How to build an online community

Khoros Staff

At their most basic, online communities are groups of people who gather together on digital platforms to ask questions, connect over common interests, or get support from a peer group around a specific topic. Just like their offline counterparts, digital communities emerge organically all the time.

But for enterprise-level businesses, marketing, customer support and CX professionals can’t sit on the sidelines waiting for one of these communities to simply “appear.” — especially since having communities built around products and services have so many potential benefits for brands and customers alike.

Sometimes we as professionals need to roll up our digital sleeves and build a community from the ground up.

Ready to get started? Good! First, let’s dive into the specifics.

What is an online community?

Online communities exist on many different platforms, including social media sites, industry blogs, forums, and websites owned by brands themselves. Based on these platforms, we categorize online communities into one of two groups.

There are third-party communities like Facebook, Reddit, Quora, etc. And there are brand-owned communities, hosted by companies like Khoros for enterprise organizations in the hi-tech products and services, business services, banking, and retail space.

Despite this distinction, most online communities share the same basic principles:

Each creates a way for current and future customers — and sometimes even employees — to engage with a brand, product, or service.

Because of this, many online communities offer some degree of customer service by creating a self-help content portal with answers to members' questions or providing access to customer service or brand representatives who can also provide support.

When rewarded and recognized for their loyalty, it’s common for members of these online communities to take on the role of brand advocates These advocates can be effective drivers of user-generated content (UGC) — inspiring other community members to share reviews, testimonials, and showcase the positive impacts products and services are having in their lives.

In short, the average online community creates a lot of value for customers and brand loyalists.

But this isn’t a one-way street. Online communities offer a host of benefits for brands.

Benefits of building an online community

While traditionally valued as a customer service resource, online communities, when adequately leveraged, can offer a wealth of benefits to brands, for example, helping drive new customer acquisition and boosting sales. As go-to business software and service review company G2 recently noted, passionate, positive comments left by online community professionals on G2’s website are doubling each year.

A quick browse through comments left by community managers gives us a sense of how much value communities bring to brands:

“... We built a community of almost 40K superfans and brand advocates that help fuel our marketing strategy! The insights we are able to garner from the platform are unmatched...We even created an entire new product line based on the insights we were able to collect from our community!” - G2 reviewer, five-star rating

“... Online Community is solving the issue of members connecting with each other in a meaningful way. It provides our members a platform where they can network globally with their peers in real-time and allows them to problem-solve together not to mention share resources.” - customer review, five-star rating

While some brands naturally benefit from online communities more than others, having a brand-owned community powered by the right software and partnerships allows any enterprise can reap the rewards of online communities while building brand loyalty.

These benefits include:

  • Customer engagement and loyalty: Because online communities function as spaces where brands and customers can interact with each other, when managed correctly, that engagement can translate to increased loyalty and customer retention.

  • Brand advocacy: Happy customers who are highly engaged online are ideal advocates for a brand, providing valuable word-of-mouth marketing in the form of social proof. When brands reward this advocacy it only encourages more engagement and UGC.

  • SEO benefits: One significant benefit to UGC is it can help improve organic search rankings, making it easier for new potential customers to find and engage with the brand.

  • Co-creation: Online communities can serve as a great space for involving customers in the product development process. A popular example involves savvy brands using their communities to gather customer feedback, insights, and shared experiences to drive the creation of new product offerings. Not only does this lead to better product-customer fit, the act itself can often foster a sense of ownership and inclusion from customers.

  • Customer support: Online communities double as robust, cost-effective, and incredibly scalable customer support platforms. While community members often help each other with standard, simple problems, brand representatives can also weigh in and service more nuanced, complicated queries.

  • Crisis management: Increasingly, no brand is immune to occasions of crisis or controversy. However, in times of trouble, healthy online communities can serve as a controlled platform that allows brands to communicate directly with customers, helping to keep messaging unified and rebuild trust.

  • Customer insights: A mega-benefit to all these benefits with a community your brand owns is the potential insights you can glean. An owned online community provides a wealth of knowledge related to customer behaviors, needs, and preferences. By monitoring discussions, fielding surveys, and analyzing usage data, brands can harvest insights that lead to major competitive advantages and even propel further product development and innovation.

