Launching an online community may be one of the most important things you do for your business or brand. If you’ve never embarked on this path, it can be equal parts daunting and rewarding. It creates a hub of information and interaction between your organization, your fans and customers.
It is a long-term project, not a short-term solution. You must be prepared to build and guide your community towards success and create an atmosphere that fosters engagement from your audience and good will towards your brand.
Properly done, online communities are being used by businesses and organizations just like yours in order to:
- Gather support of fans and customers
- Provide support
- Increase awareness of new and existing products
- Source valuable information about your target customer
- Gather feedback on new ideas or existing products
There are a lot of components that go into creating the successful community, and many factors to take into consideration. We have created this step by step guide in order to support your efforts in creating your community and give you the guidelines you need in order to be successful.
This is a long post. If you want to jump to specific chapters, click on the links below:
- Chapter 1: Determine the reason for your community
- Chapter 2: What to be aware of in selecting a community platform
- Chapter 3: Considerations in setting your community platform
- Chapter 4: The importance of community management
- Chapter 5: Soft-launching your community
- Chapter 6: The basics of user-generated content
- Chapter 7: Getting to the first 100 members
- Chapter 8: How to measure your community's success
Determine the reason for your community
A community, like a business, needs a mission statement and a reason for being. A community for the sake of having one is a recipe for failure. Like all businesses, communities need to serve a purpose and solve a problem. Are your goals:
- To increase customer satisfaction?
- In streamlining your customer service?
- To promote brand awareness?
If you’re looking to build a case for community at your company, here are 3 starter points that are great reasons to help communicate the value of building a community platform to the C-level executives.
1. Building your brand through one-on-one relationships
We all know that marketers are great at communicating a company’s brand. Traditional marketing was always based on pushing messages to our customers with a firehose, and unfortunately, the ability to build deeper conversations is lost and sometimes never built at all.
With community marketing, it’s the complete opposite.
With the shift moving from an one-to-many mentality to one-to-one, building a community platform gives you the opportunity to do develop those deeper relationships without sacrificing message quality.
Product Hunt is a great example of how they grew their community base from a small, curated group to an active, engaged community of their first 2,000 users in order to help guide their product’s development.
2. Peer-to-peer relationships as a resource.
Regardless of whether your product is a consumer good, a piece of software, or a service, if you have plans to scale the business in any way, you’re going to need to the help of your passionate customers. Bringing them into the product or service development process allows you to test drive ideas before investing large amounts of time or money to bring the product into market.
By bringing your most passionate community members into the product development process, not only can you improve upon product features with your target market through immediate feedback, you’ll be able to test its marketability.
The ROI from these interactions go beyond just market testing. You also create brand loyalty as members are more emotionally vested in the success of the product.
Building community is an investment in your business’s sales. In doing so, it allows you to listen, track, and analyze community activity to help you keep your finger on the pulse.
3. Your community has a true impact on your company’s bottom line.
We’re living in the age where marketing departments are shifting their focus from reaching one-to-many to one-on-one audiences.
The best way to scale this contact is to reach out to your biggest fans within your community: your brand advocates.
These advocates are typically highly satisfied customers that will promote your brand without any incentive to do so.
For a typical enterprise software firm, the average customer spends over their lifetime of $300,000.
An advocate acts as brand multipliers, for their lifetime value jumps to $1.2 million dollars as they refer an average of four customers.
Moreover, community members, which can still be outside of your customer base (for example, thought leaders, or anyone who identifies with your cause, vision, or mission) are still a trusted voice within your industry that can contribute in strengthening your brand message.
What you need to be aware of in selecting a community platform
Selecting the right platform for your community is just an important decision as much as the type of community. If you're thinking of using a social media platform (i.e. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram.. ) or want the flexibility of an owned platform, understand the difference between the two.
An existing social media platform that allows you to take advantage of an existing audience. While this is a low-cost option, it may be better to consider existing social media platforms as an extension of your owned community rather than the main channel. The reasons are:
- You are limited in your interactions with your target audience
- Analytics are not that deep on social media platforms. You won't know key metrics such as who posts the most content, or retweeting the most etc.
- To grow your community, you would have to pay-to-play as social media platforms business model revolves around owning their audience.
- Most importantly, you DO NOT own your community on social media.
