When I speak with leaders, many say that they don’t know what they don’t know about launching an online community. The technology and design and content creation don’t always come naturally and can’t be purchased and perfectly planned.
Luckily, there are plenty of partners and resources available to help you plan ahead without becoming overwhelmed or bogged down in details. Over the last several years, the number of partners and technologies have expanded significantly. Yet you may not know where to begin working with external partners. In this post, I will break down the various types of online community partners and examples of each.
First, let’s start by looking at the main pre-launch categories of resources.
What Resources Will You Need?
Project Management: keeping everyone accountable for work to be done. Ideally, the project manager has experience with community projects specifically or a partner or advisor of their own.
Facilitation: bring stakeholders together to make decisions, without wasting anyone’s time. Facilitation is both an art and a science, and the best community strategy facilitators can create a psychologically safe environment, respect but question existing leadership, manage competing priorities and communication styles, remain unbiased, and name red flags or tensions during strategic exercises.
Research: ensure your strategy is not random. You will need resources to conduct qualitative and quantitative research to inform your strategy and setup. Often this is the job of a community manager or a research team who partners with a community manager.
Relationship Building & Outreach: grow relationships before developing technology. Once you launch, you don’t just hit “send email” or automatically opt-in everyone. At least not if you know what you’re doing. In the lead up to the launch, someone in-house should be outreaching and strengthening relationships between founding members, future leaders, and the internal staff.
Strategy: address strategic areas including mission, purpose, values, and set a business case.
Moderation: create moderation guidelines, templates, and escalation strategies prior to launch.
Design: create initial wireframes to inform how you will set up the community platform. Transform these wireframes into higher fidelity mockups and then designs on the platform. You will also need resources to create seemingly small design elements like logos, favicons, and banner images.
Content Strategy: step back to create big picture strategy for connecting people in the community, which goes beyond engagement for engagement’s sake.
Content Creation, Organization & Setup: initially create, edit, and refine content posted to the community, then guide initial members on content seeding.
IT Integrations and Technical Setup: set up email domains and CNAMES as well as integrate between systems you already use in your organization.
Types of Partners
You could go out and hire for all these roles, plus bring on a senior community leader to manage the entire process. If you are set on your strategy, please do. But if you’re still validating or experimenting with many programs, you have another option: external partners.
External partners include contractors, consultants, and agencies that can help you quickly resource your community effort. Think of them as an accelerating force. They get all the pieces in place and set you up for long-term success.
External partners include the following:
Community strategists (myself and my team included!) facilitate, coach, and create a strategy. Depending on your consultant, you may also be able to partner with their partners on design, research, development and integration, and content creation.
Some examples (this list is by no means exhaustive!):
Community by Association
The Community Roundtable
Erica Kuhl Consulting
Moderation agencies will help you set up a long-term moderation strategy that can help you scale your efforts. Though it is fairly rare that you would need one of these right away, it’s good to know the option is available to you when you need it.
The Social Element
Technical, Design, and Community Management Agencies
These are your technical partners who can do the wireframing and UX design for you and/or the visual design, who can help you create operational workflows and integrations, and some even offer contract community management.
I typically consider community consultants to be individuals who will help you with some strategy but mostly do day-to-day management and implementation. They take the heavy lift off of you. They can also temporarily serve as community managers while you make a full-time hire.
There are many community consultants today and the list is expanding and changing on a regular basis. Grazitti also now offers Community Management as a Service.
typically more day-to-day managers who can offer guidance and insight b who also manage your community for you /
CMaaS from Grazitti
Your Platform Provider
Almost every platform provider offers some level of strategic, project management, or advisory support services of their own. Be sure to ask your platform what kind of support you get and ask them to get specific. The depth of support and where the boundaries are between support and paid consulting vary widely. Some pull out all the bells and whistles; others treat you as though you were lucky to get even an hour of their time (they may charge accordingly).
Lean on your platform provider for software-specific best practices. Lean on other external partners for everything else. It will save you oodles of money in the long run.
Where Do You Go Next?
Want to know how to bring on external partners for your community launch? Here is what I recommend:
Go through each of the resource categories above and create a RASCI matrix. If there are question marks and you feel stuck? Contact a strategist.
Are there gaps in specific areas like design and technical work? Find expert partners to address those areas.
And if you’re ever stuck, please remember: help is only a community strategist away. We’re a friendly bunch.