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I'm Interested in Starting a Customer Community, But What Does it REALLY Take?

Written by Nick Davis on November 24, 2015 at 8:18 AM

What Does It Take to Manage an Online Customer Community?

So, you are considering building an online customer community, but where do you start? What is it going to take?

You have probably seen several other businesses, maybe even competitors, launch their own online communities as a way to drive business, increase customer satisfaction, and even reduce your operating and support costs.  And starting a community may not be as hard an undertaking as you might think. Take it from founder of the Center for Customer Engagement, Bill Lee, when he said that, “more companies can build customer communities than think they can.â€

 Great news, right? Here I will outline some of what it's going to take to build a successful online community and who you can leverage in order to make sure it happens.

It should all begin with your online community strategy. It's really hard to determine what's going to go into your community if you don't have a firm idea of what you want it to do for your company and your customers.

The best way I have found to find a “center†to your community is to start with a problem. Find the core problem that you want your community to solve for your target audience, and then build your community around that. This will dictate the type of community that you'll build.

Common focuses for customer communities include:

  • Improving customer support
  • Forming user groups
  • Crowd-sourcing product development

Once you have identified what you want your customer community to do, there are two questions that will help you identify how you are going to manage your community.

What Does it Take to Manage an Online Community?

There is not one right answer to this question. It really relies heavily upon your community strategy. What it takes to manage a customer support community is going to look different from that of a customer community geared toward improving product development.

However, when it comes to keeping people active and contributing to your online community, there are common activities shared by great community managers.

Activity #1) Creating and Coordinating Content

A community without content and discussions that are relevant to your members is a community with limited value.

One of the best ways to generate engagement in your community is to have a masterful understanding of your community's members, and to create unique, original content that is specific and relevant to them.

Activity #2) Recruiting and Sourcing Community Members

The best community managers put systems in place to continuously recruit new members.

The best ways to do this for a new community are by using either direct (the community manager uses 1:1 outreach to invite new community members), organic (potential members find your community via search engine indexed content, and then are directed to your community via call-to-action), and/or social (the individuals who found your community via social media channels, and decided to register as a member as a result of their visit) channels to recruit new members.

Activity #3) Managing Community Leaders and Advocates

The way most community leaders and advocates are identified is organically. This means that having an active community that keeps its members engaged and gives people opportunities to contribute at varying levels will generate community leaders and advocates all on its own.

But once, you have identified potential leaders in your community, you'll need to recruit and nurture them. Now, this does not have to be a very intensive process. It's more or less an exchange that happens. In exchange for the community leader or customer advocate having an elevated status, they agree to head up a portion of the community or contribute a blog to the community every other week.

It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, because these community leaders help to create an engaging and active community, which in turn, creates more opportunities for people in your community to take on leadership roles.

Activity #4) Orchestrating Engagement

There are a lot of ways that community managers help people find ways to participate and feel like part of something bigger than themselves.

A community manager might orchestrate engagement by creating a thread or forum in the community. Then, that same community manager would reach out to one of the members that he/she knows is an expert on the topic to contribute.

Along with turning members into contributors, activities like these ensure that the community is getting the best information. It will builds trust among the members, and will keep community members coming back to your community to build relationships and get the best answers to their questions.

Activity #5) Event and Programs Management

Another way to drive value in online communities is through the use of conferences, events, meetings, webinars, etc.

Nobody just operates online, so in-person conferences are a great way to get that peer-to-peer interaction which is extremely valuable.

Webinars also generate value through providing ongoing high-value content that is only available to community members.

Many community platforms even offer built-in event software to make it easier for the community manager to handle these activities.

Activity #6) Platform Optimization

Lastly, one of the most important functions of a community manager is to undertake ongoing platform optimization.

The purpose of this activity is to ensure that the community increasingly runs smoothly and efficiently. As you learn more about your community members and your company goals evolve, tweaking your community management plan will enable you to turn new members into regular participants.

Platform optimization means taking the time to make improvements to the features of your online community platform that your members use the most. On the other hand, if they are completely ignoring a part of the platform it might be appropriate to either drive their attention towards that feature, or get rid of that feature all together.

Who's Going to do These Community Management Activities?

If we lived in a perfect world, you would have a dedicated community manager or community management team just waiting to take all of these responsibilities over the second your online community was launched. However, in more cases than not, this is not the case.

Now, I know that it seems like it would be nearly impossible to complete those tasks I just outlined in a thorough and consistent manner, however, it might not be as hard as you'd think.

One of the best ways to manage an online community without a dedicated community manager is to divvy up the work.

Now, it's important that you have a point person to act as your go-to for managing your community, but that doesn't mean that they can't leverage others for help.

For instance customer support, marketing, product development, company executives and even volunteer community leaders are all great support functions for the community manager to lean on.

Here are some examples to get you thinking creatively about the community management resources that are right under your nose:

  • Use customer support to help answer community members' questions.
  • Marketing can help generate content for your community.
  • Product development can take member's feedback and/or ideas and use them to improve old or invent new products.
  • Company executives might be able to write a blog piece once a month as another way of creating exclusive content.
  • As a community manager you can leverage your volunteer community leaders to moderate content and welcome new members as you scale up your community.

Community Management Takeaway

As you consider launching an online community, it is important that you know just what you are getting into. Online communities are a fair amount of work, but just as with anything that is worth doing, you get out them what you put in.

Start by understanding the common activities it requires to manage your community, then find the right person to point the project and departments to support their role.

Tips for developing a great online customer community strategy.

Topics: Online Community Management, Customer Communities, Online Community Software, Online Community

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