How to plan an online community

Follow this guide to ensure you build your community on solid foundations.
How to plan an online community

Online communities are growing in number and in popularity - a trend which is set to continue over the next decade. But building an online community and attracting an audience is not something that happens overnight.

To guarantee the best results for your community and ensure steady ROI, you need to build on solid foundations. Planning is everything when it comes to online communities - from your target audience to your revenue drivers, the key is to know exactly what you want before you bring your ideas to life.

There are numerous stages to this planning process, all of which are essential to your success and require a few questions to be answered. Here’s a guide to those questions that will get you on your way to building a thriving online community that allows expert voices to be heard.

We've also included a worksheet which will allow you to create, articulate and validate the mission statement for your community.

1. What is your community’s purpose?

The first thing to take into consideration is whether or not an online community is what you and your customers really need. Keep in mind that running an online community and keeping engagement high requires a lot of hard work and manpower.

Planning your community team is a vital step. Do you have the staff to keep things ticking over? And will you use the community frequently enough and generate enough discussion to keep people coming back? Take a look at our previous article on the role of the Community Manager for a greater insight into what this person does, and how vital their work is when in the early stages of building a community.

It’s worth considering that the needs of your organization can be very different from those of your customers. For an online community to work, there needs to be a mutual benefit to having more channels of communication between a company and its customers.

If you treat your community as a side project, it is unlikely to succeed.

Communities only succeed when they are a core feature of your organization, not just an add on. For this reason, you need to be sure that your reasons for planning a community chime with your values. Everything else will stem from these reasons, meaning it is crucial that you know them inside out. If you treat your community as a side project, it is unlikely to succeed.

2. Define your goals

Maybe you’re looking to gain as many members as possible, or perhaps your aim is to see a large amount of organic content produced by your users. There are no wrong answers to this question, but knowing exactly what your success looks like allows you to plan the rollout of your community more effectively.

As Feverbee highlight, it is important to remember that the goal is the outcome of the community rather than a behavior itself. A goal could be to improve customer retention or reduce customer acquisition costs. Engagement rates and web traffic allow you to track the behavior supporting these goals, but are not the goals themselves.

The key when setting these goals for your community is to ensure that they are SMART goals - specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound. By setting out your main targets, such as driving revenue or customer retention, you can then break these down into smaller and more tangible goals which can be tracked over time.

3. What is your mission statement?

Now you understand your purpose and goals, the next thing to consider is what can you offer members that they cannot get elsewhere?

Being clear on your mission statement is crucial here. Many communities are built upon a vague theory about what members want. In many cases, this is not specific enough. By creating a laser-focused mission statement, it becomes much easier to create a reason for users to join and, more importantly, to stay.

A crucial step here is quantifying the mission statement. This is where you ask the people who would become your community members what they want from the community and if your mission statement chimes with those pain points and value creators.

Use the worksheet provided to get your mission statement in writing and ensure your goals for your community are clear. Being able to refer back to this later will be helpful when assessing the success of your community and figuring out what you should be doing differently.

4. How will you measure success? What are your KPIs?

Different online communities cater to different needs, and thus the criteria for success can vary considerably. Having clear KPIs will be crucial to track the effectiveness of your community and to be able to demonstrate this effectiveness to other stakeholders in your organization.

As we wrote last year, your KPIs should map onto your goals, allowing you to monitor the behaviors that will produce the desired outcomes for your community. For example, if the goals you set for your community are predominantly financial, your KPIs might be focused on transactions such as purchasing of on-demand content or paid subscriptions.

5. Which platform suits your community best?

The platforms available vary massively in terms of features and specifications, but also what they stand for and their vision/mission. Some are more suited to forum-based networking, while others are more enterprise-focused. Do you need to integrate with other systems, like your CRM or analytics tools? How flexible do you need the design to be? These are all important questions.

Due to its focus on expertise and collective intelligence, Zapnito is the platform of choice for organizations with intellectual overhead who need to better communicate and deliver that to their audience. This includes publishers and information providers, events organizers and software companies that need to educate and engage their customers. 

The key to getting this crucial decision right is to first follow the other steps in this list carefully, ensuring that your strategy is as thought-out and bulletproof as possible. Establishing everything you want from your community to the letter means you know what you’re looking for from the outset. This ensures that you don’t have to waste precious time and resources on a platform that will not suit your needs in the long term.