From establishing a purpose for your group, to finding the right technology to host it, we explore how to create your own online community.
How do I create an online community?
With content fatigue and over-saturated digital channels adding to the challenges already facing B2B marketers, an online community can be a way of re-energising your strategy, winning the attention, action and loyalty of your prospects and existing customers.
But where to start?
Setting up an online community for the first time can be overwhelming.
In this guide, we will show you how to plan, set up, and launch an online community to keep your members coming back for more.
Stage 1: Planning
Planning your online community
There are many elements that make up community strategy, so before you get started, it’s important to familiarise yourself with them, as well as common terminology used when talking about online communities.
Establish a purpose
In order to be successful, as well as to effectively measure that success, everyone must be aligned on the purpose of your community. This includes both your stakeholders, and your members.
A community’s purpose could be about creating loyalty and advocacy amongst existing customers, or it might be more focused on exposing you to a new audience or positioning your brand as a thought leader.
To help establish the purpose of a community, it is important to understand the types of communities before the start of this process. Each will need a particular focus, and will measure its success via different metrics.
- Engagement - these communities focus on interactions between members and the organisation relating to an interest or circumstance. They might be external, such as Fitbit’s community relating to being healthy, or they can be internal, such as social intranets or group collaboration spaces.
- Support & Ideation - these aim to resolve customer issues around products and services such as GiffGaff’s community. They might draw out ideas and suggestions for improvements as Lego does so well.
- Usage & Contribution - featuring user-generated content drives the business models of Duolingo, Airbnb, and Notion. They encourage their members to contribute to their platforms whilst educating them on best practices.
Once you know what your community is for and what people will do, you can work on developing the personas of the types of members you want to attract. To do this, you will need to find out:
- What are their interests within the topic you are focusing on? And what tangential interests do they have that might also be catered for?
- Where are they located, and what is their background, personal or professional?
- What motivates them in this field, what are they trying to achieve, and what causes them difficulties?
- What might be their personal journey in their experience of the community?
- What are their current social media or digital activities, and at what times of day/days of the week?
Answering these questions lets you craft an environment and create content that will resonate with your target audience. This ensures that your community attracts the kind of person who is likely to find what you are offering appealing and stick around.
Once you have identified where they spend most of their time, the topics that interest them, their pain points and worries, and their communication styles, you can tailor your messaging and platform features to meet their needs.
Set goals for your online community
An online community aligned with your organisation’s core goals will always get more buy-in. It will be seen as providing business value. As a consequence, there will be a growing reliance on its success leading to focus and investment.
Knowing what your community’s aims are is the first step in its growth. Link all your activities back to your initial community goals. If you want your community to have an impact on your bottom line, make sure it ties into your business goals too.
You'll want to establish a baseline that allows you to track whether you are meeting the goals you set before launching a community. This will help identify whether you are progressing the way you hoped to, or need to change your approach.
There are 3 core sets of metrics you might look at:
- Activity metrics relate to your own output. This could be the number of discussions you start, how many invitations you send out, the types of interactions you have, and how many.
- Engagement metrics help you track how active your community is. How many people sign up, how often they post or reply, and event attendance are examples of ways to track how engaged your members are.
- Impact metrics relate to the effect the community has on your organisation. These include what members do related to what your organisation offers. They might include purchases, downloads, enquiries or anything else that leads them to engage with the company.
Agree on policies and procedures
You'll want to ensure an enjoyable and safe environment for your community members. To do this, you need to develop a series of policies to help educate members and set boundaries as to what type of behaviour is acceptable. Knowing what the rules and social norms are from the off will foster the right kind of culture.
There are a few standard policy areas to consider:
- Moderation guidelines - are there any topics that are out of bounds? Any legal or reputational considerations?
- Rules of use - the visible version of the moderation guidelines, explaining what is and isn’t ok.
- Risk management - what makes up a situation where your legal or PR team are pulled in for counsel?
- Technical management - in what way is the technology set up?
- Community management - how is the community managed, by whom, and on what frequency?
All these will then need cascading procedures of what to do for each situation outlined. Some will be internal steps to take when hosting or how each type of moderation action should be performed. Others will be public, and explain how to upload an acceptable image or what to expect if a rule is broken.
Select a suitable community leader
It’s difficult to overestimate the importance of finding the right host. The success of your group, especially in the early days, really does hinge on getting the right individual at the helm of your community. This person will need to be highly regarded and influential enough to attract the right professionals to your group, as well as possess a careful blend of personal skills. Someone perceptive enough to read people’s behaviour and understand when to step in and when to step back is as important as someone who can drum up some lively discussions.
There are no hard and fast rules for how to set up an online community, but making considered decisions about people, purpose, and platforms early on can help to give you the best start.
Stage 2: Setup
How do I start an online community?
Once you have identified your community’s purpose, audience, and goals, and have found a suitable community manager, it’s time to move to the set up phase.
Choose the right technology
Naturally, you’ll be working with a number of considerations, from ease of use, to the demographic of your audience. While some platforms, like LinkedIn, can quickly feel anonymous or impersonal, those in niche industries might wish to explore specialist models such as Substack for writers, or Patreon for artists.
Security will also be a consideration, ruling out platforms such as WhatsApp, which could pose risks due to data privacy laws.
There are a huge number of purpose-built platforms that are far more suitable than social media platforms and messaging apps to host an online community.
When selecting an online community platform, thorough research of the pros and cons of each is important to ensure it meets your goals and your members’ needs.
Configuration, design and structure considerations
Once you’ve settled on the right platform to host your community, setting up the group itself is procedural.
