The best online communities are thriving, engaging destinations that people want to return to again and again. But if you want to start a new online community that will thrive, engaging your customers, members, or employees, growing in ROI, and providing real business value, the first step is to start with careful planning.
This post is all about building a strong foundation: how to plan a branded online community that will thrive, building loyalty among your members, customers, employees, or users. We’ll walk you through best practices for the planning phase of building an online community for your organization.
Want to dig deeper? Check out our complete guide to online community.
Use these nine steps to help you think through how to start an online community.
Step 1: Assess Your Organization’s Needs
If you want to build a successful online community for your organization, the first step is understanding all the goals and motivations behind the need or decision for a community.
Although some online communities have unlocked the secrets of engagement, others struggle to create a community that’s truly valuable, and much of avoiding that obstacle requires having a solid plan at the beginning.
Overall, the community’s goals should be driven by both your organization’s and your users’ goals.
Sometimes, people think of communities as a siloed offering, relegated to one team, like marketing or support, rather than part of the whole organization.
However, different teams at your organization can overlap your goals so that strategies are working in tandem. And getting this figured out at the beginning will help you make sure your community effort succeeds in the long run.
Why do you want to create a community, and how can it help your organization and your members? You’ll need to understand goals that various stakeholder groups are striving for. That’s not only among users – it’s also among your internal team and leadership.
Here’s what you’ll need to do:
Identify Your Organization’s Big Picture Goals
Find out your company’s goals and priorities. This will help you understand how community fits in, and how your online community can serve those goals.
Interview Departments to Understand Goals And Priorities
Community can easily support the goals of multiple department. For example, if you pick an online community platform or software that offers resource libraries, volunteering and advocacy tools, product ideation, and discussion threads in one, you can easily address multiple use cases with one online community platform.
Get Buy-In by Weaving In Others’ Ideas
Make your community indispensable to your organization by getting buy-in and weaving it into your priorities too.
Download our eBook on how to build an online community for sample interview questions and insight on using the Jobs-to-be-Done Framework to identify goals.
Step 2: Assess Your Users’ Needs
Not only should you consider why your organization needs an online community, but you should also make sure you’re providing a community that appeals to your users.
Delivering an indispensable, engaging branded community that people want to come to again and again begins with determining the “jobs” that will motivate your users to come to the online community.
When someone joins a community, what are they looking for? What will they get out of it? Maybe it’s to gain insider knowledge, an answer to a question, or a sense of camaraderie.
We’ve found that people typically join communities because they want to continuously learn, develop a sense of belonging, and gain exposure.
The online community you start needs to feel like it belongs to your users, not to you. You’ll benefit from it, of course, but your users – and their needs – have to come first, if you want it to be a success. But you can marry your organizational goals with what will be valuable to your users.
Before you create the online community, think about how users will access the community, what content they’ll engage with, and how they’ll communicate:
- Access: How do they like to communicate?
- Content: What type of content do they find valuable?
- Communication: What holds them back from communicating and collaborating with their peers and your organization?
When you’re ready to begin having conversations with your future online community members, be sure to assess their behavioral inclinations and social affinity for different collaboration opportunities (they will give you a head start on developing your community engagement plan). Ask about the type of resources your users will find most compelling and the triggers that will best solicit their participation.
Here are a few examples:
- As someone interested in _______, would you join an online community where you could connect and interact with other individuals interested in _________?
- What specific _________-related topics interest you the most?
- In which activities would you be most likely to participate?
Note that throughout this process, the rapport you build with these individuals will become increasingly valuable to your community’s long-term success. A very small number of members, especially in the first years, can drive an overwhelming volume of community activity.
When you involve users, members, or customers at the beginning of the process, you’re building advocates by giving them buy-in. Communicate with them as a special group as you move forward. You can lean on this group to be beta testers and early adopters.
Step 3: Build Buy-In Across the Organization
Before you get too deep into the community planning process, begin with a soft launch of your idea internally. This should be an informal, research-gathering process where you float the idea of a community and locate where you can find support for your initiative.
