As we look onto on the edge of a new year of technological innovation and constantly evolving consumer habits, now’s a great time for online community builders to rethink their strategies and get up to speed.
Recent years have seen these communities move beyond being simple customer support portals into communities of practice and purpose. People are coming together to share their passions and ideas to push innovation and have a real influence on the products and services they love. In addition, the increasingly conversational nature of modern marketing has seen communities become invaluable marketing tools where lasting relationships are formed.
We have every reason to believe that online communities will continue to play a critical role in the success of businesses. Earlier this month, we had 18 community leaders share their thoughts with us and their predictions for the year ahead. From these, we’ve created a list of new year’s resolutions that will help you make 2019 your best year ever. The point is not to get overwhelmed with 10 things to do but more as a selection of ideas for you to pick and choose where you can get the biggest impact for your unique situation.
#1. Provide a space beyond social media
Social media is often heralded as a core component of any online marketing strategy, and many companies rely on it as their primary means of engaging with their target audiences. However, as online privacy and security become ever-greater concerns, people are becoming increasingly disillusioned with the mainstream social channels.
From major scandals like the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data breach to constant reports of cybercrime, spam and online bullying, these channels are fighting a constant battle against some of the most toxic elements of society. Moreover, it’s a recipe for disaster to rely entirely on platforms that can change or even cease to exist without a moment’s notice.
Businesses are moving away from social media to create more tight-knit communities over which they have more control. These branded platforms are a far cry from the likes of Facebook and Twitter which, while undeniably being home to huge numbers, are generally too noisy to really get noticed. By contrast, branded communities can create more meaningful and longer-lasting relationships without all the distractions of mainstream social media getting in the way.
Todd Burry, CPO and Co-founder of Vanilla Forums, believes that these owned online communities create more opportunities for lasting conversation and useful actionable insights, both of which can deliver real value to your business.
#2. Communicate clearly what's in it for them
People don't do things just for the sake of doing things. They always approach any ask with "what's in it for me?". Make the benefits of the community absolutely clear to your intended audience. Furthermore, don't presume that this is self-evident, this value has to be continuously communicated to both new and existing members.
You can do this by demonstrating how your community helps as a space for them to achieve their goals. This should be instantly visible on the community homepage to encourage people to sign up. But it doesn’t stop there.
You also need to think about your existing members and encourage both them, along with new members, to participate constructively. You can do that by referring to behavioral analytics and cohort analytics to familiarize yourself with your community’s needs and desires.
Anuj Adhiya, Director of Engagement and Analytics at GrowthHackers, calls these the ‘aha’ moments, whereby visitors can instantly answer the ‘what’s in it for me’ question. With the regular participation of representatives of your brand, you can better identify these ‘aha’ moments and increase engagement over time.
#3. Plan your content around what matters
It’s a cliché for sure, but content is king, and that’s not going to change any time soon. Every day, millions of people all over the world turn to the internet to find answers to their questions. Successful businesses are largely defined by their abilities to answer these questions and, in doing so, build value. In other words, modern business is less about direct selling and more about being helpful, relentlessly so on their terms. It’s not just a constant battle to rank highly in the search results – it’s about publishing content that truly adds value.
To achieve that, companies need to find the right balance between formal branded content and user-generated content created in online forums. Branded content, such as blog posts, whitepapers, case studies and ebooks, provides an excellent way to build authority, educate customers and increase visibility. At the same time, the unpredictable nature of online communities and their wealth of user-generated content can spark real and meaningful relationships.
Katie Paffhouse Bussey, Community Leader of non-profit organization Hearing First, believes in the innate human need for close-knit communities driven by authenticity. Through regular interaction with your members, you’ll be able to find content-planning opportunities that address some of the most pervasive questions in your community.
#4. Integrate community across the business
Many businesses have adopted a silo mentality, whereby departments within the same organization don’t freely share information with one another. This results in a lack of a healthy corporate culture and greatly reduced efficiency. Customers are ultimately the ones to suffer. More than ever, customers expect to have a place where they can engage with one another, as well as with representatives of the brand behind the community, throughout every stage of the customer journey.
Integrated communities present the optimal solution. Community leaders need to align the community to include goals from other departments, therefore yielding benefits from the community which, in turn, will offer greater value to customers.
Jake McKee, CEO and Lead Strategist of Community5, believes companies need to change the focus from standalone community goals to how communities can benefit each department within a business. Doing so will reveal valuable user-generated insights for R&D, marketing, sales and support teams.
#5. Map the road from interaction to revenue
Every digital activity generates data and, given our increasing reliance on digital tech, these data sets are getting larger all the time. In fact, the amount of data generated by customers’ interactions with a business has become so enormous that it’s impossible to make sense of without the help of analytics platforms. However, it’s not just about the platforms you use to track data – it’s about understanding what’s important. You need a way to identify this information and turn it into actionable insights. This applies to every area of digital innovation, online communities being no exception.
Applying the best practices for engaging your community members requires paying close attention to key metrics. Community leaders can use data analytics platforms to garner real-time insights into their members, aggregate feedback and better identify people’s needs. One of the most important metrics to track is how much revenue your community members bring to your business compared to customers who still haven’t signed up.
