Have you ever noticed the verb used with online communities is always "build?" You build an online community. You build community. Rarely will people, even vendors, talk about buying an online community, because even though you purchase online community software, that is only the foundation. You still need to build your online community. The task isn't complete immediately after you purchase a platform.
The security of any building depends on its foundation. A weak, poorly chosen foundation will inhibit even the best build. Before pouring or digging any foundation, you need to know what you would like the rest of your building or home to look like. You want something that supports your goals and dreams for future building.
If you begin researching online community software without knowing what you want, you'll most likely be confused or overwhelmed by the number of options. If you're just beginning to embrace the search for improved technology you might not know what is possible and thus base your software needs on how you run your organization right now.
This view can limit your potential success as it correlates with the idea of â€œbut we've always done it this way.â€ That may not be your intention but if you start researching with little attention to your end goal, you could end up with exactly what you have now. The best way to overcome this lack of knowledge on what can be done is by starting at your goal and working backwards.
What Does Success Mean to You?
Where do you want to be? What do you want your online community to do and how will you know when you are successful? First you need to understand who you are trying to target. Do you want to:
- Engage employees
- Improve customer retention
- Better understand your market
- Position your company at the center of your industry
- Increase revenue per customer
- Monetize a professional community or peer learning environment
If you want the platform you choose to address all of these issues, then you will want to prioritize which are most important to your organization and solve for those first. You can have more than one target audience, but knowing who you want to reach will help you understand how to get there. The next part of establishing what online community success looks like to your organization is setting measurable goals for your group.
For instance, if you want your online community to be centered around customer engagement, you want to establish what you will see as successful. Maybe you are you trying to increase customer retention from 70% to 85% over the next year. By setting exact numbers you will have a goal you can measure against.
What Will You Need?
Once you've decided who you are trying to appeal to and how you will measure whether you have succeeded in your objectives, you can start thinking about ways to do that.
For instance, if your goal is engagement (whether it be employee, customer or member) you'll want plenty of interactive features and a content strategy to keep people involved in your online community.
On the other hand, if you're creating a branding site or a fan site, you'll want features that allow flash deals and other ways to get people excited about members-only opportunities, promotions, and/or savings.
Do You Need a Turn-Key Tool or Highly Customizable Platform Option?
Knowing your goals and audience and developing your feature set will help you select whether you need a custom-created online community or a turn-key online community option.
Many organizations believe their business needs are so extraordinary that a turn-key online community platform won't work for them. This is rarely the case. Many of these hosted platforms are customizable, giving you the option of using some features or all features. Feature names can be tailored, as can fields. There are a lot of customizable options in a web-based online community solution.
The main benefit of a turn-key solution, outside of the personalization, is that you are spreading the cost of a very robust platform across all of the platform vendor's clients. You are also availing yourself of the benefits of features requested by other customers who may be more advanced in the launching of their online community. The platforms are consistently in a development mode, with new features launching throughout the year.
This is rarely the case when you spend big bucks creating your own custom-built solution. While you may not be concerned about further development because you've already addressed your feature wish list, there is always future growth to account for. You will need additional features to meet your community members' needs.
A Final Word About What Success Looks Like to Your Organization
Knowing what you want and need as the end goal will help you navigate the potentially confusing options in selecting an online community platform and/or provider.
Often when shopping for technology, if you don't fully understand the capabilities and features that are out on the market, you may not take advantage of all the potential out there. However, if you start at your end goal and work backwards you can open up the conversation with the online community platform vendor, without shutting out opportunities you know nothing about.