Conversely, an owned community (such as Vanilla's) is a dedicated platform and is flexible enough to customize. You gain more control over your audience, your messaging and more importantly, your brand. While social media offers a variety of options, they were not designed with the specific needs of your community in mind. They exist to build their community, not yours. Owning your community forum allows for:
1. Single Sign-On: Your members can utilize a single set of login credentials for multiple areas of your platform. For instance, if you are an existing e-commerce site and you add a community element to your website, single sign-on would allow a customer’s existing account login information to be used for the community. This is what Google does where your Google sign-in is also your Gmail login, YouTube account login, etc.
2. Gamification: Gamification allows you to add competitive gameplay elements to your community designed to increase activity and engagement. Tools such as badges, avatars, rankings or ratings are all able to be customized and implemented on your own platform.
3. Deeper Analytics: Owning your community allows for greater freedom and deeper analysis of your traffic, activity, marketing efforts, and more. Data mining your community also reveals more information about your customers and their interests and values.
4. Increased Flexibility: Simply put, owning your own community allows you to design it to suit your needs more closely than a social media platform. It’s a little like renting an apartment vs. building a house. Both have pros and cons but an apartment typically doesn’t allow you too much flexibility in renovations.
Put the objectives of your community front and center. The technology has to align with meeting the goals. Although technology alone won’t do it for you, it’s critical that it doesn’t get in your way either. Ask yourself these questions in choosing your platform:
- What problem am I trying to solve or what gap am I looking to fill?
- Where is my content coming from? Is it user-generated or company created?
- How much flexibility do I need in planning and executing my community?
- How much control over the content, direction, membership, etc do I need?
A community without a reason for being is like a ship without anyone at the wheel so it is important to focus your efforts and attention on what business problem you are attempting to solve.
1. Make a list of all key stakeholders that will want to see the results from the community. Ask them what kind of information they are looking for: think about KPIs, Customer Satisfaction Ratings, Employee Engagement, NPS, etc. Meet with them to make sure you understand their expectations.
2. Bring your technical team to the table and ask them their concerns with the new platform. Make sure you address those from the get go by getting their requirements. Will you need their help in deploying the selected solution? Think about the flow your intended audience would have to interact with your community (SSO from your product, LMS, CRM, etc).
3. Develop a list of requirements - or better yet, download our community requirements RFP document. It details out every important benefit/feature that needs to be in the technology to ensure it will meet your needs, ensure that you aren’t blindsided by missing important features and addresses all the security and IT concerns.
4. Build a vendor short-list. Too many and you’ll be overwhelmed by sales processes. A great way to build the list is by:
a) Looking to your competitors: What platforms are they using? What’s great about their communities? What’s not so good that you would like to do better?
b) Look at 3rd-party review websites: Sites such as G2Crowd, GetApp and others.
c) Turn to your peers: what platforms do they use?
5. Compare the vendors side-by-side based on the requirements list. Prioritize the features/benefits that really matter to you. Use this list to make sure vendors don’t try to convince you that what matters to you isn’t important if it doesn’t line up with their offering.
Selecting the right vendor is an important decision, particularly if you are moving off a legacy or home-grown system.
Considerations in setting your community platform
Once you’ve determined your platform and the reason for your community, the next step is the fun part. Setting up your community and getting ready for launch. As fun as this may be, there is also a lot of hard work, and a lot of trial and error. Remember that a community is a fluid entity and you must be able to adapt as needed.
A few things you want to consider:
1. Keep your community private until it is ready: Many things are likely to change from day 1 until your official launch. The last thing you want is for people stumbling into your community and looking around before launch date. Like an artist who hides their painting from view until it is complete, you don’t want to give false impressions during the building phase. Enable whatever privacy settings you have to ensure your community isn’t open to view until you are ready.
2. Define your community management team's roles: Community management is the key to success. Your management and support team should have clearly defined roles and responsibilities. It is important to have a community manager who heads up development and growth efforts, who is customer-focused, supports the community, and gives it the guidance it needs to be successful as well as the room to be self-sustainable.
3. Create your discussion categories: All communities need organization. As your community grows it is important to keep topics and discussion focused and on task. Create your initial categories to help compartmentalize the various parts of your community. More may be added later, but start with the basics and expand outward.
