There’s never been a better time than 2021 for building an online community.
According to research by Higher Logic, the ROI for online communities goes up exponentially the longer they are active and growing. After only two years, communities could see 1,352% ROI, and after only four years, as much as 6,295% ROI.
There is no better way to invest your marketing efforts than building an online community.
But they take significant planning and a strong team effort to pull off.
What is an Online Community?
An online community is a place where a niche group of people can share ideas and engage around a specific interest, lifestyle, or brand. Think of it as a club of sorts that is exclusively online.
Online communities are extremely useful for both brands and individuals alike.
Brands using online communities to:
- Share upcoming promotions and content like blogs without coming across as spammy.
- Educate audiences about how products solve the problems of their audiences.
- Inform customers and prospects about new product launches.
- Create awareness around themes or issues that are relevant.
- Build brand evangelists that will create new followers.
- Make a space for brand evangelists to share content and engage with others.
- Create excitement around the lifestyle the brand is perceived to create.
- Learn about issues with products to make the next model even better.
- Reach customers having a negative experience.
Individuals use online communities to:
- Come up with new and exciting ideas on how to use products.
- Share with others their lifestyle that is possible with the brand’s products.
- Find others that are like-minded and lead a similar lifestyle.
- Find new products to start a new lifestyle.
- Share both positive and negative experiences about the products and the brand.
Catching a trend here? Online communities are exceptionally good at creating a space where people can share their lifestyle made possible by the brand’s products.
Six Steps for How to Build an Online Community
Starting a community doesn’t have to be complicated. With the following six steps, you will have a community up and running in no time that will be generating leads, creating awareness, and earning brand evangelists.
1. Select Niche
Determine upfront what the purpose of your online community will be, along with who the target audience is. Will the new community be:
- Gated (to create exclusivity) or open to all (to create brand awareness)?
- For new customers or prospective customers? Perhaps both?
- Geared around the entire brand, a specific product, or even a type of lifestyle?
Additionally, consider the following questions to determine purpose:
- What do you want this online community to achieve?
- Do you want it to drive more website traffic to your site, or do you want it to be a standalone community?
- How will you justify the value the community will create?
- What topics will the community promote?
- How large do you anticipate the community to get?
Answering these questions will help you arrive at the community’s purpose and core audience.
2. Select Type
Before you actually start building an online community, you need to determine whether you will build out a community from scratch that you own and host, or build a community on an existing platform.
Many think of these platforms first when building an online community. Free communities allow you to get started quickly and build with an existing platform’s audience. Examples include:
Pros for Free Communities:
- Lost cost of entry, since these platforms are all free to use.
- Existing fan base to gather followers from quickly.
- Able to launch quickly.
- Integrated analytics and ad platforms.
- Platforms are already built out with existing functionality.
- No learning curve to use platform for administrators or followers alike.
Cons for Free Communities:
- Functionality is set and cannot be customized.
- Limited control over permissions and specific settings.
- If the site goes down, your community goes down as well.
- Any changes to the platform are also changes for your community.
Owned platforms create many more opportunities as your community grows.
Pros for Owned Communities
- Build the community exactly the way you want.
- Functionality is endless, depending on your marketing and development teams.
- Integration with other infrastructure and systems you already have.
- Scale the site and hosting as needed as the community grows.
Cons for Owned Communities
- Higher cost of entry, including hosting, CMS, eCommerce platform, and more.
- Longer design and launch cycle.
- Training required for administration.
- Will need to build the audience from scratch.
3. Choose Team
Once you have determined what your purpose for the online community is, the target audience, and the platform it will be on, you are ready to choose the optimal team members to handle administration of the new community.
Determine which roles will be absolutely necessary to keep the community running smoothly. Roles could include:
Community Management: The Community Manager will monitor the daily operations of the online community. They are responsible for keeping the community a positive environment, engaging with the community, driving awareness, handing off issues to the right department internally, and more.
A person that is a great fit for the Community Manager position will be flexible, friendly, knowledgeable, and outgoing. They need to know how to field requests to the right people, educate audiences about upcoming events, promotions, and products, and keep the tone and brand voice on point.
Content Management: The Content Manager will likely be responsible for determining what content will be promoted on your online community. This person will be in charge of the content calendar, and will be essential to drive your fans further down the funnel toward sale or upsell for your products. This person will create and promote blogs, eBooks, webinars about your product features or trending topics, and even infographics.
