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.