4. Review the Sign-Up and Sign-In process: If your community is difficult to access, you are fighting a losing battle. Signing up for, and logging into your community must be as efficient, streamlined, and user intuitive as possible. Review it early and often, especially when you make changes, to ensure the process is uninterrupted.
5. Gamification: Gamification is not just a gimmick, it actually works. If your community forum allows for gamification you should devote a significant amount of time to setting it up. Reward your members for their contributions and activity and incentivize your users to continue to support the community.
Whether through badges, avatars, titles, rankings, or another system of recognition, it is a community boosting tool you do not want to ignore.
6. Create Terms of Service / Community Guidelines: Every community needs rules and guidelines for what is acceptable behavior and activity on their platform. Yours should be no different. The early days of a community are all about setting the tone for the future. A set of rules clearly define what is allowed and encouraged as well as frowned upon and forbidden.
7. Set Up Outgoing Email: Staying in touch with your users is important, although remember your primary communication channel will be the platform itself. Nevertheless, you will need to create and test your registration email, welcome email, notification email, and more.
When your users create their preferences, they will undoubtedly want notifications of certain events. It is important to test each of these systems to ensure they are running properly.
8. Test, Test, Test: A community has a lot of moving parts and this is even before your members begin to populate your platform. If you are a new restaurant, you do not want to open the doors on the first night only to find that the oven isn’t working. It is important to test, re-test, and then test again to ensure all features are operating properly.
Even so, there will likely be areas that do not function as well as they should and your users will encounter them organically and let you know. This is helpful, but the goal is to minimize these incidents as much as possible.
The importance of community management
At the beginning, and in order to support the growth of your community, designating a community manager is a must. The community manager has their finger on the pulse of the community and is intimately aware of, and involved with all aspects of the day to day operations of the community. Depending on the purpose you want your community to serve, they may have different objectives.
If you are a business or product focused community, your manager will have specific goals or metrics they are aiming for. That may be easing the burden on existing customer support channels, increasing sales, or any number of other tasks. There are certain things that you must be aware of in managing a community:
1. Develop your public profile carefully: The first thing you will want to do as a community manager is to spend time on your profile. While it might seem like a small thing, your profile sends an important message to the community. Choose a username that is either your real name or something playful.
Along with a real name, choose an avatar that shows your personality. No one wants to interact with a company logo. Make it a clear photo, or something that showcases your personality.
Obviously, in a business community, a headshot might be more appropriate than a shot of Mickey Mouse. The choice of avatar is the visual representation behind your words, so choose wisely, and in keeping with the kind of community you hope to have or build.
2. Develop your community voice: Once you have an authentic profile, you will want to ensure your community voice is real. Keep the marketing speak or corporate words out of your posts. You want to ask questions, be curious and listen.
Most importantly, you want to ensure that the content you share provides value. Sure sometimes you need to share information for your company, but you can also post a funny photo or maybe even an insight or two (that you are allowed to share).
3. Community Managers should set community policy and strategy: Your community manager should be the expert in your member community, its problems and how to solve them. For product communities, they should have metrics to hit, whether that’s to improve customer support, generate sales or any number of things.
For a B2C community, they should have a clear vision of where they want the community to head, and know how to get there. A community manager is responsible for setting policy, for figuring out how to move the community to a desired outcome and keep it there.
There are a number of tools that a CM has at their disposal, but they should primarily be good communicators and strategists.
Finally, engage with others in a real way. Try to reply to people when they mention you. Introduce members to others who may have common interests.
Remember, a community is full of members who are real people, with other places to be. You want to be real and make it enjoyable. So be honest, be yourself and build a two-way dialogue that is real with your community.
Soft-launching your community
We believe that every community should soft-launch. A soft launch is essentially flipping the switch without fanfare and beginning to populate the community slowly, often with specific users - either key industry leaders, your most passionate fans or even internal employees.
There are a few advantages to this approach. You could:
- Mobilise the most dedicated members of your community in order to uncover problems.
- Test your moderation workflow and ensure that your moderators know their way around the tools in a live setting.
- Ensure that all your theming is bug free and pleasing to your target audience.
However, you should have a clear game plan before you go in. Ask yourself the following questions:
- Who do I want in this early access group?
- What problems do I want this beta stage to solve?
- What will the transition to the live community entail?
- What is my hard deadline for launching the community?
