Online communities are the stock of trade in the human media age:
Facebook is approaching 1 billion users. The predictions are that they will be there by August this year (that's one seventh of all humans alive)!
Twitter's at 300 million,
LinkedIn at about 135 million.
Google+ is already on at 62 million
In China qq.com has 800 million and video.baidu.com, soso.com and image.baidu.com each have over 200 million!
We tend to think of all these people as "users" like we think of drug addicts, but actually they are a willing audience; they are the individual shares in the human company, and owning their profile information is going to prove to be more valuable than gold.
The fact is that almost all of these "users" have many social media accounts, and if someone has a social-site profile already they are much more likely to have a branded community site profile also.
But many companies are reluctant to create their own on-line community despite the fact that they are investing in creating these communities on platforms that they do not own, like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.
There are generally two kinds of responses to the on-line social community proposal in the boardroom:
In ten years time there will be only one response:
- "Facebook, Twitter and all that stuff already exists, let's just use that."
- "We don't have the time or the resources to manage an in-house on-line community."
"Our competition is cleaning up. How do we get one of these on-line community things?"
Of course by then it will be too late. The time to build an online community is now!
Here are a few pointers to build an online community:
1. Develop with open-source software.
Don't use priority software, it's developers will hold you hostage to their program, whether they intend to or not. Pick a broad base open-source web development tool. Joomla or WordPress are good choices with plenty of off-the-shelf development and qualified developers and designers.
The primary reason why this is important is that development is quicker and cheaper and by the time you need it most of it's already done. But there is an added benefit: If you have to switch developers for whatever reason it's not hard to find someone else to pick up where they left off.
2. Start with an on-line newsletter.
This is by far the best way to incentivize initial sign-up. Offer an incentive with sign-up also.
But you must make sure that 1. You write a good, regular newsletter, and that 2. The sign-up is into a community database at the same time.
It's great to have Facebook followers, but you don't actually own that list.
3. Use Facebook / Twitter / Google log-ins.
The last thing you want to give your users is another password to have to remember. Develop your community with that in mind.
You can still own the community even when they are signing in with Facebook.
Let the community use your website as they see fit, listen to their suggestions, don't try and control everything. It is better to have a moderator who can remove offensive content and censor filters than have someone approving everything before it's posted.
Listen to criticisms and complaints, be constructive and friendly.
Your customers should be seen as your collaborators in making your community site. This attitude has much better results than restrictive control. Often the community is extremely innovative in how uses a website.
5. An online community website is never "finished".
The marketplace and the technology is evolving extremely quickly, users are finding new ways to interact all the time. On-line development needs to be fluid, with very few defined parameters. It's obviously a good idea to set goals, but it is a lot better to have a monthly development budget and create function as it is needed than to stick to a right year long development brief. By the time it's signed off it's already redundant and for the last few months your developer has been racing to complete features that were relevant a year ago.
I don't think of "launching" websites anymore, because a launch implies a finished product. Instead I refer to a website "plant" as if we were nurturing a living thing that we expect to grow and develop in ways we cannot even imagine now. Can you imaging Mark Zuckerberg one day announcing that "Facebook is finally finished"? Neither can I, Facebook today is nothing like Zuckerberg envisaged, for one thing it's a LOT bigger!
If your developer offers a monthly development / support contract take the risk with them (as long as they're using open-source tools), if not find another web developer.
6. Allow as much interaction as possible.
Ultimately people are not as interested in your brand as you'd like to think they are. They get no recognition or satisfaction from your brand by itself. They get those things from other people, they don't just want a profile... they want to show their profile to other people on your site! And that goes as much for B2B and in-house networks as it does for B2C.
Allow for friend creation, add some game dynamics like rewards and badges, allow profiles to be shared and allow for messaging.
7. Get your marketing on other social media sites, Facebook (BranchOut), Twitter, LinkedIn, etc.
Interact, make some videos, create fan pages and update it. Answer questions, read blogs and share them, make jokes and predictions, tell us about your specials and your specialties... Inspire us.
If you'd like people to regard you as interesting and click on the website links you post on social media, then the rule is post only 1 in 7 about your own business. I tend to go with 1 in 20 for my own social media.
Add social media follow and share buttons on your website, and a comment system that links to Facebook or Twitter is also a great idea.
8. Have a monthly written or video blog.
A point of credible reference is absolutely necessary for a successful on-line community. And that reference is a blog, that allows comments (a blog that does not allow comments is not blog). The secret to a successful blog is to be relevant, interesting and regular but not annoying. And use images and / or video.
9. Let people rate you.
I believe that rating is going to be bigger than search engines in this new media. Rating can be risky, it is more powerful than traditional media, in my opinion. But the most risky thing of all is not having any rating at all, or worse, ignoring the social ratings you are getting already.
So get building your own community!