If you are a brand marketer, your organization likely already has a social media mandate in place. And if not, the chances are high that you've looked at how it can be incorporated into your overall online marketing program. Why? Web 2.0 technology has opened the doors for brands, both small and large, to easily add powerful, interactive, community applications to their websites.
From social networking and user-generated content to video-sharing and widgets, social media has emerged as a very effective way to grow and increase audience engagement. However, while it's easier than ever to create and deploy social media, the old cliché, "If you build it, they will come," does not apply.
While the technical and cost barriers to entry are being significantly reduced, there are several other factors for online publishers and brands to think about. These include marketing and promotion, programming, and community leadership, to name a few. Planning and forethought can significantly increase your chances for success. Here are nine steps to consider as you embark on your online community journey:
1) Start by defining your community's purpose and audience.
Matt Haughey, founder of the legendary online community MetaFilter, said: "There are lots of possible reasons to start a community, but generally it's good to focus on a specific topic. Having a specific topic means you'll have an easier time explaining your site's purpose, and quickly finding like-minded people to contribute their thoughts and content…."
If you already have a website and an audience, you probably have a good head start. But if you don't, pick a topic and get to know the people for whom you'll be building the community. If it's for chefs, spend some time where chefs hang out, both online and offline. Talk to people and cultivate relationships. The better you understand what drives your audience, the more likely you'll build a community they find valuable.
2) Managing your community can be a full time job.
Every party needs a host. Your community manager should be your most active, highest profile member, accountable to everyone and responsible for setting the tone for the community experience. He or she needs to be patient, well spoken and inspiring. The goal isn't for this person to control the community but to curate it; and the work done up front will pay off later in spades. For many large communities this can be a full time job, but as your community flourishes, other hosts will emerge from your member base to absorb part of the load.
3) Choose the technology that's right for you.
New technologies have put robust community-building functionality within everyone's reach. When considering a vendor, ask yourself the following questions:
- What social media features map to my specific objectives?
- How will my goals evolve over time? Is this a solution that will scale with me?
- What tech expertise/resources will it require to launch and maintain?
- How long will it take to implement?
- What are the solution's community management and reporting capabilities?
- How much will it cost?
Here's a good place to start researching social media technology vendors: TechCrunch's "Nine Ways to Build Your Own Social Network."
4) Seed your community with great content.
Prior to launch (and for as long as it takes to gain momentum) seed your community with high quality, relevant content. Consider inviting a good core group of people in to help. When you launch, this seed content will spark discussions, give visitors a sense of what your community is all about, and send the message that it's a happening place to be.
5) Appearances matter.
Almost everyone who joins your community will evaluate it before becoming a member, so it's important to make a good first impression. In addition to great content, your community's look and feel will heavily influence a potential member's decision. Tailor the aesthetic to match your brand and appeal to your audience. If you're integrating your community into an existing website, keep your design and navigation consistent throughout. Not only will this increase the flow of traffic between your site and community, it will also show visitors that your community is an important part of your website.
Here are a couple of great examples of brands that have built online communities with an eye towards style and usability:
6) Promote your community.
Unlike the movie "Field of Dreams," just because you've built your community doesn't mean people will come to it. You'll need to market your community as you would any other product. This can include raising awareness among your website's existing audience, reaching out to bloggers and traditional media, creating incentives for people to join through contests and promotions, inviting influential people to become members, and even purchasing advertising.
7) Encourage active participation.
The most active and passionate members are your community's lifeblood. Recruit and reward them immediately; it's as much their community as it is yours. Highlight their contributions wherever possible, and ask for their help and feedback. Contests and promotions are also great for driving ongoing participation among current members. Radio stations have done this with great success for decades!
8) Manage your community with fair-minded consistency.
Part of community management is keeping the site free of trouble-makers and offensive content. The trick is to strike a balance between order and openness. Stay active and lead by example. Most people will follow your lead. But when you do run into someone who's acting like a jerk, speak with that person as quickly and as nicely as possible. Tell him what he did wrong and why it's something you don't allow, but make sure to keep your tone courteous and professional. In the words of Kathy Sierra, the most successful communities are single-mindedly committed to enforcing one rule: "Be Friendly."
Also, consider posting a plain-language set of community guidelines (like these from CaféMom) and invite your members to make suggestions about how to improve them.
Lastly, if you're building your community around a company website, don't get defensive when members make negative comments about your products or services. They're going to do it somewhere, so it might as well be in your community. Allowing them to do it there indicates confidence, which members will respect.
9) Listen and optimize.
Listen to what your community says, both directly and indirectly. Don't just pay attention to members' words (i.e. comments and message board posts); keep an eye on the highest rated and most viewed content. Everything reveals something about what your members want. Also, have a place in the community where people can talk about the community, like a message board (another gem from Mr. Haughey). This is a great opportunity to see what people are thinking and to test out your ideas. Lastly, measure your community's traffic and statistics from the beginning, so you can judge your progress as you go.
Building a community site can take days, but building a successful community requires a lot more effort. With a little focus, however, you'll find it extremely rewarding.
Alex Blum is CEO of KickApps. .