You should begin by populating your topics with talking points, posts, discussions, and other content designed to help get the ball rolling once unique members begin to find their way to your door.
Soft launching also entails gathering feedback from trusted sources. As an organization you should encourage your employees and members to sign up and explore your community. Take their feedback and answer these questions:
- What do they like?
- What don’t they like?
- What, if anything, isn’t working as well as it should be?
It is useful to beta test your community in this way so you can receive organic feedback regarding the entire process.
Another important part of soft launching is ensuring that you have content available for your audience. A community without content is like a store with empty shelves.
During the discovery phase, community managers should explore deeply the types of content your potential audience will engage with. This can be done through social media or email surveys for example.
Your community manager should be adding to the content where possible and encouraging community content generation among the audience. Gamification can assist with this by acknowledging and rewarding outstanding members with ranks, badges, or privileges for exceptional activity.
The basics of user-generated content
During your soft-launch, and throughout your community’s life, content creation is a key strategy for driving traffic and engagement to your community.
However, the question is how can you encourage members to share and post great content in your forum? Here are some key points:
1. Engage your community: Facilitate conversations and engage your members through updates and relevant content. Pay attention to and foster the shared emotional connection among your members. It will help build understanding amongst your online community, and make it stronger.
2. Give your passionate fans influence: Make your members feel appreciated by creating an opportunity that each member can participate in through incentives (gamification) or contests. Feature some of your members’ contributions in your platform and write about your members.
3. Be approachable: A community manager constantly interacts with their members and listens to constructive feedback.1 A highly visible community manager makes the member feel valued, but also confident that the brand is invested in the community too. Fans will be more willing to engage with the brand when they feel that their is a human behind the corporation.
4. Create conversations: In a world where everyone is a publisher, it’s difficult to stand out. Also, by just pushing out content, you have an one-sided conversation that brings no value to your target audience. By leveraging a social listening platform such as hootsuite, you can listen in on conversations that your target audience engages in. Identify the content that resonates with your customers and partner with them to create the authentic content.
Maintaining a high-ranking online presence can be costly. But having a strong base of engaged members sharing and posting great content will help keep your costs down. And leveraging user-generated content (UGC) can improve your online presence along with creating stronger community ties.
Getting to the first 100 members
Once it is time to soft-launch your community to the general public, the first 100 members are key. A young community is not unlike a child. There are a number of directions the community can develop and it is important to guide it in a positive direction while at the same time allowing it to be self-sustainable.
Getting to your first 100 members is an important step. It’s a rough milestone that helps to validate what you’re trying to accomplish. It’s important to realize that the raw number doesn’t matter so much.
Having 20 active, engaged members of your community is better than 100 people who sign up and never log in. 100 is a baseline, an abstract idea. Once your community begins to take form, you’ll know you’re fitting your market and growing.
Depending on the resources available to you, reaching 100 members may come quickly, or it may take time. In either case, here are some tips for getting to that point:
1. Invite your personal contacts: Yes, no one wants to bother their friends, families, and co-workers, but you know what? It works. This is why Twitter, LinkedIn, and other social media sites want access your mail contacts at sign-up, because it works to get other people onto the platform.
Make the invitation to your forum or community space fun by framing it as a personal update, introducing the community and what your company does, and by letting them know they’ll be one of the exclusive, early first people to get involved.
2. Communicate, communicate, communicate: You do not need to break the bank in order to promote your community. Talk to people like you’ve never talked to people before. Get in the habit of talking to people everywhere you go, especially if your community is centered around a broad product or service that has value.
3. Develop mutual partnerships: As your community grows, more people will find their way to your door via search engines. In the beginning, that isn’t likely to happen and the reality is that few people will be beating a path to your sign-up page. Partner with like-mind individuals and key influencers to help promote yourself. Work out cross-promotional agreements in order to extend your research. Collaborating with a related and complementary company can be an effective way to promote your new community and welcome new members who like both products and services. Think about what fits for your group, company and goals.
4. Be responsive to your members needs: In the early days, your community management team must be incredibly active. That means actively promoting and being involved - whether that’s supporting the members you do have with encouragement and feedback or thanking them for their contributions.
Once you’ve had success inviting people to the community, spend time listening to their feedback. Use it to make their experience as enjoyable as possible and make your founding members feel valued and heard by following up when they share ideas or concerns.
