how they can have their employees promote (or demote) their services.

controls and systems need to be put in place for all this stuff…

jim July 12, 2010 at 4:47 pm

Communities can be a double edge sword, gives a place for customers to complain about your products.

Heather Strout July 16, 2010 at 5:15 pm

@Jim, I wrote a whole blog post in response to your comment. In short, your customers will find plenty of places to complain about your products. Wouldn’t you rather know what their saying and have the opportunity to address their concerns?

You can read the full post here:

Heather Strout | @heatherjstrout

Debi P July 31, 2010 at 12:31 pm

Can I just tell you I think you are doing a great service. I have been preaching this to my clients for years now. Still, it’s hard to get people to understand that the purpose of social media is not to drive people to your website or build sales or anything other than (in my opinion) build vibrant communities. I love your perspective. And you speak to it so beautifully. Thank you.

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