Through the Spyglass

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If You Build It, Will They Come? How to Build and Manage Online Communities

Building Online Communities

Online communities are everywhere. From social media networks (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc.), to Q&A sites like Quora and interest-specific resources like BabyCenter.com, people are engaging with other like-minded individuals online. They’re asking questions and receiving answers. Why is this important for businesses and marketers? Because these interactions are shaping purchasing decisions of target audiences. In this article, we’ll discuss why a brand would develop their own online community and how they can maintain it.

Cons

First, let’s address reasons why you wouldn’t start your own online community.

It's Competitive 

One reason is that forum opportunities already exist. You might find a thriving LinkedIn group with thousands of people from your target audience. Your brand might choose to become actively engaged in that community rather than investing in the time and expense of creating your own, and taking on the risk of not getting the amount of members you’re hoping for.

You Might Not Hit the Numbers

Not achieving the membership numbers you’re looking for is a valid concern when building your own community. As it is, communities are hard work to build and maintain, but gaining the initial audience is perhaps the hardest part. However, if you determine that the risk is worth the potential exposure, then there are ways to address this challenge.

It's a Long-Term Investment

Lastly, many online communities are brand agnostic, meaning people in online communities aren’t looking to be advertised to continually. They want to gather to share ideas, concerns, and solve problems. The community will be stifled if your moderator replies to every comment with, “Our product/service will help with that! Click here to buy!” So, your company needs to be prepared for the long-term investment of gaining the audience and wooing them into becoming customers.

Pros

Now that we’ve addressed common concerns to building online communities, let’s talk about the pros.

You'll Own the Space

The primary pro is that if you are the sole operator of a thriving and engaged community, that’s a prime opportunity to bring in new customers and retain existing ones. It’s an environment of trust where people can learn to love your brand and the community will foster ambassadors as they bring their connections into the community as well. You are essentially creating an engine for generating warm leads.

You Can Foster Engagement and Loyalty

Your community can be a testing ground for ideas and new campaigns. You can utilize these community members to gauge what new products would be of value to your larger target audience. Engaging these active community members will not only give you better insight into what will be successful to the larger market, but will probably also get these ambassadors more excited about your brand as they’re on the cutting edge of your company, helping shape what is important to them.

Two examples include Nike+ and BabyCenter.com. Nike+ is online community where users can integrate fitness data and access coaching. They can connect with other fitness buffs and share stats with friends. Members can also “join local run clubs and participate in Nike-sponsored events.” Through this community Nike can nurture their audience of committed brand enthusiasts. By encouraging this community, members are more likely to buy Nike products in the future, as well as promote Nike to their network.

BabyCenter.com is a less overtly branded community. In fact, you might not even know it’s a part of the Johnson & Johnson family. But the data J&J gains from BabyCenter.com is more valuable than anything they can get from Facebook and Twitter. According to BabyCenter.com, the website reaches “1 in 5 new and expecting moms online globally. In the United States, 7 in 10 babies born last year were BabyCenter babies.” That’s a lot of data! And J&J can use that information across the company, thus helping them reach their target audience most effectively.

How to Build an Online Community

Utilize an Existing Platform

Let’s revisit the concept of utilizing an existing platform like Facebook or LinkedIn for your online community. While this is an affordable and expedited way to build a community, and could be right for you, keep in mind you’re building this community on rented land. Facebook and LinkedIn could change their policies at any time in a way that hampers your community. You might need to pay to keep the community open, or they will limit your exposure to the community. Or they could close it altogether. Who knows? Anything’s possible when you’re renting.

Acquire a Community

Or you could purchase an existing community as Johnson & Johnson did in the case of BabyCenter.com. Of course, J&J is a large company with resources to do something like this. But your existing community doesn’t have to be as large, and the purchase price so high. If you’re looking for a very niche audience, that community might be smaller and less established. Even if there are several hundred people active in the community, that’s several hundred active and engaged audience members that you can add to your roster with less work. And getting the first group of people is always the hardest. Additionally, some of the infrastructure already exists so you save on programming costs, and the time it takes to plan and launch is nearly eliminated.

Build Your Own Community

Now, if an existing community doesn’t already exist or the owners are not interested in selling, then you’ll need to launch your own community. This is not impossible. Just like starting a new website or a small company, you’ll need to plan certain things out. A community manager will be an important role to have in place to maintain the new entity, and your marketing and promotion of the community will be essential.

Whatever you do, remember to keep the users in mind and of utmost importance. Whether you have paid advertisements, how overtly you promote your brand and products, and what types of activity you allow (blog posts, open discussion, instant messaging, etc.), all of this will affect the overall atmosphere and will attract or detract your target audience. But obviously you need to keep your company’s ROI in mind and major decision-makers at your company will likely have input on how they’d like to see it shape out.

Sometimes it makes sense to outsource this type of activity as well. From planning to building and managing the online community, it might make more sense to utilize outside experts rather than hiring new staff or pulling resources from within your company. Wherever your company is at in the process, we’d be happy to help you think through your options.