Types of online communities

Online communities bring many benefits to brands, and they can also be used to serve multiple distinct brand goals. Often, these goals act as a starting point, as a brand first decides to invest in a community solution.

Due to these goals, a given community may start as one of the following community types. However, as that community matures, the brand may strategically add multiple characteristics to maximize ROI.

Here are some common types of communities used to serve specific brand purposes and goals:

  • Support communities: The poster child for online communities, support communities help customers find help regarding specific products or services. They allow members to ask and answer questions and share relevant tips and tricks. They also serve as a source of customer-related updates and how-to guides.

  • Product communities: Similar to support communities, product communities tend to focus more on a specific product or set of services. Members of these communities typically gather to discuss features, weigh in on reviews, and offer suggestions for improvement.

  • Acquisition communities: Brands rely on acquisition communities to cater to potential customers. These online communities typically offer valuable content related to the brand's industry or expertise to attract new members. The primary goal of these communities is to build brand awareness while nurturing customers to purchase on their own terms.

  • Contribution communities: Contribution communities encourage members to weigh in and share opinions and feedback with UGC in the form of contests, photos, and testimonials to help with idea generation and product development.

  • Engagement communities: While all online communities should be fit to engage members, engagement communities work specifically to foster ongoing interactions with the brand. Often this is accomplished through activities and content designed to prompt discussions and participation.

  • Success communities: For some brands, helping customers succeed with their product or service is the first priority. Therefore, success communities can serve as a resource hub for best practices, case studies, training, and expert advice — all designed to help customers maximize the value of their purchase.

Now that you’ve got a solid foundation, let’s walk through how you can bring your own online community to life.

7 steps for building an online community

  1. Identify your audience: Online communities need to start with a thorough understanding of the people who will participate in that community. This means before anything else, you must identify your target audience's demographics, interests, online behaviors, and needs. Create personas of your ideal community members informed by data — that is, customer surveys, market research, and insights from brand websites and social channels.

  2. Define your community's purpose: Once you know who your community will exist to serve, establish a direct, simple purpose that aligns with their needs and goals. A good community purpose will answer the question, "Why should I join this community?" To do so, keep the purpose customer-centric. Define the value for the members. Doing so ensures you can go on to communicate that value online clearly.

  3. Set specific goals and KPIs: Ensure your goals are SMART (i.e., specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound), and that they link to primary business objectives. What's more, pick the right key performance indicators (KPIs) to measure progress towards these goals, which you will review and adjust regularly. For online communities, these KPIs often include the number of unique logins, number of new members, volume of engagement, and time on page.

  4. Determine community organization: You will need to decide both the structure and features of your community, including the hierarchy of categories or threads, and whether your community would benefit from chat rooms, private messaging, and other potential features. Remember: Fight to keep the structure itself simple and intuitive. Doing so helps ensure poor user experience (UX) won't hamper the growth of your community.

  5. Choose the right management platform: Based on your established structure, you can then vet potential community management platforms based on specific needs and requirements. Of course, strong moderation tools are a must. Ideally, short-list platforms you identified during your audience and persona research.

  6. Create community guidelines: Like guardrails, community guidelines keep an online community on track, helping ensure members know what's expected of them. Guidelines should be clear and accessible, covering vital aspects of community membership, like safety, inclusivity, and how the community itself can contribute.

  7. Establish your community content and engagement plan: Finally, document which types of content you'll share with the community on behalf of the brand and how you'll engage with members. Effective content and engagement plans include content calendars to support a consistent posting cadence and help you and your team keep the content itself fresh, varied, and relevant.

Building an online community for your organization? We can help.

Even with the basics of how to build an online community laid out, it can be hard to know exactly how to start. We know, because we've helped thousands of professionals just like you get started (and succeed).

At Khoros, we pride ourselves on our customers' experience and success. We have over 15 years of experience and more resources than any other vendor to help you create a thriving online community of your own and take advantage of the business benefits these communities create. As partners, we've got the next step covered. Get more tips on getting started with a brand-owned community with this free resource.

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