Running a sucessful online community is somewhat of an art form. There are a lot of different elements that must come together to extract useful, and meaningful data from these powerful groups. In this article we article some of the best ways to make use of online communities, based on our own extensive experience. Without any further ado, these are our top five best practices:
1. Aims and objectives
Ask yourself if a community you want? If the answer is yes, here we go! Define the aims and objectives of your community. What's the general purpose, what do you want the atmosphere to be like? Look at what the specific goals of your community are. Keep them as clear and unambiguous as possible - think of the aims you want to achieve. Needless to say, keep them SMART: specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound.
2. Branding & theming
Start thinking about the brand. Communities are spaces of peer to peer engagement, sharing, and collaboration. A strong brand can help facilitate the connection between members and its goals. N.B. Not all communities evolve around an established brand - you could create a new image & theming based solely around your community's goals and shared values.
3. Purpose and Engagement
Why users would join your community. What motivates them, but is important to them, how can you give something back to them. After all, it boils down to questions like "What's the aim of the community?", "What do you want from members?" and "What is in it for your members?". Design your research to drive these motivations as well as answer your questions, e.g. factor in a weekly discussion with your client that allows you to give some tangible feedback to the community members.
4. Pick your tools & support
Every community is different and there is no "one size fits all" approach. Pick the right mix of methods, tools and features to achieve a set up that fits your research and community needs. Have a play! There is a great choice: asynchronous and synchronous tools, innovative collaboration tools, scrapbooks and brainstorming tools. Engage your members by offering profile pages and member galleries and leader boards and why not tie in a reward point system and community status bands or give members the option to send public and private messages? A tailored set up has never been easier.
5. Get started with good community management
A community manager is engaged with your audience on a daily basis. They review, listen, analyse, judge and moderate. They are crucial to building a successful online community. Give them the ability to:
- Assign resources and adequate incentives
- Have the time and dedication to establish and maintain contact and relationships with members - this helps in creating a sharing culture where members open share, communicate and value open discussions.
- Immerse themselves. A good community manager reads and digests content, identifies engaging themes and reacts by posting, sharing or appreciating feedback. A community manger wants to be transparent, add a personal touch and be approachable. They will also read and check the community regularly and as often as needed (up to several times a day) to be able to respond fast to participants and members. If there is no quick answer, they let members know that they are looking into it.
- Create a space just for members. Aside to the planned research, ensure there is space for members to get creative and talk about what matters to them. Remember, a lot of unprompted feedback can be more valuable than things your researchers have prepared or pre-set in advance. Let there be space for free and unstructured feedback and let the members make use of it.
- Look at your community from an analytic point of view. A good community manager knows his or her audience by heart and inside out. They will use all the tools available to measure and evaluate your audience, feedback, response rates, activity rates etc. Where and when necessary, the community manager can organically step in and steer into the right direction to achieve the best balance of engagement, research and communication.
It is worth keeping in mind that your community thrives exactly because there are different user types. Different members will fill the varying roles and user profiles within a community. Not all will actively post - in fact, the majority might be in it to consume and read. Others grow from being watchers or sharers to commentators or even produce their own content. And, just like in real life - if you ask for something, give something back or say thank you.