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3 Tips To Create An Online Community During The Pandemic

6 minute read

September 30, 2020

In what seemed like virtually overnight, organizations have been forced to continue their operations primarily online due to the global pandemic and efforts to social distance. More than ever, organizations without a virtual space for their customers to congregate, engage, ask questions and provide meaningful feedback are feeling the gap—they're at a huge disadvantage from their competitors who have already invested in community pre-COVID.

So now you're looking into creating a dedicated space for your valued customers—somewhere that'll make them feel at home and confident in their choice to continue to do business with you.

1. Consider Making an Investment

There are community solutions out there that are "free," and you might be looking to some of these for a quick, cost-effective solution. Before we dive into why you should consider investing resources into this project, let me just dispel any confusion—social media platforms are not community. Let me explain why.

Social Media Isn't Community

If you are considering a free community platform, let me just be clear—social media is not the place to build your community on, especially if you want to create an experience for your customers. Groups built on social media platforms, such as Facebook, Linkedin, Twitter, etc., are not only subject to the whims and algorithm changes of their developers, but they are also unable to execute the functions that make an online community a community.

Some of these crucial community functions that social media simply can't do include:

  • A powerful Q&A system that can also generate support tickets if the crowd-sourced support yields no results

  • Allows for APIs and integrations that can connect the community with your other tools, such as Salesforce, Hootsuite, Zendesk, Mailchimp, etc.

  • Having a gamification system, with unique and branded badges that members can earn for participating

  • A strong search function that makes all discussions visible

  • The ability to create a UI and UX experience that's aligned with your brand values

  • Designate special permissions to your moderators to help supervise your community and encourage engagement

  • Access in-depth analytics on customer actions and behaviors that can be used to form future engagement strategies

These are just some of the things that groups built on social media can't do. In short, you want to avoid building a "community" on social media, and if you really don't want to pay, we'd suggest looking into a free community software, such as Vanilla Open Source.

A Simple 7 Phased Approach To Community Building

Now, to continue our discussion on why you should consider investing in a community platform rather than just going for a free version.

Firstly, free communities require a certain type of internal expertise to be well-built. These types of communities are often times a "you break it, you fix it," type deal, which can easily derail any community without a solid developer  backing—not to mention the community expertise it takes to actually create community strategies that help you achieve your goals. 

Just take a look at King, a leading mobile game developer with over 200 titles and over 268 million active users a month, including the popular game Candy Crush. In 2018, King had a "free" community platform— a custom-built, in-house community. Only, at the end of the day, it wasn't "free" at all. The amount of developer attention and maintenance that the community required actually led King to be dedicating top developer resources to the community rather than their games. Moreover, the community didn't have the programs or tools necessary  to succeed.

As Graham Henderson, the Associate Director Player Community said. “[The community] wasn't engaging, the retention was incredibly poor and it was incredibly difficult to know what was going on from an analytical standpoint as well.” He continues, “If you add up all these issues, it’s a lot. We needed an entire overhaul: a full platform change, a strategic change and an operational change." 

In short, King identified several issues with this type of "free" platform that I think we can all take note of:

  • It had limited analytical functions

  • Limited ability to customize and make it a "home" for their customers

  • Low functionality (ex. inability to merge threads)

  • Limite mechanisms for retention and engagement (ex. gamification)

In sum, we'd encourage you to at least explore the possibilities offered to you by investing in a community platform. We've got some excellent resources for you to check out that can help you realize the possibilities with a fully branded and managed community platform. Be sure to check out these resources:

If you're going to do something, better do it right, eh?

2. Get a Community Manager

This is one of the single most important pieces of advice that we can offer you: get a community manager!

There have been various studies conducted that prove the value of a managed community. In short, communities with a dedicated community manager outperform those without. Just take a look at these stats:

  • 76% of branded communities have a dedicated community manager.

  • Having a dedicated community manager for your branded community can help improve performance by up to 12%.

  • Having a managed online community lessens the burden of engagement by 44%.

Having an experienced community manager is just as important as say, having an accounting manager, or marketing manager etc. Community is a real  discipline and department that requires dedicated and knowledgeable professionals to run the show. 

Community managers do a number of very important tasks that are crucial to any successful community. These things include, but are not limited to:

  • Paying close attention to new users (and encouraging them)

  • Creating new content (showing the kinds of content you expect)

  • Identifying members who should be promoted

  • Identifying members who need to be nurtured 

  • Enforcing community rules and guidelines

  • Initiating and provoking thoughtful discussions

  • Identifying the personality types/ segments in your community

  • Learning what engages your community the most

  • Cultivating potential moderators as you grow

Be sure to check out this blog on how to hire a community manager that's right for you.

3. Define Your Community Goals

Slow down! You can't just rush into community, or it is bound to fail—community is a strategic program, and if you aren't using it strategically like your competitors are, you're not in a good spot.

Defining your community goals is a very important thing to do, and should be done before you select a community vendor, since you may want different functionalities depending on what your community aims are. Nevertheless, your dedicated community manager (which you have, right?) will help define your community's purpose, including its mission, vision and goals.

This is one of the most important steps as it truly lays the foundation for your entire community, and will lay the groundwork for long- term success. Some key questions that’ll help you get to the bottom of your community's purpose and goals include:

  • What’s the purpose of this community’s existence?

  • What are your organization’s goals?

  • How will this community help advance your organization’s goals?

  • Who’s the target audience, and who’s not the target audience?

  • Would members find the community helpful, and why?

Goal setting is a step that should never be overlooked since this is what you will use to measure the success of your community. Once you set your goals, you need to come up with targets and milestones, and set your KPIs. You'll then need to check in regularly to see if at any time, you need to re-adjust your strategy. 

Benefits and Impacts of Online Communities

Community

Sarah Robinson-Yu

Written by Sarah Robinson-Yu

Sarah is the Content Marketing Specialist at Vanilla Forums. Prior to Vanilla, Sarah worked in the public sector where she led and coordinated the strategic framework and operational policy development of business processes.

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