An online community is much the same as an offline community: a connected group of people with a shared interest. This could be a social group, people who like the same music, people who are interested in the same kind of sports, or people who share a passion for a type of product.
Why you want to build a community
First things first, you do not build a community, you facilitate it. The community builds itself.
No-one will want to participate in a group where rewards are asymmetric, so any group where the sole goal is to derive profit from the other members will wither quickly as there is no reward for the rank and file members.
Although building a community might have the ultimate end of delivering increased sales, or improved PR for your business, these should be a side effect of the goal, which should be to engage more closely with your customer base in order to deliver a better overall experience.
First steps to a community
The first step to a community is to identify the niche it will occupy. You need to give people a compelling reason to join your group rather than a similar one. The fact that it relates to your brand should not be enough. There needs to be something available within the group that is available nowhere else.
The second step to developing a community is to create a location for it. Whether this is a blog or a forum, a twitter profile, or a Facebook page. The community needs to have a defined centre around which it can coalesce.
At first, expect slow growth of your community, and work hard to gain attention.
Promote the new page or blog on the home page of your website, include it in your email news letter, join the group on Facebook, and ask friends and colleagues to do the same.
Post more content than you would normally expect to do, and even be prepared to commit resource to it – perhaps a voucher code for everyone who signs up. Until membership of the community becomes it’s own reward, you will need to invest in it.
Developing your online community
Once you have a few members, you still need to engage with them more than you will in the future. Encourage them to share the group, push offers and content that they will want to share. Be a little brave about the content you post. Encourage feedback, discussion, create a place where people can have an interest.
In any group there will be some members who gravitate towards a position of leadership, and you should look to identify these as quickly as possible. These will be the people who respond more often, comment more on a blog, take a leading role in a forum and so on.
You should look at ways to reward their increased participation – through early access to products, free stuff, or even a trip to your office. In a forum community, you may want to offer them moderator privileges, while in a forum, you may want to let them write a guest post.
Let the community flourish
Left to its own devices, an effective community will eventually outgrow the restrictions that its founders have placed upon it. As the number of members increases, the spread of interests will become diffuse, and related content will be considered.
From a commercial perspective this is a bad thing. The last thing that you want is for your leading competitor to take over the group that you have worked to set up.
In order to prevent this, you need to nurture the community, and ensure that regardless of what is being said, the theme does not outgrow the group identity.
You do not want to curtail discussion or over-moderate, as this will isolate members, and stifle discussion. The best route is to simply provide content that does not provide the opportunity to allow competing views to become entrenched in the social group.
Living together, or dying alone
Just what it says, without customers, a business will die, with customers it will live and thrive. The point is that in a world where the war for customers is being fought with long term loyalty in mind. Companies that embrace social recruitment of a customer base will succeed and grow, those that choose to remain in a world where they give nothing back to their customers, do nothing to engage with them, and leave themselves isolated will no longer be able to count on people coming through the door, because the people who they would want to sell to will be working with their competitors instead.