When you begin researching how to build an online community for your customers, prospects, members, or partners, one of the first things that you'll notice is that it is a complex process.
If you had that reaction, it's ok. That is actually a good response given the number of signals you have to read and the levers you have available to pull, never mind setting a strategy that meets the needs of both your organization and your target audience.
Feeling overwhelmed by the complexity of social community building means that you are asking the right questions and have stumbled upon serious social business information. Just as with any serious customer relationship management or marketing approach, building and maintaining community is complicated.
How is Building Community Engagement Like Managing a Complex Sale?
Recently, I have been asked for advice and asked to speak on customer engagement and B2B marketing. Halfway through my presentations or conversations, one thing is clear from my experience growing B2B businesses - it is complicated.
Anyone who thinks that marketing or online community building is a clear, simple process will likely run into a hard reality in the near future. There are dozens of points where you need to think things through thoroughly and bring you're "A" game.
In business-to-business marketing, this ranges from getting found to converting website visitors to leads and then nurturing leads so that they eventually become customers. A break down in any of those processes can spoil your efforts in other areas of your process.
The same is true in your private online community. Along with building awareness for your community, you have to ensure your online community provides overwhelming value to your target audience. But that is not enough. You could have the most valuable online community in your market, but if you don't have systems in place to drive busy community members back to your private social network regularly, all of the value you have built into your community will go to waste.
Become an Engagement Samurai Through Your Writing
The preceding two examples look at the high-level components of social business and marketing, but these initiatives are much more granular than that. The areas that you need to get right range from strategy and tactics all the way down to the language you use to communicate to your target audience.
That is the aspect of managing online communities where we are going to focus in this article. Your online community could be gorgeous, aligned with your audiences' problems, and use your built-in online community software tools to bring people back to the community for relevant content and discussions. However, the way that you phrase your content sets that tone of your community and plays a big part in getting members to participate.
Why is Writing for Engagement in Your Private Community Important?
As a social business professional, you may be thinking, "Why is this necessary? I've worked hard to get my online customer community up and running, why do I need to put extra thought into the way I structure my content?"
You customers or members do not see all of the hours you have put into planning the community. The see the messaging, content, and discussions in the community. To use a football analogy, it is like the audience not watch you march down the field into scoring position. They only see those plays called within the last five yards.
In your private online community, that is what members will base their engagement and sense of community on - the member-facing last five yards. It is also important to remember that participation leads to more participation in your online community. On the flip side, lack of engagement leads to less engagement until your community is in a death spiral.
What Type of Content Need to Be Written for Engagement?
As you may know, content plays a vital role in your online community. While your target audience may eventually visit your community for the social network they have built, they will initially (for an extended period) visit your community for the exclusive content.
You can apply the guidelines in this article to a variety of areas of your online community. The rule of thumb is, any information where the community can comment or respond should be written to maximize engagement. This includes:
- Blog posts in the community
- Discussions in the online forums
- Emails and newsletters sent from the community
- Announcements posted to the listserv
- Document and video descriptions in the community's file libraries
- Contests and product feature idea submission
Writing in a way that encourages conversation is one of the less talked about areas of online community management. To help you carry all of the hard work you have done on your social business strategy and online community tactics through to fruition, here are seven tips to producing content that drives participation.
Tip #1) Explain Why It Matters
Don't beat around the bush. Explain upfront why your target audience should care and what they'll get out of your message or a particular discussion. Use stark language without crossing the line into hyperbole.
Tip #2) Don't Be the Authority Unless You Have To
Nobody likes a know-it-all. As the organization that owns/sponsors the online community, you already have a large amount of authority in the content you produce (community members look to you as a leader). If you are responding to a discussion or question from a customer or member, leave room for others to provide insight as well (even if you are confident that your answer it best).
However, you don't need to muddle knowable information.
If someone posts, "When is the annual conference?" You shouldn't answer with, "The conference is August 16-20 in St. Louis. Does anyone else have suggestions for when the conference is?"
However, when someone asks for advice or for best practices, add some value but use your response to let that member know that they are heard and as well as a call to action for other community members to chime in.
