Building an online community: six top tips

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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 an online community? Ben Dyer explains

An online 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 now has thousands of members. This provides the company with a daily insight into their customers and their views on our products and services, while highlighting both their strengths and weaknesses.

1. Plan how you will build your community

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.

Start by including details of your online community at every 'touch point' you have with your customers, such as your customer website, your 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 attracting members were not in place. If you are unsure about starting a community, test the water with a decent blog. If you start to get a good level of interest, it's a good indicator that your customers are ready to talk.

2. Building an online community takes time

You will need to commit time and energy to make your online community 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 resources, especially in the early days to help it grow. The SellerDeck Community is works as they have so many subject matter experts, but it isn't always the case.

3. Your community needs a leader

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 user demographics

I like to divide our 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. Establish rules for your community

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 exposes 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 online 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.

Written by Ben Dyer, former CEO of SellerDeck.

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