This person could be your Digital Content Manager or a Content Marketing Manager. Regardless, they need to be great at coordination of content and knowledgeable about both your products and the core audience.
Public Relations Management: Everyone doesn’t think they need a publicist, until they do. The biggest mistake online communities can make is to build a positive community and let trolls (individual users that leave negative comments for malicious purposes) destroy the reputation of the community or brand. Have someone on point to handle negative comments immediately, preferably monitoring on a 24/7/365 basis. This person also needs to be in charge of boosting the visibility of any positive press on your community, both internally and externally to raise brand equity. They might also be in charge of pushing out announcements about new products and corporate announcements, depending on roles and responsibilities.
This person could be the Community Manager, or someone specifically in charge of all social media channels, such as Social Media Manager. Make sure this person is extremely flexible, reliable, and available at any time.
4. Setup Platform
The next step is setting up your actual community. The actual setup will differ depending on whether this is a free or owned community, but here are some things each community will need to be successful.
- Goals: Identifying what your goals are for your online community is key. These will help you stay on track with your mission and will help you build toward those goals.
- Community Guidelines: Establishing community guidelines are always important to help you keep your community protected. These help your users know what is allowed in your community and what isn’t.
- Community Title: Align this with your community’s purpose and audience. Your homework from step one will come in handy in naming your community aptly.
- Category: For free communities such as on Facebook, you will need to choose which category your community falls into. This is extremely important, as it will help new audiences find your community. Your category usually aligns with your Industry, but you could go with something broader if you wish. Your niche or topic, if it’s not your brand, will also help determine your category.
- Description: You will want to provide a description of what your online community is all about upfront, so people will understand why the community exists, what they might expect to find, and if they want to be part of this community.
- Permissions: Setup permissions for your administration for their responsibilities within the community. Don’t give out full permissions to every member of your team. Your Community Manager will likely have full permissions, while your Content Manager will only need to be able to post and schedule content. Having optimal permissions setup will allow your community to flourish under your team’s management.
5. Promote Community
Your community is built and launched! It’s time to get your following built.
First, you should start engaging with current customers and invite them to be part of your new online community. You can have the sales or partner teams start actively reaching out as they make their rounds, and have marketing send out an email blast inviting customers directly. You could even include a link in your newsletter, if you have one. Invite partner and affiliate customers as well, if it makes sense for your community’s purpose.
Next, you will want to begin promoting your community to prospective customers. Try including links to your online community within any outward-facing employee’s email signature, and consider placing your community in your nurture campaigns as part of your overall marketing strategy.
Include links to your community on your corporate website, so visitors can find it easily. Include it in the navigation bar in your social media section, as well as in the footer of your site.
Start promoting your online community on the social media channels you have a presence already set up on, so that your current followers can join the new community easily. This can be through free organic posts, or by paying for ads on the platforms.
Also, make sure you get your brand evangelists in your online community as soon as possible. Team up to create contests to drive awareness. Co-market and see if they will allow you to be included in their newsletters. They will help grow your community for you, providing helpful links, advice, and sharing their stories of using your products.
6. Tips on Community Moderation
If you truly want to be successful in the long run, you need to set up ways to moderate engagement, sharing, comments and more in your community. This is your brand, so keep your community comments aligned with your brand guidelines. In fact, it’s probably best, especially as the community gets started, to have community guidelines shared somewhere prominently on the site.
- Engage: Help start conversations between members by posting relevant content about your brand, products, or lifestyle that matches your target audience. This will help the community engage around the subjects they came to engage with in the first place: your brand!
- Help: Be helpful by offering advice on how to maximize use of your products. Also, if people have questions or concerns, answer them with positivity and enthusiasm.
- SPAM: Don’t let spammers start taking control of your comments section. SPAM is any unwanted content that doesn’t align with your community’s purpose or guidelines. SPAM comments could include other brands promoting their products in your community, or links to malicious outside sites that could hurt your online community’s reputation.
- Trolls: Ensure your community members feel comfortable engaging about your brand by handling trolls proactively and quickly. Trolls are individuals who scroll or “troll” your content and members to engage with harmful language and aim to shed negative light on your brand. Your Community Manager needs to be on the lookout for trolls, and when encountered, handle them quickly. Just be careful to distinguish between a troll and a disgruntled customer before posting back.
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