Last week, I attended an online community business roundtable for small and medium-sized organizations. One of the big questions coming out of the event was, "What are the free tools I can use to build an online community?" Since building community around a business and customer base is new in many B2B and membership organizations, executives often look first to free or low-cost solutions to build customer or member communities.
It is understandable that, when you are not in the social business trenches, all social networking has a similar "shiny new object" appeal. However, there are several distinct approaches to building customer and member communities, and they vary widely depending on your business model and goals.
Online Community vs. Online Community
The term online community is defined differently depending on the context and business objectives for which it is being discussed. In B2C settings, it is used to describe the loosely connected people on the social web that produce, consume, and share content on a certain subject.
On the other end of the spectrum, B2B companies and associations create highly secure and segmented online customer communities to provide exclusive value, content, and discussions to their customers and members. While online communities can be built using both public social networks and private online community platforms, these tools are very different and should play specific roles in your marketing strategy.
Decide on Goals Before Tools
Before looking at the tools (in any price range) to build an online community, marketing and customer management professionals must first decide which kind of social networking their organization needs. Which of the following types of online community is going to 1) meet your business goals, and 2) meet your target audience's goals?
- Business Blogs
- Online Communities Built on Public Social Networks (i.e. Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.)
- Public Online Communities on a Company-Owned Domain
- Gated or Private Online Communities
- Public-Private Hybrid Online Communities
The tools and technology that fit your organization largely depend on the answer to the question above. Part 2 of this article will go into detail about these different types of online communities and how they are used.