Higher Logic Blog

Why Marketing Your Online Community is Critical to Its Success

Written by Katie Bapple | December 12, 2014 at 1:45 PM

When it comes down to it, a private online community is a service offering. As such, you need to get people to drink the proverbial Kool-Aid. Your target audience is just as busy as you are. Your community members are constantly being bombarded with demands on their time and attention.

How will you get them to take time to visit and participate in your online customer or member community?

This is where your online community's marketing plan comes into play. Many organizations put this part of community management on the back burner to focus on building out the value and processes inside the community.

However, a comprehensive, well-planned marketing strategy is key to driving people to your online community on an ongoing basis. Your marketing plan should be developed around your community's relevancy, value, and purpose. It should also highlight the ways that your community members can engage and how easy it is.

Before getting started, however, it's important to know that effective online community marketing tactics are not reflective of traditional marketing practices. If this is your bread and butter, come open-minded and prepare yourself for a paradigm shift.

Here are the (potentially unexpected) reasons why your marketing approach is critical to the survival, and ultimate success, of your private online community.

Reason #1) Marketing Is the Only Way People Will Know What's Going On

In offline communities, people know what is happening to those around them via the newspaper, word of mouth, phone calls or group gatherings. In online communities, these communications don't happen in quite the same way, but the basis is the same – people want to be "in the know" and they want to hear it straight from the source.

Marketing that supports the dissemination of community conversation and other activity is necessary to let people know what's going on and drive them back to the community to check it out.

What are some effective ways to do this?

  • A digital newsletter of user-generated content
  • Forum email listservs
  • On-page calls to action
  • Special interest bulletins, such as community news or topically targeted collections of popular user-generated content
  • Direct outreach to topical experts
  • Promotion of offline events

Once community members are brought into the conversation, they will be more likely to develop an interest in the community and, ultimately, engage.

One important note to keep in mind here; while a person might have opted to be part of your community, you will still want to be careful not to overwhelm them with marketing messages and content. No one likes to feel spammed. This is especially true if your community has more than one primary interest.

Over time, learn about your individual users and make sure to send them information that's relevant to those interests.

The same goes for calls to action and special interest bulletins. The items you choose to promote should always help your users find the information they want, not be in the way of it.

Reason #2) Marketing Illustrates Community Value and Makes Participation Easy

Community members don't have time to figure out new processes or dig through content. Additionally, online communities can be confusing to some members, especially if they aren't the most technologically savvy, or accustomed to the concept. In order for members to discover engagement opportunities deemed personally beneficial, they need to be shown.

Direct, one-to-one engagement that suggests a single and easy action the member can take generally works best. I've found that positioning the activity as an opportunity to showcase their expertise or collaborate and connect with like-minded peers is also very effective.Â

To scale efforts across a larger audience, topically targeted promotions aligned with relevant audience segments works well.

These types of marketing activities don't necessarily have to showcase content, either. Highlighting the value propositions of joining a specific forum is also a popular option.

Include a one-click subscribe link as the main call to action; a discussion forum or listserv subscription makes participation easy and established a new, hands-off marketing channel for your community's content.

Reason #3) Marketing Provides Community Recognition and Illustrates Vibrancy

When done right, online community marketing illustrates a continuous pattern of members engaging with one another, sharing knowledge and collaborating around common interests. The use of member names and images showcases those who are continuously adding value to the community via content creation, and can provide recognition to those who have made notable achievements.

Why is this an important part of a community marketing strategy? Creating and strengthening an ongoing sense of community will keep members invested and increase retention rates over time. The formation of human bonds, a sense of inclusion, and a path to recognition are powerful drivers of community loyalty.

How Marketing Your Online Community the Right Way Impacts Success

Once you have a strategic marketing plan in place that is built around your members, online community marketing can drive visits, create a stronger sense of community, increase member retention and grow engagement.

Start by finding a voice, creating a pattern of consistency and measuring results to refine tactics along the way. Over time, you'll see a direct correlation between the effort you put in and results you get out.

Happy community building!