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how to build an online community

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Building an online community can increase brand loyalty, strengthen relationships with customers, and transform customers into brand advocates. Online communities promote the brand’s human face rather than a corporate logo and boost lead generation. They can also provide in-depth data and insights into the brand’s customers.

Customers also benefit from belonging to the community. By interacting with each other, they build relationships, answer questions, and find solutions to their problems.

What is a Community?

An audience is different from a community, explains Stephanie Baiocchi, director of community and events at IMPACT. An audience passively consumes your content in exclusively one-way communications. An audience evolves into a community only when it comments on your content, shares it, engages in discussions about it – and continues to do so over time.

The first step to creating a group is to choose a platform. LinkedIn and Facebook are probably the most popular options. Facebook has been introducing new features, such as Watch Parties that allow group members to engage with videos in real time, Baiocchi notes. LinkedIn Groups, while an obvious choice for B2B firms, have seen engagement decline recently. Platforms typically limit the number of groups you can join and manage.

Other possible platforms include YouTube, Slack and Glassdoor

Owned Community Platforms

Although social media platforms host groups for free, they can change their rules at any time, leaving marketers to scramble to retain their community, points out Alok Chowdhury, content marketing manager at VanillaForums.com, a community platform company. You don’t really “own” the group; the social media network does.

Owned community groups, hosted on your website, give you more control and flexibility to promote your brand messages. While you must work hard to promote the group, you don’t have to compete for members directly against similar groups on a social media network.

Steps to Creating a Community

Launching a group and developing a robust community requires substantial planning and preparation. Major steps include:

Learn about communities and how they work. Participate in some established online communities of companies or products. Search for communities that are in similar product categories to learn what works and what doesn’t. To find existing communities search Google for “online community for [insert your term]” such as “graphic design,” or “seniors,” or “software.”

Decide why you’re forming the group and what value you will deliver to members of the community. Set expectations of benefits to the company or brand.

Create a concise and clear description of the group’s purpose and develop its rules. Choose appropriate community management software. Although tools won’t build a community, there are plenty of useful options to bring your community together, according to Product Hunt and Capterra. Carefully configure spam and privacy controls.

Define roles for your staff, such as administrators, moderators and community managers, and assign permissions for roles.

Decide what features to include, such as any plug-ins and add-ons.

Launch the community with interactive elements that will attract, engage, and retain your target audience. Promote your launch on your website, through email communications, and on social media. Invite your contacts and social media followers to join. Also encourage members to invite others. If you have relationships with influencers in the space, encourage them to join and promote the community.

Start small and focus on a specific audience. The more defined the community, the easier it is to build for their needs and expectations.

Consistent posting, combined with tactful moderating, is the main key to long-term success. Posts must solicit engagement and comments. “Think about the traditional media consistency model. TV, radio, print. There are seasons and schedules. We new media types play by our own rules, but consistency never goes out of style,” says David Garland, founder and CEO of The Rise to the Top.

The Toughest Job in Communications

That consistent posting and ongoing moderating requires substantial staff time. Managing online communities is the toughest job in the communications field, asserts Arik Hanson of Hanson Communications. Community managers face long hours and difficult decisions about moderating sometimes testy discussions, but they’re typically junior staffers with smaller salaries. While the jobs are highly visible, they’re underrated and underappreciated.

Their jobs have become more challenging this year due to the Covid-19 pandemic, social unrest and divisive politics. “They are on the virtual front lines. And, in many ways, the virtual front lines are far, far worse than the actual front lines,” Hanson says.

Being on the front lines, however, means they’re the first to hear reactions to company actions and the first to learn of new product ideas from customers, he adds.

Bottom Line: Building an online community can drive brand loyalty, but developing and maintaining a healthy community calls for extensive preparation and promotion and unending dedication.

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