So you want to build an online community? Here’s how you do it.
Planning a new online community
First, ask yourself these questions:
1. Why do you want an online community?
If your answer is, ‘because everyone else has one’, it’ll probably fail. If it’s because you want to be more customer focused and want to offer more value to your customers, you’re more likely to succeed.
2. Where do you build the new online community?
There are a number of options here. You can develop the community under its own URL, develop it alongside your existing website, or keep out of the ‘under the hood’ tinkering completely by developing a community using existing sites such as Facebook.
My advice? Integrate your community within your existing website – it proves you are serious about your community, and gives the community the respect it deserves. Build communities externally, too. Reach out to your target audience via Twitter, Facebook and wherever else they might be. If your community is only in one place, you’re limiting its exposure.
3. Where are your members?
I touched on this in point 2. Don’t expect people to flock to your community as soon as you hit the ‘Upload’ button. More than likely, you’ll need to go out and find those early adopters. Even if you’re lucky and have a hugely passionate audience, you should still consider being proactive by finding the right members for your community. Fill it with ‘perfect members’ from the outset and you’ll have a far more productive community as a result. Don’t overlook bloggers – they could be your best early members; passionate, targeted and they come with an audience.
4. What makes your community unique?
The internet is saturated with online communities. Chances are, a community already exists for the niche you are currently exploring. If your community offers nothing unique, people aren’t likely to join.
There is nothing wrong with developing a community for a niche already served by existing communities. You just need to offer something different. Your differentiator could be a number of things – for example, better quality (members and content) or better usability. Just don’t think your community is better because it offers more features – you’ll probably just end up turning people off.
5. How will you attract members and manage the community?
So you know where your potential members are and know where the community will be built. Who’s going to put all the work into attracting these members and managing the resulting community? There’s nothing wrong with learning as you go (that’s how I did it) – but be aware that community building takes a lot of time and effort. Results take a long time to arrive – do you have the patience, commitment and spare time?
Your online community will require more time as it grows, not less. You’ll need to manage conflict, you’ll need to make members feel special and you’ll need to be involved in the community.
Building a new online community
1. Keep it simple.
Are you going for a full blown social network? (Make sure you’re not just investing in a Facebook clone). A forum? Force yourself to justify every feature of your community – particularly in the early days. You don’t want distractions – your community needs to be simple. As soon as people arrive, they need to know the purpose of the community. They need to be able to register quickly and easily (if at all). They need to be able to contribute to the community easily.
Don’t use fancy words. Don’t hide things (whether intentionally or not).
2. Respect your community.
If you’re serious about building a community, show it the respect it deserves. Incorporate the community into your main website. Have community content appear on your homepage – don’t hide it all behind a ‘community’ tab.
Your community needs to be primarily for the benefit of its members. You reap the secondary benefits. Don’t sell to your community. Treat them with respect. Listen to them. Talk to them. Be involved.
3. Keep it private (at first).
Your community will never be perfect – just as it will never be ‘finished’. Keep your community small in the early days – don’t email thousands of people announcing the launch; you only get one chance to make this announcement and if your community isn’t ready, you’ll be wasting everyone’s time.
Consider keeping the community closed during the early days. Only allow certain people in – the people that you really want as members. They’ll help you fine tune the community. They’ll help generate content so that when the community goes public it isn’t a ghost town. Exclusivity is powerful – those that are in will want to stay in. Those that are out will want to be in. Use this to your advantage.
4. Have guidelines and processes from day one.
You’ll deal with troublemakers. You’ll be called names. You need to be professional and consistent. You can only do this by having community guidelines and internal processes established from day one (or even before).
Ensure your community guidelines are visible and accessible. If you need to post reams of legal text with your community guidelines, then fine – but pull a copy of the guidelines out and post them somewhere prominent. Nobody reads legal disclaimers – but they’ll read your guidelines if they are simple, clear and accessible.
How will you deal with troublemakers? Will you ignore them? Will you warn them? Will you ban them? If you’re unsure how to proceed here, why not make your guidelines and processes a collaborative effort? Your members are far likelier to respect them if they helped draw them up.
5. Highlight members and their content.
Members of your online community need to feel valued. They are members because of self interest – they want to receive (respect, attention, admiration, information). Keep them motivated by telling them how great they are – but be genuine.
If a member writes a great post, drop them a message telling them so. Make your admiration public by highlighting the best member content. Interview your members to put them in the spotlight. Don’t worry too much about jealousy – it’s a great motivator for other members to contribute even better content so they receive the next ego stroke.
Be realistic. Be adventurous.
Your community won’t be a success overnight. It may take weeks, months or even years for success to come (oh, and make sure you’re measuring success in the right ways). Lots of people give up on their community project too soon. You need to take a long term approach – remember, you’re building human relationships here. You can’t rush this.
At the same time, be sure to experiment and take risks from time to time. Some will work, some won’t. The more adventurous you are, the better your chances of success – you’ll be doing something different and you might just stumble on the ultimate community building strategy. If you do, be sure to let me know the secret – in return, here’s what I’ve learnt so far.