You've come up with the idea for your branded community. You've gotten the approval and the budget and brought a community manager on board. All the signs are go and it's time to send out a press release and launch your community, right? The short answer is: maybe.
The key to truly crushing final 90 days of your online community planning process hinges on making sure you're setting it up for success in the days and weeks leading up to that big launch.
In fact, let's really break it down and look at those 90 days before you start an online community. You can break this into three main phases.
30 to 90 Days Before - Research, competition analysis, and finding early members.
7 to 21 Days Before - Soft Launch with primed members and invite only access
Launch Day - Opening to the general public.
Before you get a start on your private online community, make sure you have a clear idea of the purpose your community will serve (for both your company and your community members), who the key people you want on board in the early days are, and what they want to be talking about.
In this research phase, ask yourself some tough questions about the community you want to build.
These questions include:
Once you answer these questions, start reaching out to the people who are already leaders in the industry or vertical you're building your community to attract.
If you're still keeping the idea of the community under wraps, ask for informational interviews - what do they like out of the communities they're a part of, what don't they like, what's missing, etc?
If you can talk about the community, bring these people into the process. Give them sneak peeks and ask their thoughts and feedback. Don't forget about those up and comers - get their input, too. In many cases, they'll be more accessible and quick to reply than the more inundated big names in the industry.
If you're building a community that's focused on a problem your product solves, look to your customer base, as well.
Reach out to these power-customers and make them an active part of your community's development.
Use these informational interviews with the groups you've found to build a database of questions and post topics along with who you can reach out to to get the conversation started and who you can count on for replies.
Being able to say to someone, "Jane started a conversation about Topic X and I remembered that when we talked you had some really great ideas around that. Would you mind sharing those thoughts in the community?" not only boosts the engagement in your community, it boosts your reputation with your community. People like to be remembered and it's great to feel that people remember important details about what we say.
Think about the size of your starting sample size for this soft launch. Pace things out and don't try to get new conversations happening every 10 minutes if you only have 20 members on board. Also, make sure to spread out the love to all of your early adopting members - don't keep calling on the same 2 or 3 people for all the discussions.
Now that you have these early adopters invested and participating, start encouraging them to spread the word. Ask them the invite people that they feel would benefit from the community or have a great response to provide to a question.
While many community professionals have mixed feelings on financial incentives for inviting other members, if you're going to explore that option, now is the perfect time to do so. Why now? You've got a highly engaged, high-quality member base of people who already have their own followers who trust their opinion. This is the group that you're going to get the best quality of peer invites from, so take advantage of it smartly.
What incentive should you choose? It depends on your audience. Figure out what the Love Language (so to speak) of your members is. Do they crave recognition and validation? Leaderboards and super-inviter badges are what you want to build. Do they like stuff? Swag it is. Money? Offer short-term discounts (Dropbox's referral program is a great one to look to).
Use this time to start developing your community's guidelines with advice from this first batch of members. What kind of behavior do they expect, what's unacceptable, how should disputes be resolved, etc.
In a recent conversation, Vanessa DiMauro, CEO of Leader Networks shared a tactic that she sometimes employs to boost the volume of conversations and it makes for a great way to plan out some seeds for your community.
Using this group of leaders and up and comers you've engaged already, take some of the common threads from your conversations and find one problem or issue to tackle, with the idea of having a result that all the participants can share at the end of it.
Reach out via email with a question or two around the problem or issue and ask the people to send their feedback back to you. When you have a good amount of responses (Vanessa recommends 80%), or when you're ready to launch the community send their response back to them along with the link and instructions to come back and post their comment or post in a given time frame on a particular date.
This little bit of pre-priming creates an instant party atmosphere when you need it in your community - suddenly, people are talking, and that activity will spur on other activity from people outside the initial circle.
Woohoo! Congratulations! You've done your research and found a great group of people to start up your community. They've been talking to each other and inviting other new community members and the engagement volume is going up and up everyday. Now is the perfect time to do that press release, send a slew of tweets, shoot an email out to your customers, set up a launch party and all that other fun stuff. You've gotten a party started online and it's time to open the doors up to everyone.
What's your role now? You're the host. Make sure that all the new members are welcomed and feel comfortable. Point them toward an introductions thread or forum, or connect them with one of those early adopters who can help guide them around.
This is also the time when moderating smartly and considerately makes the biggest impact. If you haven't already, start building out your community guidelines. If someone posts something in the wrong place, move it for them and gently let them know what to do next time. This is a learning experience for all involved, so guide people with a gentle hand and empower your early members to help you in this guidance - leading by example.
The hard work of launching an online community all happens in the days and months leading up to itself. If you do your research, have a clear vision of what your community is and who it is for, and involve those people early on, you'll be well on your way to success.