It seems that online community managers have straight-forward things to do.
They build, manage and grow online communities for company brands, organizations or individuals.
They try and test strategies that work and they eliminate things that stopped working.
Online community management is one of those jobs that did not exist several decades ago.
The Community Roundtable reminded us of the brief history of community management.
Apparently, the first communities such as The Well and Habitat were founded in 1987 and the term ‘‘online community manager’’ was coined in 1995.
Since 2000s digital environment has become huge part of our lives while we now gather and interact online with the ease of face-to-face communication.
Around 2005 companies created forums where their community managers would answer typical questions of loyal consumers and cozy influencer groups. In 2008 community management on social media became more common and Gartner predicted that more than 60% of Fortune 1000 companies with a website will connect to or host some kind of online community by 2010.
Since 2012 authorities in community management field have been contributing with industry reports and bestselling books, while conferences for online communities gradually became a mainstream way to do business. Likewise, online community vendors started to provide training and certification courses along with their technology.
In 2015 digital strategists focused on fine-tuning user needs on the basis of their behavior online and offline. The intention was that content and offering can reach users at the right place (marketing channel or social media ecosystem) and during right time (at a particular point in their user journey).
People belonged to communities since earliest days of our civilization so the online ones are an obvious next step in the 21 century.
Certainly, before the age of social media the seeds and roots of community building existed for centuries.
Communities thrived back then in the bricks-and-mortar shape. People gathered in person around their interests, family relations, area of living, nationality, income, social status, education, profession, social circle.
When our existence started to shift into the digital, this online area became the mirror of real life.
After almost a decade of community building in our Nichiate team we can now turn back and look at all the challenges in online community management with a fresh perspective.
There were many misconceptions, foggy areas and uncertainties when we were starting out.
We knew that online communities are built in phases that are mutually dependent: from ideation and discovery phase to preparation and community launch, as well as from onboarding of the first members to community growth, gamification and maturity phase with clear monetization.
Here I want to share with you 9 most important things that we wished we knew about community building and management when we were starting out Nichiate:
- Be as clear as you can about the goals your online community should achieve.
- Focus on your own business and USP when you prepare your community.
- Do important community building tasks now and create solid future foundations.
- Avoid writer’s block by doing the proper planning.
- Accept that your onboarding for community owners will be initially in person and not scalable.
- Hand-pick and headhunt your first community ambassadors and members.
- Do not hesitate to implement gamification when appropriate in your community.
- Most of the content in your community should NOT be produced by your core team.
- It is never too early to think about strategies for monetizing your community.
Your online community idea will evolve through time, yet try to make it a real niche from early days.
Bear in mind that online community should be a high priority for everyone involved in building it.
This is why clear goals and excessive communication will help your team reach community building targets in the first place.
Instead of following most of the time what the competition in your niche is doing, focus on your company’s competitive advantages.
Try to find your own sweet spot, authentic voice and strategies to showcase your company as authority in the industry through community as a communication channel.
One of the reasons why companies and organizations use communities is because they try to increase their relevance for the FUTURE as they create knowledge and sales automation hubs NOW in the shape of communities that will hopefully become self-sustainable.
It is impossible to predict future of your market and industry three years from now and what exact questions your users will ask in the community.
Thus, while you are building online community, you should ask yourself, ‘‘What will remain the same? What will people continue to be interested in and what they will keep asking?’’
Communities are in a constant state of flux because all these factors change and evolve: member needs, technology, price of solutions, business goals, and market conditions.
You should build the community in agile sprints so that you keep completing tasks and grow your momentum on a weekly basis. At the same time, you can preserve the long-term perspective while asking ‘‘What questions and issues will remain relevant for my members years from now?’’
In the preparation stage of your community, you should think about the most appropriate content that your readers would like to use.
For example, define in advance the number of content units (blogs, Q&As, infographics, photos, podcasts, webinars, etc.) that you want your audience to see upon entering the community.
Those content items can be included in your internal content calendar. Then you can track easily whether some writing is in progress, pending, finished or needs an update after additional questions and feedback from community members.
In your team, especially if you are a startup only several people will be capable of doing demos as well as onboarding clients.
Hopefully, as your business grows and your community technology becomes more sophisticated you will be able to automate and gamify some parts of onboarding so that it feels as if the real human interacts with the community owners rather than your expert be physically present 100%.
Still, do not get discouraged because in early beginnings you will have to make tiny steps and your service will be completely personalized. As Paul Graham shared the philosophy of Y Combinator, ‘‘[In the beginning] do things that do not scale.’’
Community building is not for the faint of heart because the failure rate can go up to 70%. You should know in advance who will be key 50-100 members that you will onboard first as your community ambassadors and thanks to whom your community will grow.
Likewise, you should know how you will motivate those influential members to work with you and what incentive you will provide for them BEFORE you ask them for a favor, actually an honor to participate in building your epic community from the very beginning.
Initially, you will use the common sense and empathy to figure out the needs of your members.
After a while, when members try out your solution and engage in gamified activities, their feedback will help you upgrade your user experience, iterate the product and then wow them again.
This argument seems to be counter-intuitive but we learned the right amount of guidance, support and autonomy that community creators should give to their members.
Just think about it practically.
Your team should build foundations for sustainable marketplace or knowledge hub where members: professionals in a certain niche will be compelled to contribute their insights through useful content and compelling storytelling.
If you get back to #1, you will remember to build your community with a clear end-goal.
When you figure out timely how community can boost your revenue, you may utilize new business models and partnerships.
Just watch out that if you started with free content, which most communities are, you should provide value consistently so that people come back to you over and over again.
Then, you have solid foundations to provide premium features and content, as well as additional support or tailor-made consulting for paying customers who want to collaborate with you more.
If you made it this far and actually took the time to read this post until the very end you already have more clarity about things you can improve in your processes.
You already have actionable advice that may save you a lot of sleepless nights, money and failed business partnerships.
You got the tried-and-tested knowledge that we wished we could have in our first months.
Building your online community is not easy and it takes time. But this is how all things that are worthwhile in our lives function. Eventually all the effort pays off because our teams, our clients, our profits and our entire businesses get transformed along the lines.
Written by: Milena Milićević