Higher Logic Blog

Can You Build a Customer Community Without an Online Community Software Platform?

Written by Katie Oakes | July 22, 2015 at 12:30 PM

People who regularly visit online brand communities are likely to repurchase products associated with the customer community at a rate of over 2 to 1, according to research from Southern Illinois University Carbondale. In order to capitalize on this trend in customer relationship management, businesses are increasingly devoting resources to building community among their customers.

This emerging strategy opens the door for an important question:

Can companies build a customer community without an online community software platform?

There is a lot that goes into creating a community—from giving people ways to interact with each other to building a sense of community and giving people a reason to participate and keeping them engaged.

The short answer is: Yes.

It is possible to build a strong community without an online community platform. It is hard.It takes time, people, and effort, but it is possible.

As with anything, educate yourself before taking the plunge in either direction. Companies that have success in building  community online without a platform typically produce live events or use big public social networks, like Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.

However, there is a difference between people reading and responding to the content that you share online or getting people to come to an event and building a sustainable community.

A community is where people with common values, experiences, or expertise come together to share ideas. In communities, people support each other and share stories around those commonalities.

As you can see from this definition, simply creating a Facebook group doesn't mean that you are going to build community.

While it is possible to build community online without a platform designed to keep customers or member engaged, it is difficult to bring people with shared values together consistently

It is like asking if you can send an email newsletter without an email marketing platform. Yes. It is possible to create a template in Outlook or send a series of one-off emails to individual subscribers using your personal email account. However, it would be much easier and more efficient to use an email marketing platform.

Why Do Companies Try To Build Community Without An Online Community Platform?

Building community without an online community software platform may seem like the easier option. It's faster to set up and less expensive since public social networks are free to join. Plus, since so many people are already on sites like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn for non-work related socialization, they already know how to use the tools. 

Public social networks are also easier to use. LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ have limited their features by design to make it easy for the largest number of people to use them. It is part of their advertising business model.

More people using your platform = more eyeballs = more ad revenue.

Events and conferences are a great way to build community. However, producing high-quality events on a consistent basis can get expensive. It is also difficult to maintain ongoing engagement once the event is over and everyone goes back to their normal, non-conference lives.

There is plenty of information crawling the web when it comes to the topic of building a customer community on social media sites or through live events. Take time to scour all the information, pro and con, before you make the decision to go it alone. Evaluate the risks versus reward for your individual organization.

5 Big Risks of Starting a Community Without an Online Community Software Platform

Risk #1) Your Community Won't be Distinctive

Public social media networks don't give you many options for differentiating your community. You will only be able to brand within specific guidelines.

For example, if you create a Facebook event you can only personalize the header image, wording, etc. but not much else. Meaning that your community's messages and content, no matter how unique, will blend with the rest of brand and personal updates that clutter newsfeeds. You'll look just like everyone else and your community activity will be lumped in with all the other social media happenings.

Risk #2) Limited Privacy and Management Options

There are haters and trolls in every community, regardless of whether you run it on a software platform or not. Social networks will allow you to control who comes in and out of the group and of course moderate content to a small degree. Privacy policies will also be at the will of the social network you choose.

On the flip side, you care what your customers say. You want them to feel comfortable being open and honest with you and each other in your community.

Without a customized privacy plan or different management features to keep people engaged, you may not be able to offer customers a private space to collaborate with each other. 

Risk #3) Difficulty Engaging as a Brand

People like to engage with other people on public social networks, not a faceless company. While you could designate one person in your business to build relationships online and bring people together to their social networking account, building a community around one person isn't a very scalable solution.

Since public sites are designed for direct human interaction, it's more challenging to engage as a company as a whole.

Rick #4) Less Control

As time goes by, trends change. Consumer behavior online evolves. Event attendees' expectations shifts.

You want to be able to respond appropriately to keep your audience engage and continue delivering value to your community.

What people expect from in-person events changes, so your strategy may need to change to bend to the trends. This same lack of control applies to public social sites, where policies are constantly being revised.

The design of your page will be determined by the updates that the site makes. Not having control over updates can be frustrating.  

Risk #5) Renting vs. Owning

While we're on the topic of less control, anyone that is tried to build community online knows that policies of these big companies change.

When you use a public social space, you don't own it - you're essentially just renting. That means you're at the mercy of big companies for future features, uses, and even access to your community. You can't fully make it your own because, well, it isn't.

Sometimes initially build your community without an online community is a smart decision for your organization, even a necessity. However, there are many situations where leveraging an online community software platform will save you time, money, and headaches.

With those risks in mind, let's take a look at some reasons that companies implement online community software platforms. 

Why Companies Launch Online Community Software Platforms 

It Gives You A Place for Direct Engagement

Rather than your community being just one of the thousand things someone does on Twitter or Facebook each week, creating your own specific space physically shifts community members' focus to your community. Once you get them to visit your community, you don't have to compete with the outside noise of other social networks on the page.

You're Not Alone In Growing Your Community

Once members join your community, you've fought half the battle. You've proven the community's value. Your focus can be on engaging those members that are there and you will have two camps looking to grow your community - you and your members.

Creating a community takes dedication and constant attention to create original content and opportunities for engagement. Online community platforms make it easy for members to help you in that regard. They can plan local events and post them to their shared calendar, post their own blogs, and answer questions. Eventually, the user-generated activity in the community will help it attain a level of self-perpetuation.

It Gives People a Place to Focus

This is the classic walls vs groups debate. The structure of a public social network is only designed for a person-to-person relationship. It lacks the central place of focus. There is no home page where you can drive everyone and then direct them to designated areas.

Posts in social networks are basically single discussion threads that don't leave room for the variety of interests and expertise your members bring to the table. With an online community software platform, you can create multiple groups or segments that highlight relevant content and engagement opportunities where people can share ideas around specific sub-categories.

Information is Easier to Track Down

With a little bit of effort, there will be a lot of awesome information and resources consumed and discussed in your community regardless of its location. You or your members may want to refer back to at a later point without scrolling through pages upon pages of information.

The archived information in your online community makes it easier for your members to find the information they need without scrolling back several months in someone else's Twitter feed. Past discussions and documents are archived, so your knowledge base of user-generated content is constantly growing and searchable.

This is also enticing for new members that may want to see if their questions have already been answered before asking again.  

Better Branding Options

Within your own online customer community that you built and you own, your brand will be more differentiated and have a bigger ongoing impact on the relationships you're forming with your customers. Implementing an online community platform as opposed to building a customer community another way allows your brand to control the design, content, and access at a much more granular level than other options.

Online Community Software Platform Takeaway

Customer engagement that works will set you apart from others in your industry. There are several ways to build community within your customer base.

Engaging on public social networks to build relationships, expand your reach, and position your organization at the center of a topic or issue within your industry certainly has its advantages. However, if your goal is to build and then leverage your active, sustainable customer or user community, you'll probably also want to explore platforms designed for that purpose.

The key to building a customer community is that it doesn't have to be complicated - it just has to be central. It can't be something you hide off to the side of your online presence; instead, you need to make it a central part of doing business with your organization.