Work to surprise and delight them by doing things that don’t scale at this stage, like treating local members to a cup of coffee or sending handwritten notes. Be genuine, and work to form authentic connections.
If you work at an early-stage startup or have been tasked with building a community from scratch, you’ll have to put on your growth hat. While there’s not a single secret to magically make your community grow, these are a few tried and true tactics that can help you get started.
How to measure your community's success
Now that your community is active and growing, it’s time to measure analytics. A community is a fluid entity and many influences will cause ebbs and flows in the level of activity. If you’re not careful, you may find that too many of your users churn (leave) and you aren’t replacing them with new ones.
When measuring your community’s performance, ask yourself this question: “what am I hoping to accomplish with this community?” Answering this question will help drive the analytical approach you use. For example, if your community exists to generate sales, you will be looking at sales conversion rates.
Google analytics, as well as other programs, offer a wide variety of metrics to look through. Answering the question above, however, helps let you know where to look.
We’ve written an extremely in-depth guide on implementing Google Analytics into your online community, providing you with information from setting up your personal dashboard to creating custom reports.
While there are many ways that you could measure community health, whether your ability to successfully accomplish this task depends upon the metrics you are tracking. It is important to pay attention to metrics that relate to retention and acquisition.
A great tip was provided by Brian Massey of the Conversion Scientist, that can be built on the Visitor Acquisition report is the creation of advanced segmentation based on buyer personas. Based on metrics such as time on site and number of pages visited , you’d segment your new visitors into various personas.
In a gaming community, for example, you could create personas such as:
- Passionate Fan: Their time on site would be more than 5 minutes and browse through multiple pages with time spent on page. You can also tie-in social profiles if you have a single-sign on for a more detailed insight.
- Noob: The person who spends time on the site for a short number of time but visits a lot of pages. Doesn’t seem to be able to find what they want.
- Social Gamer: Someone who stays on the site a long time but doesn’t visit a lot of pages.
Identifying your community personas would help determine visitor flows and behaviours leading to your target goal.
This way, you can see the channels that provide the highest bottom-line impact and the areas where improvements are needed. It will also help you determine the type of campaigns that are most effective and are aligned with your objectives.
Is Your Community “Churning?”
You will want to focus on “churn,” which is turnover in your community. Churn can be calculated by the following formula:
Churn = (A – B) / A
Churn = A(community members at beginning of period) – B(community members at end of period) / A(by community members at start of period)
For example, if you started with nine members in June and have only three left in August, your churn rate would be 66 percent (9 – 3) / 9 = 66%, which isn’t so great. Even if you’re gaining new members, it’s the flow of customers leaving that is killing your business!
The member lifetime value
A common assumption is that engaged community members will spend about twice as much as those who are non-engaged. One metric you should calculate to prove this assumption for your company is the Member Lifetime Value (MLV):
MLV = TC * ( MRR/ (1 + CR – MRR) )
TC = Annual Total Contributions of Member (this includes all actions from posting to liking) or you could assign a dollar value such as membership fee (for paid membership forums).
MRR = Member Retention Rate is calculated by knowing the number of users within a set time period minus new registrants.
CR = Churn Rate (see previous section)
The member lifetime value qualifies how involved each member is in your community. This is an average and can be used as a benchmark over time. As your community grows, the MLV will be essential in providing ROI to your management team.
It is always important to continue to look at, and measure, various goals within your community. Whatever your goals, communities will evolve over time and take on new aspects that may require you to change your approach. Measuring and analyzing over time will help keep you ahead of the curve and ready to adapt as needed.
Be prepared for the road ahead!
Launching an online community is an important step towards furthering your business, brand, or cause. Always remember that no matter what purpose your community is intended to serve, a community without active, engaged members is useless.
Listen to your users and hear what they have to say.
Take their feedback seriously. Not every suggestion, comment, or criticism should be acted upon, but all should be listened to.
At the same time, remember your goals and work tirelessly towards realizing them. Whether you’re a business looking to increase sales, a non-profit organization looking for activists, or promoting awareness of a social cause, you are in control of the direction your community takes. Remember to analyze your performance and make adjustments where necessary.
Congratulations. There is a lot of hard work ahead in building and maintaining your community, however the rewards that come from running a successful online community are greater than you can imagine.