We’ve all seen the power of having strong evangelists and how they can help build a brand. But just because the Web is getting increasingly social with more sites sprouting up new communities doesn’t mean that you need a community on your site.
The problem with following the community craze is that too many are launched without any clear purpose. And you know it when you see it. It’s the blog that’s quickly thrown on the site even though there’s no one to write content or manage comments. It’s the social voting site you tack on but have no idea what you want to do with. It’s the community that was started with high hopes…but now just holds cobwebs. Before you make the decision to add community elements to your site, know why they’re there and how you plan to use them. Because it’s often a greater disservice to your brand to have a blog you ignore than to not have one at all.
Below are a few questions you should ask yourself before you invest the resources in adding community elements to your site.
Why are you creating the community?
If the answer to this is “because [competitor name] has one”, then you need to rethink your efforts. Part of your community planning process should be to determine your goals and to lay down measurable objectives. When you create a community with no plan in motion, it shows. Your community members can feel when you’re just “winging” it and everyone feels a little lost. Know what you want and the reason behind it before you build it, otherwise the people won’t come. This is the Internet. Not Fields of Dreams. People need to feel safe in the home you’re establishing. Part of making them feel safe means creating an environment that “makes sense” and has a clear purpose.
What’s your POD or why will people join your community?
What do you have to offer your audience that other communities, or that just being your customer, can’t provide? Why will people invest time participating on your site and not just become silent lurkers? It could be that you provide great content, that you house important discussions, that you offer the opposing view, that you offer deals, etc. Whatever it is that will make you unique, you want to put that at the forefront and build it into everything that you’re doing. There are tons of communities on the Web. You need to generate a compelling point of difference that’s going to help you to stand out and assert yourself. Why would someone invest their time in you over an already-established community? Figure it out and then promote it.
Do you have resources to support the community?
You may want a community on your site, but are you ready to support one? Whether it’s a blog, a forum, a place for user generated content – someone is going to have to build and manage the community you want to host. If you can’t do it yourself, do you have the resources to outsource it to someone else? There’s a lot more that goes into supporting a community than simply getting someone to build it. Once it’s there, it needs to be staffed. Employees need to be trained on how to manage it and how to promote the brand while keeping the peace. Time needs to be allocated to answering questions, responding to complaints and offering customers support when necessary. When you’re deciding whether or not a blog or forum would produce a positive ROI, all of these other time and resource elements need to be taken into consideration.
How will you promote the community?
As unique and great as your new community may be, you’re still going to have to do some promoting to get the word out. Self promotion is often a hard thing for SMB owners to swallow, however, it really is vital. The tactics you’ll want to use for promotion will depend on what you’re launching, but you should know what you’re getting into. For example, if you’re adding reviews to your site, you’ll have to find ways to contact people using certain products and maybe consider seeding reviews at first. If you’re adding a blog, you may want to form a partnership with other bloggers, write guests posts, seed comments, start commenting on other’s blogs, network with influential bloggers, etc. If you’re creating a voting site, you’ll want to look for cross promotional opportunities with other sites, advertise on related blogs, and get an active street team going to build buzz. In the early days, it’s up to you to be your community’s biggest promoter. Are you ready for it?
How heavily will you moderate your community?
This can get a little touchy. In a perfect world there would be free speech and we’d never have to step in to edit someone’s words or steer a conversation in a different direction. Unfortunately, this is the Internet where manners sometime get thrown out the window and where flame wars can have lasting consequences. Before you release your fledgling community to the world, you need to decide how much leeway you’re going to give people when talking to one another. What kinds of actions will you moderate? Will you just moderate the content or watch behavior that takes place offsite, as well? Your community is yours. Yes, it’s nothing without the people who choose to participate, but you’re the one responsible for being the adult in the room and keeping it productive. You can’t be afraid to moderate people when they’re out of line and threatening the spirit of the community you created.
How will building the community support your other efforts?
Essentially, does it make sense for you to add a community to your site? While it’s a noble effort to create a community so that your audience has a place to connect, ideally this community should be helping you with your other site goals. How will this new community take strain off customer service? Will it shorten your sales process by giving you more trust and brand awareness? How can you tie it into the rest of your marketing efforts? Nothing in the organization should be created in a vacuum. You want to carefully plan out how your new community will work with everything else you’re doing to give you the biggest benefit.
There’s a definite Shiny ADD complex that often strikes the Web. We see that a competitor has created something and we jump to create an exact replica without knowing why we’re doing it. And that can often come back to bite us. Before you invest time and resources building a community on your site, know why you’re doing it, what you’re going to get from it, and how much time you’ll really spend managing it. That’s the only way you can determine its value.