To build or not build an online community?

A topic that many companies are gravitating to is the act of building and managing online communities. With tools such as Ning, Facebook, Linkedin as well as “old” online tools like email, the ability for companies to create and manage communities has become a must do for many marketing organizations. However do too many companies rush to create communities before understanding what their goals are for the community?

I have heard on many occasions the following – “We have an online community with 500 members! Success!” or we are starting a Facebook page and have “1000 fans!” Success!! I then ask the question, so what? What are you doing with this group?

Too often that is met with a somewhat blank stare or a simple – well we send them updates and press releases.Okay that is a start but a great opportunity is missed. So a couple of thoughts on good communities:

  1. What is your goal? Okay this seems obvious but too often over looked and not really given enough analysis. Is your goal to bring your existing customers a forum for discussion, do you want to elicit feedback on problems or product usage or have your community assist your product road map. Do you want your community to become a sales tool – have prospects experience a “day with” via the community? You need to be laser focused on what the goal is for your community. Do not feel as if you need to have one catch all community either. You might have a community built around certain verticals you target and cover, around a solution area, geography, or a whole host of other targeted groups. Depending on your goal will depend on who you will want to target to be part of the community.
  2. Who do you want to be in the community? Based on the above, you will need to determine who to target. Is this community open to all or is it targeting a niche audience? Do you want to engage with decision makers, influencers, thought leaders or external pundits? At times in the pursuit of numbers we forget that the quality is more important than the quantity. Clearly understanding the goal of the community will allow you to identify who should be part of that community – who you are targeting as a passive audience and who could be an active audience. Also do not feel as if the majority of the community will need to be actively participating – some might just see it as a source of information, that is fine. However you will want to target some part that can be engaged actively.
  3. What will make your community relevant? Based on the above 2 thoughts, what will make your community relevant and “sticky.” With the deluge of places we can become part of a group, many of us find ourselves part of dozens upon dozens of communities, so what makes a handful stick out? Why do I have to go to that community portal on a regular basis? For example, many professional communities I am a part of on Linkedin offer a job board, great resource! Unfortunately some get so much “spam” – aka “Join this group and learn to work from home!” – type posts it devalues the job board. Other groups I get articles from that are clearly being pushed by a vendor who is seeding the same content on as many groups/communities as it can. What value is that bringing? Before embarking on a community effort, be very clear as to what collateral and content will make it a go to place for your members. Re-purposed press releases will not cut it.
  4. Who is in charge here? This might seem obvious, but too often there is not a member of the marketing team that is responsible for the maintenance, direction, structure and on going leadership of the community. As the old saying goes – you get what you pay for. If you decide to turn over the community to someone who already has a full plate of responsibilities, guess what…community activity will not be what they need to be. If you feel like all you need to do is blindly push content to members – press releases or 3rd party articles to name some blind content – and then wonder why no one is engaging with you actively look at who is in charge. Or not in charge. Your community is just like your PR or AR or IR efforts – a full time job. If you want to maximize the results from that community you need a full time content savvy employee managing the process. This person needs to be given the responsibility to manage this entity with clear goals in mind: get 2 community members to act as sales references, secure 4 by line articles fro community members over the year or secure a 10% increase in membership of people with the X titles – to name some possible goals.

Communities are nothing new, we have had these groups in our personal lives and business lives since the dawn of time. However with new Web 2.0 technologies – Facebook, Linkedin, Ning to name a few – the ability to organize virtually, share thoughts and ideas have never been easier nor as far reaching. However with this comes the added need to ensure the content, value creation and purpose of these communities be clearly defined, constantly worked on and given the proper attention it deserves. Otherwise you will just get a nice mailing list or people that will ignore your emails just like you ignore the emails from a long lost cousin in Asia who wants to give you a percentage of their billionaire father in laws fortune!

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Filed under Marketing, Online Community

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