Tip #3) Invite Comment
Although someone may start a discussion and there are clearly marked areas in your online community to leave comments, there is often still a psychological barrier to contributing to a conversation.
Many times, people need an extra nudge of permission to feel comfortable responding to a question or sharing their reaction to a piece of content. This occurs for a variety of reasons ranging from being new to the community and not being familiar with its culture to feel like you are too low in your company to speak with any authority.
To counter these elements of human nature, be very clear and matter of fact when inviting responses to your content. Remind people that it is ok to respond and that their questions and insight help others in the community. Sometimes seeing that permission in plain language on the screen gives community members the psychological cover they need to participate.
Tip #4) When Responding to Others, Ask for More Details
When you do get a response to content or a discussion in your online customer or member community, you'll be alerted of the activity through the settings in your online community software platform. This is your opportunity to ask a thoughtful question back.
Let's assume you sell inventory management software and published a blog post in your customer community with tips on training employees on your latest product upgrade. You then received a comment by one of your customers on how easy the upgraded system is to learn.
You can follow up that comment by thanking him or her for their comment and asking a simple follow up question that you know they can answer like, "Thanks for your feedback! Which types of employees picked up the software the fastest?" or "We're glad to hear it! What steps did you take to roll out the new software to your team?"
By drawing the out further engagement with simple open-ended questions, you provide positive reinforcement to the member who commented on the content by letting them know that their feedback is valuable and commenting is not scary. It also gives implicit permission to others to join the conversation since activity begets activity in online communities.
Tip #5) Optimize Discussion Subject Lines
As you scroll through the discussion threads in the private online communities to which you belong, look at the titles or subject lines for the most active discussions. Are they statements, questions, simple phrases or single word, etc.?
One of the ways you can tap into your members' subconscious to increase engagement is to clearly ask for discussion in the title or subject line. Try using techniques like putting "Discussion:" or "Please Respond -" at the beginning of your subject lines to help your content stand out and explicitly give people permission to see what others are saying and add their two cents.
Tip #6) Disarm From the Start
Content marketing has quickly become a prominent force in all of our online experiences. Some content is good and some content is of a lower quality. Some is helpful and other content is a veiled sales pitch. The amount of content and the variation in usefulness makes all of us skeptical of online information.
This is why it is important to write in a way that disarms your audience. This means that you must be extra careful not to seem like you are pushing an agenda. Even if you are strengthening relationships with the people in your online community to meet specific business-level goals (e.g. customer retention, revenue, etc.), go the extra mile to build trust by disarming your audience with your honest writing style.
Your online community members can smell an agenda from a mile away. People are much less likely to engage with a sales pitch than an open and honest discussion of your products or their market.
Tip #7) Serve Small, but Meaty Portions
Unless you're writing blog articles, it is important to be brief and get to the point quickly. You will get a lot more clicks in the email letting people know about a relevant discussion in your online community if you keep your email short and scanable, than you would with a lengthy discussion of the history and importance of this topic.
The same goes for discussions that you start in your community's forums. Get to the point quickly, but don't sacrifice points about how important the discussion is and how easy it is to participate.
Tip #8) Connect and Use Empathy
In presidential politics they call this the "who would you rather have a beer with?" test. People like and vote for people who they feel like they know and can relate to their lot in life.
You can use these principles in your online customer or member community. Write in simple terms. Acknowledge who you are helping and the paint a picture of their challenges. Make connections and build trust by making references to the positions that your audience may find themselves in.
Private Online Community Takeaway
In your private online customer or member community, sometimes you are adding your original content and starting your own discussions. Other times, you are curating content written by others in your industry. Regardless, the way that you introduce that content to your community can have an impact on whether community members are active participants in the conversations or just lurkers who browse, but don't contribute to the community.
While you can and should always test, measure, and adjust each step in your online community management processes, your member-facing content and communication is an area that can have the high degree of impact. It provides the first impression of your community and an ongoing indicator of the community's health to your target audience. Investing in developing a writing style that encourages engagement protects the investment you have made in the other aspects on your private online community.