Taking this phased approach will help you plan your approach to getting buy-in strategically and ensure you identify potential roadblocks in advance. You’ll want background on these three areas:
- Organization and departmental goals
- Any history of online community building at your organization
- Budget timing and availability
Once you’ve done your initial research, it’s time to do your prep work, so that you’re ready to recruit your team from other departments.
Take the findings you learned from your research. Let’s say a department identified three big priorities: How can you match the online community’s value or solution to those pain points? What kind of benefit can starting a new online community offer to this department?
Next, lay it out in a digestible and understandable way. What’s in it for the key stakeholders? How will it save their department money, or grow loyalty?
Your goal should be to demonstrate how the online community aligns with and leads to achieving each department’s goals. This is how you can prove your new community will be a valuable technology investment.
Download our Getting Internal Buy-in for Your Online Community eBook for more tips and tricks (plus, 5 Tips for a Compelling, Confident Community Presentation).
Step 4: Set Goals and KPIs to Measure Community Success
Before you launch your online community, you’ll want to set goals and key performance indicators (KPIs) so that you can make sure you’re on track. Define these at the outset so that you can measure your results – and ask vendors specific questions about what kinds of analytics their platform can provide.
You can measure engagement metrics (metrics you’ll generally find within the community platform, like logins) and business metrics (metrics you’ll find by looking at broader business numbers, like retention rate).
Engagement metrics measure how active your community is, while business metrics measure the business impact of the community.
When you come up with metrics to track, make sure you’re matching them to the goals of your organization and your users.
For example, if you want to increase operational efficiency on how you manage your events, look at how you currently do this and how you measure success, and create new KPIs that will help you measure how this is done in the community.
As you go, you’ll want to define baseline KPIs and target KPIs for your community. You’ll want to track several metrics, but all should fall under engagement metrics or business metrics.
It’s also recommended to set goals for the community’s first six months. These goals should be easily measurable, and attainable but aggressive.
Step 5: Decide How You’ll Organize Your Online Community
By now, you should be acquainted with your users’ and organization’s needs. Before you select a platform for your online community, think through how you’ll structure the community.
Depending on the size and needs of your userbase, you may opt to keep everyone in one large community, or you might want to segment users by topic, location, product type, or role type into their own communities, each with their own libraries, events, blogs, and discussion threads.
Once you have defined the structure of your community and sub-communities, consider what you want in each group. You’ll want your community layout to have an intuitive navigation.
As a caveat, once everyone realizes the opportunity in this new online community, you may be flooded with requests to start new sub-communities from your users or staff. But we recommend waiting until your community is mature to add groups outside of the main community forum or your original sub-communities. Start small, grow, and as you learn your users’ needs, you can consider adding more specific communities.
Step 6: Select the Right Community Platform for Your Needs
If you want an engaged community, you need to build your community in the right place. When you can motivate members, customers, and employees to consistently engage in the community, you impact key experience metrics.
But before you start making a list of potential solutions, you should know what you need the platform to do. This is where the work you did to determine the goals and community organization comes in handy.
If your online community platform is built for engagement, your community can help your organization achieve higher productivity, deliver more innovative products and services, and improve loyalty among your users.
Also, as you evaluate vendors, keep in mind the activities your audience expressed interest in so you can choose a product that will maximize participation.
For example, if feedback showed that your audience is most interested in an area for product ideation, look for a vendor that makes this kind of participation as easy and intuitive as possible.
Once you have well-defined organizational requirements, you’ll be in a good position to jump into research. Based on your organization’s needs, research the different features and functions included in each potential platform to make sure it has everything you want.
For platform ideas, try reviewing industry sites and asking your network for community platform recommendations.
Download our Planning Your Community eBook for a community software checklist. Once you have your needs outlined, adapt our vendor checklist based on these needs.
Step 7: Organize Your Community Management Team
Every organization needs at least some dedicated management for their community. This is one common reason a community will flounder – lack of active management. Communities need somebody to take care of them.
What it comes down to, no matter the situation, is accountability. You’ll need someone to keep your community going, tend to it, and create engagement. What you put into your online community engagement tactics is what you will get out.
