How to develop an online community strategy

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With working from home and hybrid models becoming the new normal, professional online communities have seen a resurgence.

Many people have re-evaluated their careers and we’re witnessing the explosion of both the creator and passion economies – where individuals have backed their skills and knowledge and are monetising this using a combination of newsletters and communities.

In this time of rapid digital transformation, many businesses and individuals are now looking at setting up online communities to connect with their prospects, peers, and influencers in their niche.

But developing a community strategy is far more complex than simply choosing a platform and expecting the community to thrive with little to no input from those hosting it.

While some communities can grow organically over time, for a community to launch, grow, sustain and remain valuable, time and resources must be dedicated to community strategy to make it a success.

How to plan an online community strategy

There are many different things to consider when planning a community strategy.

Community platforms

There are a number of online community platforms available, which have been built specifically for this purpose, including:

  • Insided
  • Guild
  • Higher Logic
  • Tribe
  • Hivebrite
  • Disciple Media

Choosing the right platform will depend on lots of factors. For example, whether the community will be public or private, the goals of your community, your budget, the benefits you can offer members, and features that allow you to monetise your community.

To get started, draw up a list of must-have and desirable features and consider whether these needs can be met long term as your community scales.

It can be tempting to use social media platforms, such as Facebook and LinkedIn Groups to build a community, and sometimes, if you have an established audience on these platforms already, it makes sense to keep it there.

However, there are a number of issues in doing so.

Social media feeds are driven by algorithms, and are full of ads, meaning people are typically less engaged. Additionally, you have no access to useful data and less control over your community when it is hosted on a social media platform. Without notice, they could remove the ability to host communities completely, or remove useful features that do not meet their commercial interests.

Community categories

Once you’ve settled on the right platform, it’s time to map out the type of community you want to create. Each community type will have different goals, and will attract different kinds of members, having lots of differing discussions.

Note that your community may cover more than one of these community types across multiple groups or threads within it. If this is the case, each needs to have its own strategy.

Community of practice – a space where members share common roles, a concern, problem, or interest on a specific topic, most often in a B2B/professional capacity.

Support community – a space where members are seeking help in a professional or personal capacity, from technical queries to parenting advice.

Community of purpose – a space where members are unified by a common purpose to achieve an objective, such as societal change or fundraising.

Community of play – a space where members connect over a fun shared interest or hobby, such as gaming, music, collectables, sport, or art.

Community of product – a space where its members can discuss a specific product, providing feedback, asking questions, and exchanging opinions.

Brand community – a space where members have an emotional connection to a brand (sometimes built around a person they admire) and where they can connect with each other, such as a fan club.

Learning community – a space where members share academic goals, as well as those that use community for training, or to host online courses/resources.

Networking community – a space where members network to help progress their professional careers and engage with prospects.

Social community – an online community where members engage on a social platform, usually in a personal, more casual capacity.

Community governance

Businesses have values, laws and guidelines they and their employees are expected to adhere to, and these same principles should apply to their community, too. This means being aware of:

  • Data/legal governance, such as GDPR, privacy policies and terms of use
  • Community rules
  • Moderation guidelines
  • Marketing activities
  • Membership requirements
  • Budget and resource allocation
  • Alignment with internal and external comms
  • Reputation/crisis management

Community goals

Not all communities will have the same goals and some of them won’t be linked directly to revenue. Despite this, communities provide a wealth of information that can be used to enrich data across the business, including marketing and support.

Here are some examples of how community could support business goals:

  • Increasing revenue/contract wins/lead generation
  • Customer retention and loyalty
  • Gaining business intelligence/insights
  • Creating employee advocates
  • Improving customer satisfaction
  • Encouraging customers to self serve
  • Managing complaints and queries
  • Collecting first-party data
  • Measuring brand awareness, sentiment and share of voice

Community management roles

Choosing the right person to run a community can be tough. The role of a community manager encompasses many different disciplines, and as someone who will be interacting with the community, they need to be resilient, yet empathetic, and assertive without being domineering.

Not only are they responsible for the day to day running of a community, but it will also typically be part of their role to lead the overall community strategy and report on its success.

As a community scales, these responsibilities may become too much for one person to manage alone.

As community as a discipline matures, we can see a number of roles that are connected to community, for example:

  • Chief Community Officer
  • Community Strategist
  • Community Moderator
  • Community Host
  • Community Analyst
  • Community Administrator

Community engagement methods

Communities need constant nurturing to keep members engaged. This means asking different questions to start the conversation and ensuring that responses are managed in a timely manner, while also taking into consideration varying the types of content published to the community, including:

  • Events, meetings and webinars
  • Surveys and polls
  • Guides, walkthroughs and demos
  • Competitions, contests, and giveaways
  • Audio, video, and images
  • AMAs (ask me anything), debates, and Q&A sessions
  • Downloadable resources

Of course, there are many more ways to engage members and community rituals that can become regular activities in your community.

Community member potential motivations

Keeping members happy is the key to recruitment, retention, engagement, and growth.

There is a lot of behavioural science that community managers use. Understanding that there are a number of potential motivations and reasons why people may choose to be a part of an online community is essential.

Some of these motivations include:

  • Collaboration
  • Networking
  • Knowledge sharing and learning
  • Incentives and rewards
  • Finding out information about, or learning about a product or service
  • Having an emotional connection to a person, or brand
  • Recognition
  • Driving change
  • Supporting a cause
  • Access to support and customer service
  • Friendship
  • Improving self-esteem
  • To feel inspired
  • To feel part of something
  • Entertainment
  • To gain exclusive access
  • Curiosity

Community membership roles

Understanding the members that make up your community is crucial for ensuring that they are delivered the right messaging, at the right time, in the right format. For this reason, organizing members into segments or categories can be useful.

Keeping everyone happy, from new joiners, to those who are regular contributors, means that all members should be treated fairly and be given the opportunity to be heard.

Some community membership roles include:

  • Community advocates
  • Community champions
  • Community elders
  • Community leaders
  • Community newbies
  • Community contributors
  • Community readers
  • Community VIPs
  • Community beta testers
  • Community lurkers

Make your community work

The long periods of being apart from one another has definitely created a need to feel more connected. Although the majority of restrictions have now been lifted, people had to quickly adapt to forging and maintaining relationships online, and are continuing to benefit from communities to stay in touch, share knowledge, provide support, and connect over common interests.

For businesses that get community right by ensuring their members feel valued, online communities have the potential to build stronger relationships and trust with all their stakeholders, including prospects, customers, partners and peers.

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Michelle Goodall

Michelle Goodall is CMO at Guild, a platform for professional communities and networking. She has 25 years of marketing and comms experience in a mix of agency/consultancy/client side roles, including at Econsultancy, Lexis PR and Access Intelligence.

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