You will need to choose imagery and terminology for the core look. This involves sourcing banners and tweaking titles to match your organisation’s lexicon.
Once you’re happy with the look and feel, you can decide what sub-groups there should be, if any. Then, you can post starter threads and pin informational ones to the top of forums to help guide new members and spark discussions from the get-go.
Your new member onboarding flow will be created and tested. The less friction there is in the sign-up process, the better. If the community is private, initial sign-up questions will need to be written up to vet new joiners, and measures need to be put in place to keep it that way.
Other things to consider in the onboarding process would be to include prompts for members to fill in their profile and upload an avatar, and outline what their first actions might be. You'll also need to draft automated emails that match your tone of voice.
If you foresee user content issues, you can set spam functions and keyword filters before launch. These will help strip out new messages that fall foul of your moderation policies and ensures an appealing first impression for new members.
Once you’ve established the kind of community you want to cultivate, identify a handful of loyal ambassadors to share your pre-launch plans with. These contacts can provide useful feedback on your ideas from your audience’s perspective, and you can rely on this inner circle to get the conversation going once you’ve set up your group.
Inviting them to play a role in your venture makes them personally invested and can be a good way to gain momentum in your online community before it officially launches. These users can be invited to beta versions of your community to provide feedback and suggestions, and help iron out any kinks.
As well as introducing your community to beta users, you should test every feature and function before launch, working with developers to fix any bugs that may arise.
Stage 3: Launch
Launching an online community
Just ahead of pushing the button, it’s time to finalise your marketing plan ready to be executed to announce your community is now live.
Once your community has launched, it’s time to shift focus to building an online community. After the initial launch promotion, you need to keep a steady flow of members joining and beginning to engage with one another.
This is no easy feat.
While over-saturated digital channels, social media fatigue, and social distancing have left people craving a sense of togetherness, creating the perfect conditions for communities to thrive, building your group and keeping it engaged requires an investment of time and energy.
At the same time as getting your community off the ground and gathering momentum, it’s important to make sure you’re cultivating the right kind of environment.
Plan your content in advance
Having thought through who you are aiming to bring into the community, you can now draw up a plan for content. This could be articles, events, workshops, conversation prompts and invitations to join and stay.
There are many formats you can use. You could try polls, topical debates, and virtual and physical gatherings around a program of relevant themes. Content types such as infographics, videos, and resource documents might also be welcome.
Developing a calendar of regular content will help set a schedule for members to look forward to. It will act as a prompt for the kind of participation you are trying to foster. You would identify a few topline themes for a set period based on identified interests. You'd then break those down into a series of threads to create content around over that timeframe. Each theme would focus on different aspects of the journey people will take.
You could highlight valuable contributions and promote upcoming events to encourage community signups. Setting up new discussions around news will help keep existing members engaged. Platforming long-standing or experienced participants will increase the advocacy of the community in personal networks. It will also increase the perception of achievement that is possible by being part of the group.
Curate, don’t dictate
A sign of a successful community is one that feels as if it’s ‘owned’ by the community itself. One that governs itself and is fiercely protective of both the group and its members.
To achieve this kind of dynamic, members need to feel comfortable putting themselves forward to share their ideas and make suggestions.
This brings us back to our point about the importance of selecting the right community leader. Your host will need to steer the group where necessary, but the key is to drive discussion rather than dominate it. Your members shouldn’t feel ‘policed’, and it’s certainly not the right space for one-way broadcasts.
To this point, guidelines are a good way to set expectations around the kind of behaviour you’re looking for from your community members. Even more important is being seen to be enforcing them. Again, you want to avoid a police state, but your members should feel they can rely on you to impose rules that protect them.
You need trust for a community to thrive. The anonymity the internet brings is well documented, but the move towards secrecy that many messaging apps are making is in danger of encouraging disrespectful and unkind behaviours. With Guild, individuals are present as themselves, with professional profiles, and we believe this is an important step towards building an online community with the right culture that has trust at its core.
Trust, or a lack of it, is one of the factors leading to the surge in online communities. As a nation we’ve become wary and cynical of tech giants and the media, with younger generations, in particular, turning towards online communities over traditional media to seek news and information.
Consistency can be a good way to gather momentum with your community. Having set days for certain types of content, welcoming new members, or holding Q&A sessions, can help you get a rhythm going.
Sudden spikes of activity could be stressful for members struggling to keep up with an influx of messages around a busy professional life. Similarly, prolonged spells of inactivity could raise doubts over the longevity of your community, causing new members to question if their commitment is worthwhile.
Creating a vibrant community of individuals with a sense of belonging, who regularly reach out to each other to swap ideas, support each other, and share information is a work in progress. You can’t expect people who may not yet be familiar with each other to open up overnight, especially in a B2B environment where individuals have their professional reputations to consider.
Spending a little time each day – even fifteen minutes – to encourage discussion, and engage with those who are making conversation, will go a long way.
Bringing your vision to life is all in the planning. Having a clear focus on how to create an engaged audience, and investing the time to execute this, will help you build an online community that holds value for all parties involved.
Why is Guild a great place for your community?
If you are looking to relocate or launch an online community, Guild is a great platform to consider. It is purpose-built for professional groups, networks and communities to connect, communicate and collaborate.
A community for Community Managers
Come and join this free online community for community and social media professionals, however experienced you are.
If you’re a community strategist, community builder, community manager or social media professional, join Guild Community Collective.
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We will be running virtual, in-person and hybrid events where we hope many of you will be able to meet.
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