So, you want to create an online community.
That's great! Whether you're a company interested in providing a space for your customers to collaborate, an organization interested in uniting your members, or a niche interest group simply aiming to connect people with other likeminded individuals, your online community strategy can be a valuable part of achieving your goals.
However, planning, launching, and managing an online community can also be a lot of work and a substantial investment. That's why it's important to figure out exactly what type of online community you're creating from the very beginning of the planning process. When you take the time to determine the right topic and target audience, you can avoid a common pitfall â€” creating a community with no purpose or audience.
Choosing the right topic might seem like an obvious step, but more goes into the decision making process than meets the eye. What does choosing the right topic really mean? Why is it so important? And how can you make sure you do it well?
Though every online customer or member community follows its own unique path, they all start from a place of common interest. The formation of online communities happens when people join together around a common identifier. This can be anything such as a profession, hobby, activity, product use, or social factor.
You have a lot of leeway in determining this one specific item that unites all the members of your online community (or sub-community within the broader online community). If you are trying to position your organization at the center of your market, you might create a community based around a specific industry, like HR, IT, or health care professionals (many associations take this route). Or, you could start a community geared toward a certain hobby or interest, such as jazz musicians or mountain bikers. The possibilities are really and truly endless.
Then, of course, there are the online customer communities that center around a specific brand or product. Big companies with devoted consumers like Starbucks, VMware, and Apple are well known for their big online communities where people go and talk about the products because they feel so connected to the brand.
Regardless of the common identifier you choose to be the topic of your community, it helps if it is something that people feel passionate about. However, this interest doesn't have to be their life's work. Your online community could focus around helping community members them perform better in their jobs or advance in their industry. These are often not a labor of love, but still something that people care about deeply.
Once you zero in on your topic, you may also want to combine it with a certain geographic area to increase the niche appeal. From there, your community might grow to have different layers of sub-communities for other interests or products that fit under your main umbrella topic.
Again, choosing the right topic might seem like a no brainer, but getting this step wrong can have disastrous consequences for your community down the line. The right topic can make the difference between launching a successful, thriving online community and finally throwing in the towel on a community that just doesn't work.
The wrong topic might mean there isn't a wide enough audience to support the level of engagement your online community requires. While you want a community to speaks to a specific interest and area, you also want to make sure that the audience you're targeting is large enough to warrant the creation of this type of online social space.
Choosing the wrong topic could also mean you end up in competition with several other similar online communities and you aren't prepared to battle for your share of the audience.
If there are already several communities for your audience out there and they're doing well, it will be even more difficult to carve out your place in the market. Competing with pre-established online communities means you aren't just asking people to engage in your social network, you're asking them to choose to spend their valuable time in your community over another community where they are already comfortable.
Doing a little research in advance can help you avoid choosing a topic for your online community that sets you up for long term success. Acknowledging the engagement potential of your prospective audience is the first step in ensuring you're creating a community that will be worth your time and investment.
So, how do you know if you're choosing the right topic? While you'll have to rely on some degree of instinct and industry knowledge, there are a few questions you can ask yourself to help determine the strength of your topic.
The answer to this question can help you assess your competition and determine if your community will be filing a void. However, even if the answer is yes, that doesn't necessarily mean your online community strategy is a no-go.
If your answer to the first question is no, take a minute to wonder why. Is it simply because no one has taken the time to create and manage a community? Is it because your online community topic is either too specific or too broad?Â
This question is especially useful if your answer to the first question was "yes." For instance, there might already be an online community for avid knitters, but there might not be a community unique to people who knit and live in New York City.
Once you pass all the other questions, it's time to think logically about how the members of your online community will actually function as a community. What bonds them together? Why does that bond benefit from having an online community?
A good rule of thumb is to make sure your topic follows this simple and flexible formula:
Topic = Person who does X in Y
With this formula, X represents the common interest (whether it's an activity, hobby, profession, subculture, or product), and Y represents a geographical location, company, industry or cultural affiliation. Once you fill in the formula, you should be able to clearly define what your topic is, what makes it unique, and what makes it a community.
More often than not, a topic idea is the driving force behind the decision to launch an online customer or member community. While this is an incredibly logical place to start, don't move on from this step until you can confirm you've chosen the right topic. Take the time to consider other communities already in existence and how your new community will offer something unique to your target audience.