Discover how to build an online community.
We’ve moved into an era of online brand communities. Businesses can invite you to join their club which many people do, to stay ahead with the latest news, gain offers and follow their favourite brand.
Why build an online community?
The main reason is to be connected to customers. Many organisations can, for the first time, gather research, opinions and ideas from their customers. Plus there’s the whole concept of social proof.
To build a successful community, there are 4 steps, as shown here:
Step 1 – What’s Your Goal for the Community?
The type of community that best suits your needs will depend partly on what your goals for the community are. For instance, if you want to establish a reputation as an industry expert and build a follower base, then a website and blog provides the ideal platform, as this will allow you to publish a wide range of content.
Facebook is a great choice if you’re looking to improve brand visibility and recognition, while a forum is suitable for providing customer service and getting customer feedback. Both are also excellent for leveraging the power of social proof as a tool for encouraging people to become customers or make repeat purchases.
Step 2 – Choose the Right Community Platform
One of the first steps in developing an online community is choosing the platform upon which the community will be based. There are many ways to do this; some of the most popular include:
- A Facebook page and/or group.
- A website and blog.
- An online forum.
- A mixture of one or more of the above.
The question is, whether it’s more prudent in the long run to build your community on a pre-existing platform such as Facebook, or to develop your own blog or forum. There are sound reasons for both options, and choosing one is just a question of which will best suit the type of community you want to build.
For instance, Facebook is an extremely popular community-building platform, for two primary reasons: it’s free, and it has over 2 billion active users as of 2017. The audience is already there and using the platform, which makes it much easier to build a community. The main downside of Facebook is that whatever data you generate on Facebook doesn’t belong to you—it belongs to Facebook. This isn’t necessarily a problem, but if database ownership is important to you, then it may be better to choose another platform as your main community-building site.
On the other hand, developing your own website and blog, or creating an online forum, can involve a significant amount of work, but every scrap of data you generate belongs to you. Another major advantage is that you have a much greater degree of freedom in customising your community and the user experience of the community members.
There is, of course, the option to use both a social media platform such as Facebook, in addition to creating your own community. This can be a great advantage, as you can then use Facebook to drive traffic to your off-site blog or forum community.
Step 3 – Provide Valuable Content
In order to successfully develop an online community with an engaged and active membership base, it’s important to provide content that adds value to the user experience. This is the primary objective of a blog, where the focus is on providing regular posts that offer information of value and interest to the target audience.
When it comes to online forums, however, the value is typically centred on the forum experience rather than added content. This means that in order to create a successful forum-based community, it’s important to make sure that the forum experience is a positive one for all users. This tends to work when there’s useful content. I’ve written about developing a content strategy here.
Note that the community itself can be a goldmine of information in terms of generating content ideas. When you’re stuck for content ideas, it can be highly useful to look at what topics community members are talking about, and create content that speaks to those topics in some way.
Step 4 – Focus on Two-Way Conversation
Community-building is best done by considering yourself—or whomever acts as community manager—as a member of the community.
This means fostering two-way conversations between yourself and other users, rather than stepping back and acting as an observer only. Your audience wants to feel heard, and when a brand takes the trouble to interact with its customers on a personal level, it’s noticed and appreciated. People prefer to make purchases from brands that take the trouble to humanise themselves as much as possible, and personal interaction within a branded community is a simple and effective way to achieve this.
Successful community case example – Fancom
One of the most popular online communities launched in 2017—Fancom—demonstrates all of the above principles, and how they combine to produce a community that works.
Fancom is a US-based community created for National Football League fans and former players.
The site was founded by two former NFL players, Simeon Rice and Bryant McFadden, who wanted to create a community where both players and fans could contribute and talk about the game they love. It provides a unique opportunity for fans to have real dialogue with former NFL players. Fans have been waiting for such an opportunity for years—and now that it’s here, the community has quickly become an active and thriving one. Fancom’s mission includes a commitment to providing both valuable content, and an actively moderated community where negative commentary from bullies and trolls is discouraged and prevented. As such, just a few months after launch, the site has become popular with people who are dedicated to the NFL and its players.