How To Build An Online Community

The need for connection and community is primal, as fundamental as the need for air, water, and food.

—Dean Ornish

Community is essential for the individual. It helps them grow and learn and succeed. And just as every individual needs a community to flourish in, every organization needs a community of individuals to support its growth. A professional association must have highly engaged followers that make up their audience. For an association, understanding this concept is one thing, implementing it and creating an authentic and organic community is something else and it is something else that can be really difficult. But not to worry, the following tips will provide you with all of the information you need in order to start building your organization’s relationship-driven community.

Step #1: Choosing Your Platform

There are two aspects to choosing the platform that is right for your organization. The first aspect is deciding whether you want your community to exist on an owned community forum–an online platform that is paid for and owned by the brand–or you want it to exist on a free platform, think Google+ and Facebook. A free platform is great because it is free. The downside is that you unfortunately do not own the database and you have very little control over the design, how user data is used, and the rules that must be abided by.

The second aspect of choosing the right platform is deciding on an informational community or a shared interest community. A shared interest community is all about collaborating and connecting on multiple topics. Informational communities, on the other hand, are all about collaborating and connecting on content that relates to your organization.

Step #2: Developing Your Features, Goals, And Community Managers

Now it is time to move on to figuring out what features will best compliment your community’s goal. Think about:

  1. What analytics do you need to gather in order to enhance your community over time?
  2. How important is creating a mobile version?
  3. How can you make the community forum easier and more enjoyable to use?
  4. What services and additional features would be useful to integrate?
  5. How will you provide customer support for the community?
  6. How flexible should the platform be? And in what way?

But to get the answers to these questions, you first need to figure out your goals. Why are you developing this community? And a goal of ‘helping to build your association’ is not a precise enough goal. In what way do you want to build your association? Is the community about customer satisfaction? Identifying organizational ambassadors? Reducing strain on customer service? Marketing your service? Once you decide on your main goal, you can design your features to highlight this.

Finally, you need to decide who, within your association, will head up and manage the community, as well as who else will be involved and what their role and responsibilities will be. In some cases, it is wise for associations to dedicate one individual to overseeing the entire online community.

Step #3: Getting Setup

Once you have made some of the fundamental decisions, it is time for a little bit of training. The individuals involved in launching and managing the community need to choose the software that they will be using within the community and they need to comprehensively understand how to powerfully utilize that software.

Next come a few more decisions:

  • You need to set a date for the launch and decide how private you want to keep the community while it is being built. Do you want input from community members? How early do you want to announce and market the platform?
  • You should think about the front page of your platform. How will you draw users in? What will you highlight? Expand this to the other pages and subpages. What will the categories be? Should gamification be implemented in some way? This is where your decisions on platform features should be integrated.
  • You can also decide on how community members can sign up and sign in. Will membership be free? What will the benefits of membership be?
  • You will need to think about other logistics. Look into spam controls and assigning the permissions for the staff that will be involved in running and managing the community. How will emails be connected to the community? How are you going to test the community? What are your KPIs?

Step #4: Promoting Your Community

Now for the hard part: You need to actually build your community. Everything that happened previously is necessary, but it is all straightforward. This step is the most challenging. The best place to start, though, is with the community that you already have. This includes the followers that you have on all of your social media accounts, anyone who has signed up for your mailing list, and anyone who has bought a product. You can reach out to all of these people personally, through email communications.

Next, you need to cast your net wider. You need to design a marketing campaign that can be splashed across your website and social media. If you have audio or video content, produce segments specifically about the new community, but also include mention of the new community in the other segments you release. Keep the messaging simple and engaging.

Here are a few more tips for bringing in more audience members to your community:

  1. Identify influencers who are willing to partner with your organization and point their followers to you.
  2. Produce and publish content that provides value. You can use a blog, vlog, or podcast for this. You can also post engaging pictures and videos on your social media.
  3. Employ gamification in a way that encourages current community members to invite their contacts.
  4. Plan in-person meetups for your community. This could be micro-meetups in multiple locations where a handful of community members live or this could be a big event where community members from across the country are invited.
  5. Find ways to encourage participation, creativity, competition, and conversation.
  6. Do not try and invent the wheel. There are plenty of other brands that have successfully built online communities. Research what they did and how they did it. Then, adjust it to work for your community.

When your community is up and running, congratulations. However, the work is not over. Now it is time to analyze your data and improve. And then improve some more. In short, building a community is a never-ending process. An organization can always make itself better at serving its members. As long as you keep members involved in this process, though, you will see success.

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