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  • Marketing, Online Communities, Industry Trends

Community at scale: Playing the long game

by Brian Oblinger, Guest Author | Jul 28, 2021

About the author: With over 20 years of experience in the industry, Brian has launched and contributed to the success of hundreds of communities, including Acer, Alteryx, Autodesk, Comcast, eBay, Hewlett-Packard, and Sony PlayStation. He co-hosts a podcast called 'In Before The Lock' where he shares his experiences and free resources to help community professionals succeed. By day, Brian provides strategic community consulting to brands around the world.




Be careful what you wish for

Most people who set out to build a community envision creating a large, vibrant space where brand advocates, customers, prospects, and even employees can interact. But what happens when your wish comes true? Communities at scale generate an incredible amount of business value, but also introduce additional complexities and needs around strategy, investment, and staffing.

I see this play out in the market on a regular basis. Companies launch communities through freemium chat apps like Slack or Discord or altogether free services like Facebook Groups due to the low barrier to entry, build up a significant community, and then are beset by a number of challenges. These platforms either weren’t designed to host communities at scale, or they’re frankly not very good at it. They often lack the necessary architecture, functionality, and moderation tools to make them viable past a few hundred active users. As a brand, having minimal control over the experience is unsettling and best and crippling at worst.

Changing community platforms

And so it’s time to select a purpose-built community platform and migrate. Doing so can be a heavy lift, but likely a necessary one if you intend to create lasting impact. From planning, to messaging, to the actual execution of the migration, all must be done thoughtfully and with significant care. This is a pivotal moment in the story of your community. Take your time and focus on creating the smoothest possible experience for your members.

It’s also a great opportunity to reimagine your community strategy and build an operational plan that will enable growth and maturation long into the future. By thinking big and building headroom into your programmatic approaches, you’ll put yourself in a position to succeed without needing to go back to the drawing board every year. Building a community is a long game, so plan accordingly.

What comes next: The hard work of scaling and optimizing

With the migration complete and a new strategy in place, you’re done, right? Wrong.

Like any other great business initiative, not resting on your laurels and pushing even further to deliver new modalities, deeper content, more functionality, fresh programs, and upgraded experiences is what separates the good from the great. A cursory survey of the most admired communities on the web will reveal a simple formula: sustained investment and execution over long periods of time. It’s not rocket science — the best communities just outwork everyone else.

If blue is the average, orange might be the community that outworks all the others.

Measuring success in your online community

Lastly, a few words on measuring performance and understanding value over time. Too many community strategies are predicated on the idea that growth is linear, up-and-to-the-right forever. You may be surprised and dismayed at some point late in the maturity lifecycle to see your traffic level off and the end of the growth story you’ve been telling for years. This is when your efforts to continually build new value drivers, efficiency, and strong member retention bear fruit. Building additional returns on investment in the midst of flat growth is doable, and a sign of true mastery of community execution.

No matter which chapter of the story of your community you’re in, stay focused and keep writing the next.

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