Communities are fast becoming an essential marketing tool for many organizations. But those who aren’t familiar with the marketing channel might be wondering how to manage an online community effectively. We’ve created this guide to online community management best practices that will get your community off to the strongest start.
What is community management?
Community management takes several forms. Some organizations rely solely on basic digital marketing platforms like social media. More advanced community teams have dedicated online community software that enables them to create branded communities for their different target audiences.
There are many benefits to having a brand-owned community, like having a space that truly reflects a brand’s identity. Such communities are invaluable at collecting data that can inform marketing, sales and product strategies. They also give greater control to a community team, making it easier to experiment with new ideas, add features, and tailor the community to the organization’s and members’ needs.
How to manage a community well
To manage a community, many organizations will hire a specific individual, a community manager, to oversee it. In large organizations and communities, this may be a dedicated community management team. Whatever your approach, here are eight best practices worth following.
1. Know your audience
Your community will be heavily influenced by your community members’ interests, needs, and challenges. Before building a community, take time to understand who you want to cater to. Ask your target audience what they want from your new community — including what topics and content formats they prefer and when they’re likely to engage with your community. Test an early concept with small groups and gather their feedback. This early groundwork can make all the difference to your community’s success.
In the long term, it’s worth checking in regularly with community members to make sure it's still meeting their expectations. An annual or twice-yearly feedback survey can tell you if your community is on-track and give ideas for future improvements. Regular social listening will tell your community manager what topics are resonating most and give an early warning of any issues.
2. Offer the right content
In the fake news era, more people are seeking out expert content that gives them an edge and builds trust. Done well, content can cost, on average, 62% less than traditional marketing tactics and deliver three times more leads. But what is good content?
Again, it largely depends on your audience. However, some hard-and-fast rules apply to all good content. Firstly, you need to be consistent in your timing and tone. People must know when to check your community for new pieces. There’s one caveat. At the start of building your community, when user-generated posts might be light, it’s worth creating more content to drive engagement. As your community matures, more members will create their own content and help your community become self-sufficient.
Tonally, you want to strike the right level of complexity for all community members. Content developed for IT leaders will look very different to content tailored to marketers.
Find the best formats
Content can take many forms and the mix of what you use will differ depending on your community’s goals. Questions and discussion threads can spark greater engagement and networking, while articles are great for thought leadership. Podcasts or videos can be used to engage community members on-the-go. Don’t be afraid to experiment with your formats and analyse the results to find your perfect content mix.
Another important factor in creating successful content is to put it in the right place. There is a glut of content out there. Every minute, 500 hours of YouTube content is created, along with 1,440 WordPress posts (aka blogs), and 3.3 million Facebook posts. People want to be able to find the right content quickly. Plus, as your community grows, the amount of content it generates could become overwhelming.
Separating content by topic can help members find what they’re looking for. Similarly, you can group content that’s specifically created to support an event or that’s been created by a specific expert. Virtual “rooms” can ensure members only hear about the content that directly interests and impacts them. It also encourages members to meet others with the same interests and expertise.
Finally, your content needs to give members something that they cannot get anywhere else.
3. Provide opportunities for networking
Networking generates huge value for an online community, far beyond that created by social media marketing. In a community, people get a space to meet like-minded peers and share knowledge. This peer-to-peer connection can really drive innovation and ideas, help with troubleshooting, and boost someone’s career prospects. It’s invaluable to those who might otherwise not be able to attend in-person networking regularly.
By turning your community into an expert and human-driven hub, you set yourself apart from the traditional social networks.
Brand-owned communities, that have real people powering them, will build trust more easily than a social media group. This trust is like gold at a time when only a third of people trust brands.
4. Be available
A major benefit of having an online community is how it improves customer support. Yet, people increasingly want to interact in real-time (LINK). A large part of your community manager’s role will be interacting with members throughout the day. They will surface content and facilitate discussions. Most importantly, they need to be readily available to answer any questions or concerns from members.
It’s not possible to be online 24/7 unless you have a large community management team. So the next best thing is to clearly communicate when a community manager is online. If they are offline, let members know when to expect a response.
To manage this schedule, it’s worth outlining timings in a community management strategy. That way, everyone in your team (and community) will be aware of contact time expectations, the escalation process (if needed) and who is responsible for monitoring and replying to posts.
5. Offer exclusivity
To retain your members and attract new ones, you need to offer something they can’t get anywhere else. Exclusive content, access to experts and event speakers, early access to products, discounts, and exclusive events are just some ways to stand out. Exclusivity can also reward members for their contributions. For example, highly engaged members could get invited to a VIP event for regular contributors. Or member spotlights could highlight the most dedicated community members and grow their profiles.
6. Think externally
Your community can be perfectly complemented by external activities like events and giveaways.
Holding webinars and events that align with your community’s interests can generate a lot of buzz in a short time. It gives people a reason to join a community and network with others. Pre-event, a speaker could host an exclusive Q&A to generate interest for their event session. Post-event, the community can keep discussions going so people get more opportunities to network, explore topics and innovate.
SimplyCommunicate employs this tactic for its annual simplyIC event. Having an online space alongside a physical event means people can continue connections post-event through the online community. It also helped event organizers pivot to a virtual event during the first pandemic lockdown.
7. Promote self-sufficiency
As your community grows and members become more engaged, it will become self-sufficient. Encouraging this will foster a unique community that’s powered by its members, creating spontaneous discussions that aren’t led by your brand. It will add value and allow your community managers to focus on other growth activities. It can even lower support costs.
Questions can be answered by other community members, peers can share their best practices or solve problems, and experts can offer their unique experiences and contribute content. If your community is centred around a product, members can share their tips to make the most of your product. They might even recommend others in your product line — and peer recommendations influence more than 90% of all B2B buying decisions.
8. Set targets and report back
To ensure your community is adding value to your organization, it’s worth setting targets. These might assess community engagement (likes, comments and user-generated content), growth (member numbers) or networking (number of average connections each member has). It might be specific to an event (how many members attended) or a topic (how much a room has grown over 12 months). Don’t forget, your community is also a useful source of feedback so don’t be afraid to ask your members directly for their thoughts about your online community.
Regularly reviewing data based on your targets will tell you when you’re on-track and help you quickly respond if you’re not. At the same time, reviewing external things that may impact your community (new trends or competitor products, for instance) will help your community adapt over time.
Have a regular reporting schedule for key stakeholders including your senior leadership. Sharing in this way will build buy-in for future plans and opens the floor to new perspectives and recommendations. Tailor your report to each stakeholder (your CMO will care about different metrics to your CEO and CFO). Visuals can also help to break up large chunks of information and data.
Building a better tomorrow
A well-managed community will, over time, grow to become a core asset in your marketing plans. No other channel can successfully unite your customers, prospects, partners, industry heavyweights, and other thought leaders. Investing in an online community today will help you build a better business tomorrow. Shaping your products, strategy, and decisions for decades to come.
Ready to see how an online community can expand your network? Request a demo here, or for more information contact firstname.lastname@example.org.