When many in the corporate world hear the words “online community”, they scratch their heads and wonder exactly what that is. Even if they know what an online community is, they may well be intimidated by the idea of managing one. I call that the “new puppy effect”. Bringing home a new puppy is a big commitment and time consuming and it’s fair to wonder if you have the resources to handle it.
However, the fundamental truth that you should understand is that communities drive the web. Social media isn’t an adjunct of the web, it’s the natural evolution of it. Online communities were the spark which created the internet and the engine which continues to power it.
If you have a blog which features user comments, then you have a foundation for an online community. If you are on Twitter or Facebook then you have the potential for an online community. These constructs are much like reefs are for fish – once the reef is built, the community forms around them. If that community is nurtured and encouraged, then it will reach a critical mass at some point and start to actively contribute.
To some, an online community must incorporate a forum/message board to be viable, but I think we’ve now moved forward to the point where that is not an absolute necessity. Facebook, Twitter, blogs and email newsletters can provide a good solid foundation for a thriving online community.
I do believe that it’s a good idea to provide personalization for your community members. Your site should incorporate a preference centre where people can opt in or out of newsletters, create a persona and even subscribe to RSS and other feeds. Don’t underestimate the power of personas for people. People like to earn status within communities and integrating a persona feature which tracks and displays status is appealing to many.
Of course the reef analogy I mentioned assumes that you are feeding the fish. Food in this case is content and the interaction you encourage around that content. If you offer valuable relevant content to people on a regular basis and encourage them to offer feedback and suggestions, you will grow a vibrant online community.
Feeding means you have to have a blog editor and product experts who are active in answering questions and responding to comments on the blog and via other channels such as Twitter and Facebook. If you are not prepared to handle a two-way conversation then leave the puppy at the pound.
Identify those who are most involved in your community and then engage them as contributors. Run polls about product features and seek feedback from your community members about what you are doing right and wrong. Just the sincere gesture of asking your customers for feedback and contributions will be perceived as a big positive by them. With an online community you have a focus group just waiting to be tapped for ideas and the best part is they want to participate and contribute!