How to Launch a Successful Online Community: A Step-by-Step Guide

How to Launch a Successful Online Community: A Step-by-Step Guide

These days, people are conducting their own research, reading product reviews, and seeking out recommendations before making a decision, and online communities are beginning to play a role in this process. Owned communities give you more freedom over your brand's messaging, but until your customers find out about your community, you have way more promoting to do to grow that community than you might have on a free platform. Once you've identified the use case and the type of engagement you're after (i.e., customer support operations or brand loyalty), you'll want to start looking at detailed features that would support your community goals. For external facing communities, this group of stakeholders may include the community manager, marketing department, and/or customer support. Another way to go about identifying stakeholders is to lump the role of the community manager along with the social media management role. Product testing Market research Beta testing Customer feedback Typically, only one person will be tasked with the community launch. Making a decision on what platform to use for your community is the first step. This includes plug-ins, add-ons, and other features that are integrated into your online forum. The purpose of a soft launch is to get your community ready for your full and public launch. Promote your launch all over your website, through email communications, and by having your sales team and customer service reps tell your existing and potential customers about the launch.

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It’s no secret that the way people buy has fundamentally changed over the years.

These days, people are conducting their own research, reading product reviews, and seeking out recommendations before making a decision, and online communities are beginning to play a role in this process.

As of 2018, according to the B2B Buyers Survey Report, 45% of business buyers spent more time and resources researching purchases than they did the previous year. So, the more platforms you can launch your brand on, the more you can strengthen your buyers’ research.

B2B communities like G2Crowd or GetApp can be used to educate prospective customers and help them make better buying decisions, but how do you start?

These forums provide people with an opportunity to learn from existing customers experiences and offer space for community feedback that can be used to bring trust and authenticity into an otherwise stale procedure.

If you’re launching a new community or refreshing an existing one, taking time to prepare a plan is crucial for ensuring success. The best way to start is to determine why you are building the community to begin with. Reasons may range from you are trying to support your existing business or marketing efforts to wanting to counteract negative reviews and identify passionate fans.

Either way, there are two questions you should consider when creating an online community:

  • Why should I engage with my customers online?
  • What’s the best platform to do it with?

To walk you through the process of setting up an online community in more detail, keep reading.

Free vs. Owned Community Forums: What’s the Right Move?

Although social networks and community platforms seem interchangeable, there actually is a clear distinction.

Social media, in general, is composed of users who have nothing in common (only using the platform because their friends are on it). Communities, however, revolve around a specific issue, and it’s up to you to take the social network and engage certain users on that platform to form a community that’s focused on your industry.

With this in mind, there are two types of communities you can launch: free or owned. Here’s the difference:

Free Community Platforms

There are “free” platforms like Facebook and Twitter, which offer community-like features, but using them has its pros and cons.

One key pro is that it’s free for users and comes with a built-in audience. In other words, you can stand up an account, create content, and publish it to your followers for free, as long as you do the leg work to find out who on this platform you want to reach

The con, on the other hand, is that you don’t truly “own” your community and are therefore beholden to the decisions these companies make for how the platform serves your content to others. Right when you’ve mastered the platform your community lives on, the content algorithm changes, and you’re forced to pivot your content strategy to retain your users’ attention. It’s been known to happen.

Here’s a brief list of free platforms to consider, if you decide to launch a community in this way:

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • LinkedIn
  • YouTube
  • G2 Crowd
  • GetApp
  • Quora
  • Discourse
  • Glassdoor
  • Slack

Owned Community Platforms

Then there’s the owned platform like a community forum. This is a place that is owned by the brand and offers all the benefits of a social media platform, but with much more control and flexibility on how you communicate with your members. For example, if you launch a blog or website with a forum or comment section for your visitors, this is an owned community that you can manage yourself.

As with free communities, there are pros and cons to an owned community. We’ll start with the con this time: From an audience perspective, you’re starting from scratch. Owned communities give you more freedom over your brand’s messaging, but until your customers find out about your community, you have way more promoting to do to grow that community than you might have on a free platform.

One major pro to owned community platforms is that they give you tighter controls over your branding and messaging — without having to compete with the noise of other communities on the same platform. A toy store on Twitter, for example, might have a built-in audience to engage, but this business has to compete with all the other toy stores on Twitter that are interacting with the same people.

Community platforms also allow you to go beyond the limitations of social networks. Features such as deeper analytics, single sign on (SSO), gamification, more access to your members and custom design allow you to create a better experience for your fans. If you require a secure, private area for your fans to interact with one another, this might be your best option.

How to Build an Online Community

  1. Choose a platform for your community.
  2. Develop a launch framework.
  3. Identify key internal stakeholders for the community.
  4. Set up your community.
  5. Begin a soft launch.
  6. Promote your community.

1. Choose a platform for your community.

There are two types of forums: one revolving around shared interest and the other that is more informational in nature.

With a shared-interest forum, you’re bringing together people who happen to be interested in a common topic where they can explore and connect with each other on a larger range of topics. Collaboration between members is key here.

Informational forums are largely used when you want to create a space for the community to search for and share content related to your product, service, or designated topic in one location.

Once you’ve identified the use case and the type of engagement you’re after (i.e., customer support operations or brand loyalty), you’ll want to start looking at detailed features that would support your community goals. These can range from:

  • Deeper analytics
  • Ease of use and good user interface
  • Customer support
  • Platform flexibility
  • Integrations
  • Mobile

2. Develop a launch framework.

When determining what business problem you want to resolve with your community, consider the following.

Are you looking to:

  • Decrease costs related to customer support?
  • Increase demand of your product/service?
  • Identify and mobilize influencers and advocates?
  • Increase collaboration?

What is your use case? Will you use the information gained internally, externally,…

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