Decide on the size of your team
Don’t be overwhelmed if the task seems daunting. Many successful communities have been launched with one community manager. The key is to figure out what you need. You may be able to start with a small and nimble team, but you should be prepared to hire more people or dedicate more resources as the work increases. Identify your gaps and the skills you already have among the team available to you, and then fill them.
Decide on roles and responsibilities
Although you may have many people involved, divvy up roles and responsibilities so that everyone is clear on what they’re supposed to do. You might want an entire department to be involved in your community, but that doesn’t mean that department needs to own it. If there is a problem, you’ll know who to turn to. No matter what, make sure the community is owned by someone or a department – you’ll need a final decision-maker leading the team through the process.
Determine where resources will come from
This is the tricky part – who’s paying for it, and who will own your online community? Ideally, you’ll have gotten a good sense of who will be most involved, internally, during your research process. For example, if the marketing team will use the community the most, it might make sense for it to come from their budget. If it’s an even split between departments, see if the budget can be split as well. Figuring this out will take some discussion but relying on the research you did will help you make your case.
Don’t have the resources or expertise you need to launch and manage your community? Some community vendors will offer this as a service – for example, we have a team of industry-leading community managers available at a variety of service tiers to help you launch yours.
Step 8: Build a Community Engagement Plan
People typically join communities, because they want to grow their knowledge, connect with others, and build their own brand. Unfortunately, these same people may get distracted, forgetting why they joined, especially if they don’t find something to engage them on the first visit. There are a lot of moving parts to capture their attention, but it boils down to: Is your content of value to them?
As you form your approach, keep these three pillars in mind: Find, connect, collaborate. Once your user finds the community, is it easy for them to get involved and collaborate? Once they’re there, they should have many touchpoints for getting involved and contributing. So it’s all about building a destination that’s designed for them to engage.
Think through these questions as you build your community engagement approach:
- How will you make it human-focused so it’s about the users’ needs on any given day?
- What is in place to make them feel like they have a voice?
- Have you created centralized, topic-based areas for users to get what they need?
- How will you convey value via calls-to-action (CTA) in an easy to understand way?
Our engagement resources don’t stop here – read our comprehensive, 43-page guide to online community engagement.
Step 9: Prepare for Online Community Moderation
Making sure your online platforms feel safe and enjoyable for all of your participants is essential for the function of your community. That’s where community moderation becomes so important.
All it takes is two or three trolls to ruin even a 40,000-user community — trust us, we’ve seen it before.
At worst, a troublesome community member came to your community to attract the wrong kind of attention, and at best, they’re confused about how to use the community. Be prepared in advance by establishing a clear set of community guidelines.
A large part of becoming a good online community moderator is knowing how to strike the balance between controlling conversations to maintain order, contributing to keep conversations fresh, and giving members, employees, or customers enough freedom to feel like they can express themselves. You don’t want mayhem, but you don’t want to discourage discussions before they even get going.
Moderation typically involves three elements:
- Curating the user-generated content on the online community to ensure quality and alignment to the organization’s rules of engagement
- Maintaining a climate that encourages open but appropriate conversation
- Participating in an online environment where the rules of engagement are established and protected
Create a code of conduct to be your guide to online etiquette, detailing what is and what is not okay to post in the community. Include a link to these guidelines in the community so members can easily reference this document.
Learn more about community moderation in our eBook, which will help you establish clear guidelines for moderation.
Ready, Set, Start Online Community Building
With these nine planning steps behind you, you’re finally ready to launch your new online community! You can confidently move forward in managing and growing your own online community.
Over time, you will see these simple building blocks create a strong foundation for your online community. If you need guidance or want more information, be sure to reach out or check out our online community resources.
Senior Community Strategist
Laura Coscarelli is a Senior Community Strategist at Higher Logic. With 10 years of previous experience as a community manager, she now consults with association and corporate customers as they plan, launch, and grow their online communities. Laura loves the excitement of the moment right before a new community goes live – knowing the impact that it will have on the organization and the users. When she’s not cheerleading for her customers, she enjoys hosting fondue dinner parties, restoring old houses, and biking with her husband in Washington, D.C.
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