Emilia D’Anzica, Founder and Strategic Management Consultant at Customer Growth Advisors, believes that this will help managers adapt their community and social media budgets accordingly. Ultimately, data analytics will help you better understand the inner workings of your community and adopt an approach of continuous improvement.
#6. Enable community to influence your product
As we’ve mentioned, branded online communities started off as knowledge bases and customer support portals. In recent years, they’ve become so much more to the extent that they can a profound influence a company’s product. Successful companies are always looking for ways to improve their products and, in doing so, grow their customer bases and increase retention.
What better way to improve your product (and, therefore, customer satisfaction), than leveraging your community as your go-to resource for research and development? That’s why every branded online forum should have a space for feedback, in which customers can offer their opinions. More traditional businesses might not like the idea of having customers speak freely about their complaints, but unfavorable feedback is actually the most valuable, since it helps businesses identify areas of improvement. In other words, a healthy community driven by regular feedback from customers can and should become the driving force behind the direction of your organization.
Liz Crampton, Innovation Manager at Fitbit, believes that community management is very much about influence and persuasion within an organization. To that end, it helps you optimize your value proposition and get the investment you and your customers demand.
#7. Empower influencers
Not everyone joins an online community just to become a part of the conversation or to get support. Some people like to lead the conversation and build up reputations as authority figures within a community. Almost every marketing team has heard about the role of influencers on the mainstream social networks, but the best influencers aren’t always famous people or renowned industry experts with millions of followers.
Sometimes, the best influencers are right there in front of you in your own community forums. They’re the ones who love the attention and want to help others get more out of the products they love. They’re the people you should be empowering through clear recognition of their contributions. There are many ways to achieve this, ranging from simple forum ranks and badges to gamification strategies like achievement points. For many people, that’s enough, but you can also provide more tangible rewards to the most valuable members of your community, such as access to additional forum rights or even discounts on your product or service.
J.J. Janikis, Team Lead of Educator Communities at Newsela, believes empowering influencers will continue to grow in 2019. By identifying and rewarding your most active product users, you’ll have one of the most valuable marketing machines of all at your disposal, not to mention deeper insights for product teams.
#8. Get closer to your customers
Perhaps the biggest challenge facing community managers is actually getting people to sign up. It’s an extremely important challenge that every brand needs to rise to as well, given the danger posted by abandoned communities. People will always come and go and, as important as growing your community is, the most important task of all is getting people to participate regularly. After all, if someone signs up only to find the digital equivalent to the Antarctic wastes, chances are they’ll think less
of your brand.
Not only do you need to communicate value to both new and existing members – you also need to make your community as accessible as possible. Gated communities might be suitable in some industries, but your first priority should be to make it as easy as possible for the people you want in your community to engage with it. If your product is software-based, for example, you might want to integrate your community into your application. With seamless integration into your product, your community will become one of its core features.
Ed Giansante, Global Community Manager of Dropbox, believes businesses should never stop building their communities, and they should always be looking for new ways to engage their members. This can help managers reach out to people more effectively in a time when attention spans are at an all-time low.
#9. Become agents of change
Unfortunately, there are still many communities in which there’s a disconnect between their members and the brands behind them. They’re the sort of communities where everyone who can even be bothered to post anymore is clamoring for attention from brand representatives who are nowhere to be seen.
Business leaders who don’t respect nor understand the vital roles of their community managers are destined to end up with abandoned communities that ultimately end up harming their reputations. Community managers are on the frontlines between a brand and its customers, which gives them more access to decision-driving insights than anyone. To that end, they play a key role in organizational change by acting as a conduit between a brand and its customers. They’re the people asking questions just as much as the customers, and they’re communicating all that feedback to the people who are ultimately responsible for putting real, value-adding changes into motion.
Adam Zawel, Vice President of Strategy at Leader Networks, describes community managers as ‘change agents’ who have a leading role in their organization’s digital transformation initiatives. Their strategic positions can help give your company that sense of direction it needs to thrive.
#10. Align goals with the organization's priorities
For your community to be successful, it needs to have clearly defined goals from the outset. Furthermore, these goals need to align with the strategic priorities of your organization, which also means they’re always subject to change. Sometimes, even if the goals themselves seem solid enough, they can get lost in translation.
For example, a business might challenge their community managers to achieve demonstrate a direct link to customer retention. The problem is, goals like these are impacted from more than just what communities can do. Retention is related to the whole experience and product.
Take this opportunity to identify who else has these KPIs tied to their roles, and see how they are working towards this goal. Find ways to get the community to help them reach their goals. This way you are now working jointly towards a common goal instead of looking at this from two separate silos.
Colleen Young, President of CY Connect, claims that community managers who think strategically and communicate value will help create a more collaborative corporate culture. By defining value based on business goals, you can build a community that achieves this alignment and helps ensure your efforts don’t go to waste.
2019 promises to be a year of opportunity and growth for community managers as more businesses start to eschew the major social networks as a primary marketing channels to build their own online communities. Away from the noise, controversy and complete lack of privacy of those networks, organizations will be better equipped to build stronger relationships and increase revenue. It won’t necessarily be easy, but by taking these steps, you’ll be well on your way to building a more sustainable business in an era of constant change.
To get even more valuable insights for your community-building machine, check out our 2019 Community Predictions eBook, in which 18 industry experts share their views on what to expect in the year ahead.