What is an online community?
An online community is a group of people who gather in a shared space, with a shared interest or mission...
and the mission is the important part, even if it’s just “geek out about the Backstreet Boys.”
Your community might have a different reason for existing, including one of these:
- Increase traffic/page views on your website
- Gain brand recognition or awareness
- Offer customer support
- Collaborate on a charitable project or mission
- Promote a new product or service
- Build a knowledge base around an industry or professional practice
- Get ideas and feedback from customers
- Streamline internal communications
- Share information with partners
A well-run community is also a business competitive advantage, according to Harvard Business Review.
There are lots of options available for groups to gather online, including everything from Facebook Groups to Slack Channels, and community tools that fit into your website, like Crowdstack.
Remember that in social network based groups, your conversation is not only subject to the algorithm’s steely gaze, it is also competing with Aunt Sally’s cat surgery updates.
You can choose to host your community “party” at a friend’s house (on a social network)...
...or you can invite everyone over to your place (community tools), where you can put out your amazing avocado dip and control the playlist.
We think the best approach is hosting the party at your home (website) and then getting your friends to put up flyers all over town (social networks).
It’s the best of both worlds, and you can use social media as a way to promote the highlights from your owned community, attracting more members (er, party guests).
Pro Tip: Building your community on a social network is like sharecropping. The landlord can toss you out any time they choose, and they are reaping the benefits of your hard work (they’re harvesting your members’ data and selling ads, dude).
In case it wasn’t clear, a Twitter account is not a “community.” It’s an audience.
The key ingredient for a community is interaction among the community members. If it’s just you broadcasting information, you do not have a community.
Online community is important because it’s built from human interaction and relationships. And no matter what your organization does, it involves humans (unless you run an AI managed robot factory, then you’re on your own).
Your Side Hustle Consultancy website is super boring, if it’s just a series of photos and text.
Imagine if you add an interactive community, enabling your best students to talk to each other and answer questions from prospective students who might be interested in what you have to offer.
Suddenly your “online brochure” has a pulse! There’s action and conversation, and you’re building up a really useful stack of content.
Online communities are outstanding at connecting people to collaborate on ideas and projects when they can’t be together in person (oh, hello 2020).
The COVID-19 pandemic added accelerant to the already growing interest in virtual events and gatherings. There were immediate solutions to replace live events with video-based webinars and conferences, and platforms like Zoom and Google Meet were thrust into the spotlight.
But what happens when the Zoom window closes? How do you refer back to the great conversation you were having, continue the ideas, and stay connected until the next event?
Virtual communities provide a place for live event recordings, transcripts, comments, and ongoing discussion.
Did you grab a screenshot of the moment the dog leapt into the speaker’s lap? Cool cool cool, share it in the community so we can all have a laugh.
Another reason to care about online community is its amazing ability to magnify the efforts of individual volunteers and staff.
- Cross-pollinate ideas from around the world
- Answer a question once, and ten people can benefit from the help
- Create a measurable way to see the impact of nonprofit efforts
- Inspire and retain donors with photos, video, and commentary on successes
One final note for businesses wondering about the value of online community:
“We find a significant increase in customer expenditures attributable to customers joining the firm's community.”
-- Social Dollars: The Economic Impact of Customer Participation in a Firm-Sponsored Online Customer Community
[ source ]
You’re convinced. You have a burning desire to launch your own online community, stat.
Ask yourself a few key questions to get started:
- What’s it about? What is the key value of the community? (e.g., increase revenue for my series of workshops, build a self-service support resource for my customers)
- Who’s in charge? Community isn’t a “set it and forget it” type of deal. Like any good party, your online community needs a host. Preferably someone with lots of people skills, knowledge of your platform(s), and very thick skin. Someone is going to need to be the point person, present in the community and guiding it to success.
- Where are my seedlings? You can call on your existing relationships to seed your new community. Do you know how to reach them? Are there subject area experts you can invite?
- What’s the content about? Especially in early days, the community needs to be a font of useful content (pictures, videos, articles, Q&A, you choose).
- Decide up-front where that information is coming from, and at what pace.
- How will I know when it’s working? From day one, you should know what you’re trying to achieve, so you can measure it, experiment, tweak things, ask your members, and move forward.
Whether you’re one person with an idea for a community, or an established business looking to expand your marketing capabilities, you need a plan.
Adjust this outline to suit you, but if you at least think about each of these key points before you launch, you’ll be ahead of the crowd.
- Brief Community Concept Statement
This is your “elevator pitch” for the community. In other words, what’s your response when the C-suite says “why do we need to do this?” If you plan to share this business plan with others in order to get buy-in or budget, include a clear statement of what you need (resources, funding, staffing).
- Market Analysis
Show how much work you’ve done to find out about the landscape for your community.
- Are there competing community sites?
- Are they monetized (and how)?
- Who is your target community member?
- How many people fit your profile, and how active are they in communities and other social networks?
- Demographic information. Great sources of all types of community data include: Feverbee, The Community Roundtable, CMX, and Leader Networks.
- Online Community Description
This should be a brief description of how the community will work, and how it fits into your larger business operation. What components of your community plan will make it successful?
- Organization and Management (aka “Who’s in Charge?”)
Describe who will be managing and moderating the community. Do you need internal staffing? Will you incorporate volunteers? What are the skills and experience of your designated community team? How will the community management team interact with the larger organizational structure of the business?
Summarize how you plan to bring in community members, beginning with the early founding members and proceeding through to the maturity phase. Put in place an ongoing mechanism for attracting and retaining members. How will you promote the community?
- Financial Considerations
Do you plan to monetize the community directly? If so, what are the proposed revenue streams and how much do you forecast you will earn for each?
- What are the benefits from the community for the larger organization?
- What is your unique selling proposition for this community?
- Why would your target audience join your community rather than a competing one?
- How much budget, dough, cash, elbow grease do you need to get the community up and running?
- How much do you need to maintain it into the future? Are there recurring costs?
- If you’re part of a larger organization, think about the time investment from any departments that may need to be involved (do you need graphics from the marketing department? help with single sign-on from the IT department?).
Unlike a business plan for a startup, you probably can’t include true financial statements for your community, but if you have access to any key financial metrics, you can include them here.
Perhaps your community is geared toward support, and you have determined that the community has prevented a certain specific number of phone calls (a cost savings). If you have directly monetized the community (with ads, premium memberships, or premium content), you could include those numbers in this section.
This type of formal plan may seem like overkill, but even if you run through the structure and ask yourself some of these questions, it will benefit your community in the long run.
Every few years, community becomes a buzzword.
It goes by other names, including virtual community, online social group, forum community, etc., but in the end it’s all about humans connecting with a purpose on the Internet.
And now that you’ve aced this lesson, you’ll know a real community when you see one.