Online communities are powered by social technologies such as private labels like Mighty Network and groups within Linkedin and Facebook. Technology makes them possible but passionate people with shared interests make them successful.
Currently, there are thousands of online community sites competing for attention as well as thousands of tools people can use to express themselves online.
Building an online community around a specific brand or niche topic takes knowledge, time, and dedication.
Step 1: Define why you want to build an online community?
Are you trying to build a place that supports people’s passions while your brand stays top of mind? Do you need a community where your members help each other solve problems? Are you looking for insights and ideas from your customers?
The answer to why you are building a community will define the rest of your actions. If you are trying to build a community for marketing, PR, or advertising reasons, it will probably fail. The best reason for building an online community is to support the passions of the members.
Step 2: Researching existing online conversations
Here are 4 questions to ask yourself:
- Are people scattered throughout the web looking for a place to call home? Basically, are conversations sprinkled throughout the web?
- If the answer is yes, then is there enough passion to create a community around the topic or industry you want to build a community around?
- If strong communities already exist, how can you join them as a welcomed member?
- What groups of people will benefit from your community objectives. Are you looking for moms? dads? young professionals? geeks? entrepreneurs? financial wizards? and so on and so on.
There are a lot of strange people on the web. When building your community it is in your best interest that you have defined who you are looking for vs opening the door to anyone looking for you.
At this point, decisions need to be made about whether or not to build your own branded community, support the goals of existing communities, or both.
Step 3: See a need, fill a need
(image of Bigweld from Robots)
If you have found a point of passion that has not been served by other online communities then you have found a need that you can fill. However, you must ask yourself why someone else has not filled the need yet. Seriously, social media has been around for several years, what has been the obstacle? I promise you that you will face that obstacle as you go forward to build your community.
It may be that the members you would be serving are not active on social media sites yet, or they see social media as a way to connect with friends and family and not as a way to connect with brands or explore their other interests. It may be that the information they would need to provide to make such a community a success is not something they would be comfortable sharing.
If you have found strong communities already exist you need to find out what you can offer that the community members are not already receiving. It might be that no one has ever organized an offline event for the members to meet face to face.
The thing is you have to find what your members need that also aligns with your initial objectives (don’t get sidetracked as to why you are doing this) and then fill a need.
Step 4: Developing the right tools for the right job
This one seems basic, but it is not at all. The web has changed a lot over the past….few months. Yes, the past few months and it will change again in the next few months. Make sure you are finding tools that will be around and be relevant when you need them as well as tools that are agile enough to adapt to the latest changes on the web. Not to mention tools that will help your community connect, communicate, share, and organize.
Step 5: Designing win-win opportunities for community members
As your community is growing you will get tempted to think it is all about you. It’s not. If you start making it all about you then your community will leave. Every step you take, every decision you make, has to be a win-win. If you ask a question, perform a survey, promote a product – ask yourself what is in it for the community members and make sure you let them know what is in it for them.
Step 6: Creating content that Educates, Entertains, and Inspires
People are on the web for three reasons; to be educated, entertained or inspired. The more you can do of all three the more your community members will return to your site.
It takes a lot of work to build a community, and once it is built it is not self-sustaining. People leave communities that they are invested in all of the time. You must continue to be relevant to your members. You must go through steps 1 through 6 over and over again.
One final note. Having thousands and thousands of followers on Twitter or fans on Facebook is not a community. Depending on your objectives, you can have more success by having 100 people connecting in a group than you will have with a million followers on Twitter.
Are there any other steps to community building that I missed? What do you think is the most important step?
I have noticed the word community is being tossed around inappropriately lately. It seems many people are trying to make online community analogous to social media. Perhaps the holiday season is a good time to explain the difference.
You know how you walk down the street in your neighborhood? Hopefully, you live in a neighborhood where you see your neighbors on the front porch or in the front yard. If not, think of a show, like Sesame Street, where people run into their neighbors every time they walk out of their door. That may feel like a community, but it’s not. It is a group of people in similar proximity who have the ability to socialize. That is social media in the real world.
Social media is a set of technical tools that enable people to express themselves, “house” their personalities, and socialize with each other.
Now, raise your hand if you were invited to a holiday party, game night, or to help a friend move over the weekend. If you raised your hand then you were invited to be part of a community; People who get together to enjoy each other’s company, share ideas and help each other out. Online this is most similar to communities that have existed for years, inhabited by the members who share information, ideas, and solutions to problems.
Today there are many other wonderful online communities of people who share information about their hobbies, interests, and struggles. Within these communities, each person knows and supports each other and more often than not there is no real defined leader or sponsor within the group.
Most of the time online communities such as these are spontaneous, people who are searching for connections find each other, but it is possible for a brand to “orchestrate” such a place. To do so a brand might want to think of themselves as an HOA where they meet and listen to the community members, set the rules for the community, and find ways to connect and support each member within the community. This definitely takes time and commitment, beyond just creating content that is generated and pushed through social tools such as Facebook and Twitter.
To reiterate, social media is for people you say hi to as you pass them by, a community is for staying connected to and supporting the people you care about. So the next time someone refers to their online community ask them questions about what they know about the people they supposedly care about.