What makes a community?
The most important element of community is conversation. You don’t need to log-in to a website to have a conversation online with friends, colleagues and peers. Software, authentication, “enabling technology,” a fan page or a URL all play a part in how we use or access our communities online, but they don’t make the community.
Communities form around shared interests and common problems. That doesn’t preclude products, but most product-based communities are transactional rather than social. We drop in with a question or to see if there’s someone we can help, but we generally don’t “hang out” to talk about products. For example, computer and consumer electronics manufacturers Dell, Sony and HP all have community sites. While a few expert volunteers will literally set up shop within forums like these because they like to help and they like the recognition they get from both the companies and fellow consumers, most users will flow in and out depending on information/support needs and purchase plans.
Successful company-sponsored social communities establish around shared interests, not the product per se. An example is National Geographic’s WildCam community, originally hosted on the site but now using a Facebook fan page. The conversation in the community is about the animals, not National Geographic, but the brand is reinforced continually and subtly.
What do online communities look like?
Let’s take the common picture of online community and break it down a bit.
The simplest online communities form around blogs of like subject matter, with the conversation happening on blog comments, in blog posts and across the public networks like Twitter and Facebook.
When we think about online community, though, our minds usually turn to more formal social networks. With a username and password and features such as forums, discussion boards, in-system mail, blogs and friend lists. But these communities are not a homogeneous lot by any stretch of the imagination.
You’ll find enthusiast or advocate sites. Some are barebones, others are more sophisticated, and while they may monetize with advertising or grow into businesses, they generally start because somebody cared and so did her friends. They had passion about something.
Businesses of all sizes are adding community features to their websites. Some by simply adding a discussion board or customer content area, others by building full-fledged community sites.
The tool set is just as varied, ranging from simple tools like open-source forum/discussion board software and content management systems to free community platforms like Ning to comprehensive solutions from companies like Powered.
Layered over the private networks are the big public social networks, Facebook, MySpace and LinkedIn. Of these big three, Facebook has the most traction as a consumer social network and multiple options for companies to use it as part of their social media strategy: advertising, fan (company) pages and Facebook Connect. LinkedIn seems better suited for business-to-business strategies, particularly referrals and networking and I’d put MySpace at the opposite end of the spectrum from LinkedIn — strong in entertainment, particularly music, and definitely consumer, skewing younger than both Facebook and LinkedIn.
If a company wants to actively embrace or create a community, what should it do?
The very first question you need to ask — even before where are my customers and what tools should I use — is: Are we willing to make the long-term commitment to the community? Do we have a plan for sustaining the engagement? It’s one thing to start a conversation with the customer. It’s another to keep it going.
If you aren’t certain you will be able to sustain the engagement, you are much better off doing a short-term campaign with a defined beginning and end. This sets the right expectation for the customer while giving you some experience with the community. Blogger outreach is a good starting point. Read my blogger relations category for strategy and tactics.
Let’s say, though, that everyone has deeply drunk the kool-aid and wants to charge ahead and build a social media base site beyond the company website. It’s time for questions two, three and four:
- Where are your customers? Facebook? Twitter? Some other social network? Waiting for someone (like you) to build a space that’s “just right.” Or has someone already built a social network or online space that meets the same need, attracts the same consumer? If so, you may be better off exploring a relationship with that site.
- How active are your customers likely to be? Active creators or passive consumers? You’ll want to tailor the content of a community site to the needs of your customer. You don’t want to create a slick (and expensive) site with video mashups and interactive games if your consumers don’t like to do that sort of thing. It’ll look like you threw a party and nobody came. Starting point: check out the Pew and Forrester demographic models.
- Do you have, or can you create, regular content for a site? Blog content. Video. Podcasts. Case studies. FAQs. Educational content. Content about interests you share with your customers. Things they will want to use and share with others. This is very important when considering the scope of your online site. The more of this “stuff” you have, the more you can do with and on a community site. If the pickings are slimmer, you need to narrow your scope to something you can execute flawlessly and with flair. In doubt? It is always better to start small and expand the scope as you experience success.
The answers to these questions will form the base of your strategy. Some general thoughts:
- Odds are pretty good that many of your customers will be on Facebook, so it should form part of your strategy.
- If you have the content to populate a rich community site, you might benefit from incorporating Facebook Connect to allow your users to easily share content with their friends on Facebook. Other benefits of Facebook Connect: simple authentication using Facebook credentials and increased potential to recruit new members at a lower acquisition cost. BUT: there has to be stuff to share. Worth sharing. Product Spec Sheets do NOT count.
- If your content is a little slimmer, you should start simply. Perhaps add a single forum or discussion board to your company website or build a Facebook Fan Page. Use it to test the waters, including the capacity of your firm to generate robust, share-worthy content and the level of potential participation of your market.
I was briefed recently by the folks at Powered about their Facebook Connect functionality. For large companies with the budget (typically $250K and up), a social networking company can cut the learning curve and lighten the management burden of a big community site. As the saying goes, they can do it all for you. Smaller to mid-sized companies that don’t have that much available budget? You can still learn a lot from what the big boys and girls are doing. Check it out and adapt what works for you. Need some help? Call me. 🙂