One of the Internet’s greatest strengths is its ability to bring together people with similar interests in online communities, whether it’s computer gamers discussing strategy, guitar players trading advice on the latest gear or cancer survivors sharing their experiences and supporting each other.
Online user communities can be a powerful force for businesses too. A wide range of companies, from software giant SAP to motorcycle kingpin Harley-Davidson to tax services provider H&R Block, have built vibrant online communities.
Companies with active communities focused on their products tend to enjoy higher brand credibility, corporate integrity and customer loyalty — a deeper bond than, say, creating a Facebook page and hoping to attract “likes”.
The communities that have blossomed in recent years are occasionally unaffiliated with the brands they concentrate on, but far more often than not, companies are establishing and developing the communities themselves.
The rewards of a thriving user community are so clear that many companies are putting it at the top of their marketing wish list or thinking about it. But if starting and nurturing one were easy, everyone would be successful.
I’ve learned a great deal about the process during the last seven years, as my company has transformed what had been a mailing list about our products into a bustling online community that is closing in on 30,000 members and is the world’s largest Apple device management forum.
Here are my top five tips for building a strong online community:
1. Have a critical mass of passionate customers.
The number one point of an online community is that it be a place where like-minded people engage with each other. If customers aren’t genuinely interested in your brand, starting an online community could be like throwing a party and no one came.
How do you know if you have enough brand appeal? It tends to be a feel thing. We had only a few hundred customers when we set up our community, but we were picking up vibes from the previous mailing list process that customers craved a better way to interact. So creating a community isn’t about the size of your company, its annual revenue or the number of customers; it’s about those customers’ passion for your products.
2. Give up control.
You may have built the community and manage it, but you must recognize that it really belongs to the users. As scary as freewheeling customer-to-customer communication can be, take a deep breath and understand that the quickest way to kill a community is to discourage open discussion. Never delete a post (unless it’s spam). Never sanitize negative feedback. Remember that the community can be an invaluable reality check and feedback mechanism. One of the reasons you initiated the community in the first place is because you know don’t have all the answers, right?
3. Make the community a rich experience.
Some rudimentary online communities are little more than online product support forums. That’s fine, but a truly energetic community is a venue for so much more. Ours, for example, has not only a discussion forum, but also a feature requests area for customers to provide insights into what they want to see in future products, a knowledge resource base, a job board, software and more. Activity on all is high.
4. Be prepared to invest in infrastructure.
Spearheading an online community doesn’t happen automatically — you need a team and the right software. Don’t skimp on either. We’ve grown the team that manages our community from one person to six in the last few years. And we decided to invest in customized software on which the community runs. Why? Because the community has to be buttoned up technologically — be pleasant to use, rarely if ever go down — if customers are going to want to use it. One thing we don’t have is an employee dedicated to watching the community. We’re certainly on top of what’s going on in there, since so many employees subscribe and participate. But remember, it’s not our place to interfere with customer-to-customer communication, so it wouldn’t make sense to have an official hall monitor.
5. Don’t get hung up on measurement.
We live in a time when measurement rules — everyone wants to be able to look at a dashboard and see how an activity is trending. It’s difficult to measure the ROI from an online community. If the community is going strong, you know it, and that is victory in and of itself. We have a simple metric to assess our community’s value — number of posts.
Follow these five tips and you could be watching with amazement as an online community grows around your brand.