It is no secret that creating a thriving private online community for customers or members takes time and a consistent commitment of people. The other top reason that companies and membership organizations stutter-step their way to making decisive social business decisions is the fear that no one will visit and engage in their community.
We hear this hesitation from business leaders and association executives every day. Their community members are busy and important. Regardless of whether they are executives at Fortune 500 companies, professionals, or sole proprietors, their time is at a premium.
What if your online community is not valuable enough to warrant their time?
The key is aligning your community's exclusive content, discussions, and tools with solving your target audiences most urgent and pervasive problems.
If any of you have a spare crystal ball tucked away in a closet at home, the beginning of your online community planning process is the time to dig it out.
No Crystal Ball? Try Your Next Best Option
Test your online community concept first. Before you spend the time planning, designing, and launching your private community, make sure that it solves the problems that your customers are willing to pay to have solved (with their time and participation).
However, building a test community where your customers or members can play with features demands too many resources and takes a lot of time. Also, your risk brand damage if you roll out a bad model to your community.
Validating online customer or member communities is far different than testing campaigns. Campaigns run for a period of time, people convert on the offer or ask, and then the engagement dissipates. Online communities maintain ongoing peer-to-peer and customer-to-company engagement cycles.
So, if you can't build a model online community, how do you make sure you are hitting the right notes with your target audience? How do you ensure they visit, rely on, and participate in your private online customer or member community?
Follow Amazon's Lead
Amazon.com is one of those companies that have outpaced other businesses of a similar size and age in revenue growth, brand recognition, and innovation (delivery by drones, anyone?).
One of the keys to their success is a laser-focus on providing a unique product (i.e. customer experience) that aligns with customers' problems. Are online returns a hassle? Amazon has made it painless. Hate paying for shipping and waiting a week for things that you buy, try Amazon Prime or same-day delivery.
Where do these ideas come from? Why haven't other retail businesses with deep pockets created such hits with customers?
Amazon has implemented specific processes to ensure that they invest in developing customer-focused innovations. One of these processes lends itself well to planning an online member or customer community that your target audience will love, use, and value.
Press Release Your Way to Social Engagement
As with many successful social businesses, Amazon harvests new product, operations, and marketing ideas from employees in all corners of their company. When someone on the phones in the customer service department sees an opportunity to improve the customer experience, solve a problem, for launch a new product, they must first draft a press release about it.
While these press releases are not made available to the public or media, they are written so that the ideas are forced to become customer-focused from the start. The "innovation through press release" model is used to ensure that the idea and its benefits to Amazon's target audiences are clear and can be communicated easily.
To answer more nuanced common questions that customers might have about the new concept, the press release is paired with a FAQ document.
Test Online Community Strategies Using Straw Man Press Releases
The most successful online customer communities are treated as extensions of the organization's product offerings. In the nonprofit world, private member communities are often an association's most valuable member benefit. The closer your private online community aligns with the problems of your target audience, the more valuable they will be to those audiences. If your online community presents unique value in solving your customer's problems, your community members will come to rely on and use your community in their daily lives.
Step 1) Draft a Press Release for Your Private Online Community
Before you spend a single hour designing or configuring your online community software platform, take the time to write a news release about your online customer or member community as if you are launching it. Highlight the following:
- Who is the community designed for?
- How will it help your target audience?
- What will your audience be able to do in your community?
- What problems will the community solve for your audience?
- Why should your busy customers take time to visit and participate in your online community?
Step 2) Circulate the Press Release to Your Staff and Management
Put your PowerPoint slides away. Bullet point presentations and jargon-filled strategy documents are not as conducive to communicating your online community strategy as a simple press release. This exercise forces your online community planning team to tie every decision "“ from positioning to features "“ tie back to your customers or members.
When you make your senior management team digest your strategy and then process the impact that this online community, enhancement, or new product will have on customers, you are leaving a lot of room for incorrect assumptions and misinterpretations.
Using a press release to communicate your online community strategy paints a picture of how your initiative will play in your market, as well as eliminates the gap between your strategy and the end results.
Step 3) Test Your Online Community Press Release with Your Target Audience
Once you have received feedback and buy-in from your internal stakeholders, your revised fake news release is an excellent tool to test with your customers or members. Without investing a minute in technical planning or asking your customers to join a test-version of your community, you are able to validate that you are solving the right problems for your target audience in a way that they would like them solved.
I don't recommend testing any product idea with your entire customer base or membership. It is not necessary. Here is a simple way to test your online community using your pre-planning press release:
- Select a small cross-section of your community.
- Set up a 15-minute call with each person.
- Email the draft press release before the call.
- Prepare 4-6 questions about your strategy (problems you're solving), messaging, approach, etc.
- Take detailed notes during the call.
Be sure to over-communicate the exercise and type of feedback that you are seeking.
Tip: Throw in a couple questions framed in the negative. For instance, instead of asking, "How would you feel about being able to access the advice of peers?" ask how they would feel if they didn't have the opportunity to receive support and bounce ideas off of peers. This approach gives you an idea of how likely they are to use the online community.
Private Online Community Planning Takeaway
Private member or customer communities are a big endeavor for any organization "“ from large corporations to small nonprofits. Given the planning and community management resources needed to run a successful online community, it is important to get your online community strategy (also called a concept) right. Focusing on solving the wrong problems is one of the top reasons that communities don't survive in their current iteration.
Creating a press release and FAQ document about your online community before your planning process begins is an effective and inexpensive way to flesh out your strategy, get internal buy-in, and validate your concept from your target audiences.