Businesses are realising the power of online communities and the benefits they can offer. Consequently, we are seeing more brands launching communities and I doubt this trend is going to change any time soon.
Unfortunately, a lot of brand communities fail – they often launch before they are ready (no members or activity), have too many features and there is no development strategy. Even if a company has taken the sensible option of engaging a skilled community manager, the community could still be doomed from the start if management is not completely behind the community from day one.
Online communities are different
Few companies have experience in building online communities. A lot of businesses seem to think that as long as enough money is invested in the project, the resulting community will be a success. This isn’t true.
Building communities involves building relationships. You need to communicate with individual customers and many businesses don’t have much experience doing this. Brands with only a static website will probably find it very difficult to build a community by themselves as they aren’t used to communicating with their customers in the online environment.
Managers need to understand that online communities are different. They require dedicated management and unique skills.
Online communities are unpredictable
Even with the best planning and commitment, sometimes a community will still fail. People can be unpredictable – consequently, so can online communities.
The challenge here is in identifying when an online community is failing and then working hard to try to turn it into a success. Without management buy-in, the shutters may come down prematurely.
Online communities take time
Successful online communities are places where real relationships are formed. They are places where value is created for both the members and the business itself. However, the benefits for the business should come naturally – you shouldn’t start selling to your members or forcing them to use the community in a certain way.
People join online communities out of self-interest. They won’t appreciate feeling like a business asset or being told what to do. They don’t want to feel as though you see them as a dollar sign rather than a unique individual.
Yes, you can offer guidance by establishing community guidelines and by getting involved in the community in order to help shape its personality and culture, but you can’t start issuing orders or demanding certain behaviour. If you do this, your members will leave.
As a result, a real community will take time – the culture of the community will develop naturally. Members will slowly get to know others and share more information about themselves. Friendships don’t form overnight.
Without management support, there is once again a risk that the community will close prematurely. Managers need to be committed to the community building project and accept that real communities take time to develop.
How to get management buy-in for an online community
If you are a community manager, there is already a demonstration of some degree of commitment to the community building project – after all, they have hired you and not all companies do this. However, it is still important that you have the support of all managers within the business. Just one sceptic can ruin a community building project; they may not listen to the feedback you are supplying to the business from community members or even worse, they could convince other managers to ignore your advice or close down the community altogether.
You need to remind your managers of the business benefits online communities can create (lower costs, knowledge, relationships) and how the community you are building is delivering these. You need to keep them continuously updated with the community’s progress. Always communicate with your managers (especially those you feel are the most sceptical) – tell them of the great suggestions the community’s members made this week that could make their product more relevant and useful to their customers. Finally, be sure to provide them with some numbers – but only ones that are relevant. Avoid using ‘member count’ (if they insist, then provide the information but put it into context) – think post count, time spent on the site, return rate, number of pageviews.
Building an online community is hard work, and it takes time. Because you are working with people (especially people you can’t see), community building is unpredictable. There are a number of challenges and you’ll struggle to build a successful online community if you don’t have complete management buy-in and support. Consider the fact they hired you as a good first step, but make sure you have their full support and that you continue to earn that support – you don’t want to be distracted with internal matters. You don’t want to be continuously justifying the community to managers. You need to be focussed on building relationships and building the community.