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Are You Really Ready for an Online Community?

Written by Molly Talbert | on December 10, 2015 at 8:00 AM

You’re thinking of getting a community. Everyone is talking about how great they’ll be for your organization, so now you’re looking into it. In the era of social media when everything is accessible online, it’s inevitable for many organizations to turn to private, cloud based communities. There are many benefits for both customers/members and organizations.

Although social media is very prevalent and widely used by most organizations, online communities are new. Understandably, figuring out if you really need one can be difficult.

Here are five key considerations to get you going:

1. First, ask “why?”

Then keep asking “why?”It may seem obvious to ask yourself why you want to start a community (and be able to answer). Don’t stop there. Say you want a community to connect your members/clients on issues. That’s a good reason. But why? Be your own devil’s advocate and keep asking why to get deeper into your reasoning. David Spinks, CMX founder, says to ask The Five Whys before starting a community. If you can answer all five of them, then you’re ready to move to the next step. If not, go back to the drawing board -- it’s important to have strong, compelling reasons.

2. Know exactly who the community is for.

Sure, the community is for your organization, but get specific. Who would the community benefit the most (and why)? Who wouldn’t benefit from it (and why)? Maybe even come up with personas for potential future members to really hone in on your audience. This piece is important and will help you create effective user design and experience.

It’s also worth considering if your community should be open or closed. If the community is for a specific group of people and confidentiality is important, then a closed community may be best. But if you’re hoping to gain new customers/members, increase your SEO to elevate your organization’s voice and klout, then there are compelling reasons to have open access for all. Alternatively, you could create a hybrid plan, where you start off with a closed community and open it up once you build momentum.

3. Test your community -- have a hypothesis!

If you answered all the “why’s” to know exactly who your community is for, creating one is now a viable option. Yet sinking lots of time and money into it right away can seem daunting, risky and, frankly, may not be realistic. You need some reassurance that it will take hold and get the ROI you need. That’s where testing comes in.

First, come up with a hypothesis (or two) for what will happen when you introduce the community. Will people quickly adopt it or will there be friction? Next, talk to the people it’s for to gauge their interests (Another reason it’s important to know your audience). How do their answers stack up to your hypothesis?

Now, for real testing: If you don’t already have a LinkedIn or Facebook group, create one, start discussions and see how engaged people are. Competitor analysis and focus groups will yield useful information as well. Again, how does your hypothesis hold up? Once you build momentum on a basic platform, you’ll see how you quickly outgrow it, which is a sign it’s time to invest in a private community. Plus, you may even be able to use that beta group to your advantage, and bring those members/customers into your new community when it goes live.

4. Think about hiring a full time community manager.

This is another daunting task when you’re starting a community -- hiring a new person is a big investment. But if you’re serious, having a dedicated manager could make or break it for you. And why would you put all the time and effort into creating a community if you’re not serious? Communities take work, especially in the beginning, and you’ve already sunk in enough time, money and effort to risk failure. Professional community managers know the ins and outs of communities, from launch to creating sustainability.

Regardless, plan on having an employee spend a good chunk of time each day monitoring, growing and developing strategy for your community. (If you’re still on the fence, Ron Swanson may help your decision). Define what success is to you -- how will you know you’re on the right track? This will help whoever’s in charge.

5. Recognize that building community is a process and will take time.

You did everything right: you asked and answered all the questions, figured out your exact audience, tested then hired a community manager and launched. Why isn’t everyone as excited as you are? Where are all the members/customers and why aren’t they flocking to your brand new site? It takes time and effort, which is one reason it is crucial to have a professional community manager -- they have tried and true methods for recruitment, engagement and retention. If you have a good person in charge, your community will grow over time -- but time is the key word. 

As the community grows, don’t just focus on the number of new users -- engaging current members is key to sustainability and creating value, which is what you want. Keep current members active, since they’re most likely to recruit new people. And as momentum builds, don’t be discouraged by silent members -- lurkers also play an important role!

What was your thought process when deciding to start a community? What are the most difficult barriers to break through?

Topics: Online Community Management, Online Community

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