Delegate, Focus, and GROW Your Business

Building Online Communities

What would you give to have the rapt attention of your audience? To have the ability to engage them in a place they feel appreciated and close to you? To possess a feedback mechanism to ensure you are developing goods and services your audience will consume repeatedly? What is the value of a loyal fan-base that comes to you as a respected expert in your niche? A solid online community can offer all of these to an organization or company if community development is based on the needs of the audience versus the needs of the business.

A good online community is highly focused and niche-specific. It is a specialized place members feel they are in a supportive environment. Online communities should have a positive, upbeat appeal and be diverse in friendly members. It should be a place of learning and where relationships and connections with real people can be made. It is about making the audience member feel like they have you and other community members to relate to on a one-on-one basis.

An organization must not set out to build an online community in order to solely self-promote. The community will never become successful and your audience will tune you out. Most important thing to remember about online communities: it is not about YOU! Adhere to these principles and your organization could quite possibly operate effective organic metrics of products and services that could speak volumes over focus groups and marketing expertise.

The Fail-proof Formula: Can You Stick to it?

Take a specific audience, add a clear benefit to an existing desire, subtract the business needs and you walk away with a great community. Yes, specifically subtract the needs of the business. For the community to become an enriching and diverse place where even your audience member create fascinating content for you, the needs of the business must not be the foremost message. The audience will look to you and your moderators as leaders and experts in your niche. They will heed your recommendations and bring you new ideas. Consider the forum a place to talk to your customers firsthand, find out what it is they want from you and give it to them. A sure-fire way to drive sales of products and services is to know firsthand what to deliver and into whose hands.

Types of Community Set-ups

Forums/Bulletin boards (phpBB, vBulletin, Bbpress)

Forums and Bulletin Boards are popular set-ups for online communities. They are real time, provide a searchable recorded history of action, user-friendly formats and are generally monetizable (more on monetizing below). See attached table for pricing options and links.

Word Press-based Forums (BuddyPress, WPMS (Word Press Multi Site))

Word Press based communities are normally set up using plug-ins on a Word Press site. These types of communities are also real time, monetizable and quite familiar to users, thus making them feel comfortable. These communities are typically set up similar to social networking with share and feed potential and facilitate broadcast easily.

“Traditional” Social Media Communities (Facebook, Twitter, #chats)

These are all free to host, exponential in reach and some of the most popular platforms for online communities. Social Media is free, but the time it takes to keep the high-activity content streaming is not. There is a definite time investment required to make your social media forums active. Scheduling programs make life easier and content that stays on topic and fresh can be prepared and scheduled far in advance.

Be sure to promote your organization via a business fan page versus trying to promote your business on your personal profile. Facebook has strict rules regarding usage of personal profiles to promote business. Make sure your platform is on your fan page and you only use your profile to drive people to your fan page, versus directly to your business. If Facebook feels the need to shut you down you will lose all of your friends and the fan page as well, so the risk is not worth it. There is zero customer service available to Facebook users, so if your account is shut down, there will be no one to contact to get it rectified.

To Monetize or Not?

A word should be said to the question of monetizing a community. Does one charge individual members to join or offer free membership and make the community more ad-driven? That choice depends on your niche and what products you are affiliated with. Should you have a robust affiliate and joint venture program a free banner-driven forum may be the choice for you.

However, something should be said about paid membership communities. Charging a fee keeps out spammers and trolls from your online community as well as lends a feeling of exclusivity and even extends to a feeling of community ownership. It could be as little as a dollar a month or ten dollars a year. Charging will pay hosting fees and keep your community private and exclusive.

Challenges to Community Forums

Online communities do not run themselves. In order to keep them active and engaging, fresh discussion and value should be added regularly. Now you must ask yourself if you have the time to moderate a community such as this or do you hire someone to keep the community going? You can always recognize leaders within your community and approach them to volunteer moderate, but again these relationships take time and trust to develop. If you must hire someone, then find someone who shares your passion and your voice. The technical is always doable, there is always help for that, but finding someone who represents you is not as easy. Be sure to look for someone with proven project management and customer service skills.

 

Posted on July 7th, 2011 by Team CVA

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