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Building an online community: six top tips

Building an online community is a powerful way to get people to engage with your business - particularly if your offer is built around a trade, hobby or passion and you count on repeat purchases and offer customer support. But how easy is it to develop a community? Ben Dyer, of ecommerce software provider SellerDeck, shares the lessons he learnt when building his company's online community

A community is an enabler; it allows you an unparalleled level of access to your user base and empowers the otherwise voiceless consumer to feed back to 'the man'.

However, setting up and running a community is not easy. The SellerDeck Community was established in 2002 and today has more than 13,000 members. This provides our company with a daily insight into our customers and their views on our products and services, while highlighting both our strengths and weaknesses.

1.     Don't rush in, have a plan

An online community is a little like a building project - you provide the bricks and mortar to build the environment where your members will reside. Once built, however, you need a plan to get people in. The traffic you attract - or don't attract - will be the measure of your success or failure.

Ideas to do this could be as simple as including details of your community at every 'touch point' you have with your customers, such as outgoing email signatures, phone messages or literature. Do your research and discover where your customers currently reside online; this could be Twitter or Facebook, so establish a presence there - but make sure you refer back to your own community.

I have seen hundreds of communities start up and turn into ghost towns because the basics of how to attract members were not in place. If you are unsure about starting a community, why not test the water with a decent blog. If you start to get a good level of comments then it's a good indicator that your customers are ready to talk.

2. Dedication's what you need

Community building takes time and commitment to make happen. If you are confident that your strategy is correct, stay the course. For every community I have seen fail due to lack of traffic, two have the plug pulled because of a perceived lack of progress.

For your community to be a success, you need to look after it. You need to dedicate resource, especially in the early days to help it grow. The SellerDeck Community is amazing as we have so many subject matter experts, but it wasn't always the case.

3. You're the boss

Communities need leaders - it's a tough job, requiring many hats to be worn including politician, preacher and even policeman. You need to define how you will approach each role, but it needs to be consistent.

Community leadership is all about engaging and inspiring others. Constantly ask yourself "Am I doing a good job?". If not, ask for help. Good leaders will help set the tone for the rest of the community so it is vital you get it right.

4. Know your demographics

I like to divide community members into three camps: newbies, casual users and the hardcore fanatics. It's clichéd I know, but it's true. These camps tend to play out distinct roles: newbies ask questions, fanatics answer them and the casuals move up the scale, or get bored and go elsewhere.

Be very careful about getting too hung up with the fanatics: while anyone passionate about your offering is valuable, they probably represent only a small slice of your community pie. The trick is to work with the most dedicated posters to help engage with the casual browsers. Your goal is to build a community, not pander to the whims of a small minority, however tempting.

5. Set some rules, but don't invite Stalin

If you want to build a successful community, you need rules. These rules need to be the cornerstone of the community's existence. Without rules governing how your community is run, prepare for Armageddon. Trust me, nothing devalues a brand more than your own customers slugging it out on your public space.

However, the very purpose of a community is to empower your customers to talk. Don't stifle conversation just because it is going against you, or exposing a potential weakness with your offering.

We all screw up; what matters is how we react when we do. Be honest and open with your community - this is your chance to learn what your customers really think. Listening to comments and engaging with criticism proves you want to be proactive and create better solutions for your customers.

6. Don't let the haters get you down

At some point you will get a good kicking, whether justified or not. Due to the disconnected aspect of an online community, people act differently than if you met them face to face or even on the phone.

Managing aggressive criticism while maintaining freedom of speech requires a careful balance, so never respond badly in a public space. It can be a humbling experience. However, if your efforts to engage with your customers are being derailed by abusive members, you need to act. Exclude them if they persistently ignore your requests to be more moderate.

Running a community is hard work, but it can be a fantastically rewarding experience for both you and your customers. The reality is that if you have a successful company, product or service, your customers will be talking about you anyway. What you need to decide is whether you are willing to facilitate the conversation.

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