How to build an online community
Humans are naturally pack animals and want to attach themselves to other like-minded people. This includes family, friend groups and now this real life concept has entered the digital world. Social media platforms like Instagram, Reddit, and Facebook have accelerated the adoption of online communities to the point it has become an expectation from consumers. This is especially the case for Gen Z who are the main catalysts for the growing need for online communities. For this reason, every brand should aim to create an online community, with community members who are brand advocates, offline and online. But before you create an online community, you need to first understand the meaning of community.
What is an online community?
Many brands think an online community is simply having a large following on social media but this is far from the case. A large following that is not actively engaged is just an audience, not an online community.
An audience can consist of a podcast listenership, blog readers, social media followers and newsletter subscribers. Initially, engaging this audience is a one way endeavour, with the content creator pushing out content to their audience. On the other hand, a community has multidimensional creation and engagement. Examples include Facebook groups, Instagram communities, TikTok communities and Twitter Spaces. Even when the founder and initial content creator is not present, engagement in the group can still happen. This is the main point of differentiation.
In a nutshell, an online community is a shared space where like-minded people engage, adress each others pain points, grow and create value for each other.
Why should you build an online community?
You now know what defines an online community. But why does it matter? Well, there is no one single answer to that question. It all depends on what you want to achieve and how the brand community aligns with your overall marketing strategy. However, whether you are up and coming entrepreneur or experience business owner, the following are the key benefits of building an online community you need to be aware off:
- Gathering consumer insights: With the ongoing battle between governments and tech companies like TikTok over third party data and Gen Z’s reluctancy to share personal data, brands need to refocus their data acquisition strategy to zero and first party data. Zero party data comes from customer surveys and polls and first party data comes from customer web and activity that they directly own. If you have an engaged online community, collecting zero and first party data becomes much easier due to increased willingness for community members to provide that data. With these insight new product development becomes much easier.
- Nurturing leads: Similarly, an online community can have just as much of an impact in the awareness, consideration stage of the customer journey, addressing pain points and overall customer experience. A strong online community is social currency that can draw people in. If a potential customer sees that thousands of people find value in this product or service, to the extent that they interact with the brand consistently, chances are they will want to be a part of that. Hence, increase brand awareness, pull them further along the customer journey and register them as a new community member.
- Retaining and creating brand advocates: People want to feel like they belong somewhere and appreciated, and your brand community can be that place. If you create a sense of belonging for them and make them feel appreciated, it adds value to your service or product. That additional value can lead to increased retention and brand loyalty. For example, Cadbury’s Gen Z online community frequently shares user generated content that provides a spotlight to customer’s own communities. That is additional value that retains customers, creates new members and incentivizes them to become brand advocates. Plus, increased retention typically improves the customer lifetime value which means greater profit margins for the brand.
Example 1: Oreo
We love Oreos! Nearly all of the content on Oreo’s Instagram page is UGC user generated content and this is on purpose not because they have run out of content ideas! And this is consistent throughout all their social media pages. Their Instagram page simply acts as an amplifier for food enthusiasts who love creating meals out of Oreo products. People learn different recipes from others and support each other’s pages. In return, Oreo receives a lot of user data on what people use Oreo products for, why they choose Oreo, what type of products they could launch to certain groups of people, deeper understanding of the different segments by answering questions and what type of ad content can resonate with the audience.
Example 2: Ben & Jerry's
Likewise, Ben & Jerry’s have also benefited from having engaged community members. Staying true to its brand positioning as an ice cream company that uses its platform for real life change, Ben & Jerry’s online community across its social media platforms is used as a market research tool to understand what causes their customers care about. With the rise of sustainability infused marketing and conscious Gen Z customers, it’s important to cater this type of marketing to causes that your customers actually care about otherwise you risk creating irrelevant content. Thus, waste of resources and poor return on investment.
From the two examples, you can see that an online community serves multiple purposes. It all depends on how you want to use it in your marketing strategy, business goals and what type of online community you want to build.
Here are the steps to build an online community!
Let us start building your online community!
Step 1: Define the purpose of your online community and set clear goals
Just like anything in life, doing something without a purpose is inefficient and ineffective. Although online communities might be trending right now, you need a strong internal reason to start one. If you don’t have a good reason for building an online community, your target audience won’t see the need to join it either. Reasons can vary from improving customer relationships through interactive content to elevating brand transparency for better brand reputation to increasing e-commerce sales.
To help you sort out your why from scratch, start thinking about the customer experience journey and how you could integrate a brand community in that journey.
Step 2: Select platform(s) on which to build your community
Your online community platform selection, most likely a social media platform, will depend on where your target audience exists. Although there are online forums, social networks and community forum that are better built for community building, with the right engagement and expansion strategy you can build a community on all platforms, even LinkedIn. With that being said the following are the most used communty platforms: Instagram and Facebook Groups.
Depending on your resources and business goal, you can start with one or multiple online community platforms and observe the one that generates the greatest ROI.
Step 3: Create community guidelines and rules
Similar to the offline world, the online world can be a dark, offensive and discouraging place. To prevent this negativity poisoning your online community, set community guidelines, rules and templates of how people should engage with each other. Doing so will allow you to control the conversation in a way that maximises the ROI.
Facebook Groups are a good starting point when it comes to crafting brand community guidelines.
Step 4: Assign community roles
If you are a business owner who can afford a community manager, you should go for it! Community managers are especially helpful when it comes to keeping up with engagement with community members, as they have experience dealing with social communities. If not, you can pass the responsibility to the one responsible for your digital engagement and content marketing, typically a social media manager.
Besides the community manager, you will need moderators, influencers and ambassadors who will support community engagement. Typically, the most engaged community members can occupy these roles effectively. Having dedicated roles in an online community helps eliminate internal confusion, communicate brand community identity clearly and grow it quicker.
Step 5: Create a content strategy
Even though an online community is where people create value for each other, when you are starting a lot of the community engagement is going to come from you. Therefore, you need to create content that sparks conversation. A good starting point is creating content pillars around shared interests of the community members. If you do this successfully, after a small period of time, little effort from your side will be required to initiate the community engagement. The key goal of your content is create a sense of belonging.
While you are creating this content strategy, set a couple metrics to measure strategy progress.
Step 6: Start growing your community
You have identified your community purpose, selected appropriate platform (s), created community guidelines and rules, assigned community roles and created a content strategy. It is now time for lift off! Before launching just keep in mind that building an engaged community is going to take time so be patient. If you have done the first five steps well, you already on the right path to create a successful online community.
Step 7: Track results and restructure strategy periodically
Just like anything in marketing, you need to analyse you key metrics consistently. Whether you are meeting your expectations or not, always try to look for new ways to refresh your community and adjust to the changing needs of your community members. Thus, make sure you are frequently analysing the success of your strategy. Typically, at the start you will be observing how your community is elevating your brand awareness.
With the right online community expansion and engagement strategy, you will have an extremely useful marketing tool. Just like everything in marketing, it will take time and attention to develop a successful online community but it’s worth it!