Strategies for building strong online communities

Zapnito covers eight strategies for building online communities with strong community cultures.
Strategies for building strong online communities
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''Culture is the name for what people are interested in, their thoughts, their models, the books they read and the speeches they hear''' - Walter Lippmann

Think about the best communities you’ve come across, what do they have in common? They could do a number of things, like unite a group of people around a common cause or improve knowledge of a specific product. But what makes them a community, what makes them unique, is the culture that’s built through members’ actions, motivations, and values. In all of your strategies for building online communities, think about the culture you want to cultivate.

Now you might ask yourself, how can I build a strong community culture? By keeping it top of mind at every stage when you build your community. 

How to build a community culture

The Cambridge Dictionary defines ‘culture’ as “the way of life, especially the general customs and beliefs, of a particular group of people at a particular time.” 

In online communities, this translates to how your members interact with your brand, other members, and any other virtual community-building activities. Every piece of content, every discussion, share, comment, and event, will contribute to your community culture. Even your user experience and the technology platform that you pick will play a critical role in shaping a successful community culture. 

Types of online community (and how this impacts your culture)

The type of online community that you’re building will influence the culture that develops from it. Broadly you can divide online communities into:

  1. Knowledge and learning communities
  2. Expert networks and advisory communities
  3. Event communities
  4. Membership communities
  5. Brand communities
  6. Communities of action

Some of these will be conversation-led communities where the purpose is about bringing people together who share common interests and goals. Other communities will be content-driven, where the focus is more on sharing knowledge and expertise across community members to help them achieve their goals and do their work effectively. Finally, support communities work in tandem with your customer service and success teams to answer questions, educate members on the best use of your product, and troubleshoot. Your community might be one of these types, or they may be a combination. 

Free vs private?

This brings us to an important decision you need to make early on when building an online community platform. You will need to decide between using a free space, like a social media platform, or building your own, branded community space. 

Online community software will give your community (and therefore, culture) a clear edge over one on a free social media platform. Firstly, you have more customization options to make the best first impression on new community members. These include brand colors, imagery, content, and layout. You can create different ‘rooms’ that focus on specific topics or interests, and that have their own sub-cultures that feel personal to every member. 

Brand-owned communities also give you greater insights based on community data. This useful information can shape your marketing and sales strategies, your customer success responses, and the events and content you offer your members. 

Overall, using dedicated software will deliver more business value long-term compared to free social networks. It gives you greater oversight and control of your community culture.

Culturally impactive communities

When done well, online communities provide benefits far beyond marketing’s remit. Therefore, when building a community, it always pays to integrate your community strategy into the business strategy. This ensures the community delivers value to the business and isn’t pigeonholed into solely being a marketing tool. Making it a core part of your business’ roadmap, like how Propolis fits into B2B Marketing’s proposition, will create synergy between your community and wider business outcomes. 

Communities can have a huge impact on your company’s soul and culture. So building a community with a strong culture can actually influence your workplace culture too. Especially if employees are interacting with community members regularly. Salesforce Trailblazers is a good example of this, providing a hotbed of ideas for members and employees alike, with the culture built around becoming better at sales and marketing. 

Strategies for building online communities (with culture in mind)

Once you’ve decided on your online community platform, it’s time to create a community. 

  • Identify your goals and purpose

Goals tell you where to aim, to have the biggest impact on your organization and members. Make sure your goals align with what your business wants to achieve, and also want your members want from your community. Understanding their goals, their ambitions, and challenges, allow you to build a community that resonates with them. 

Having a purpose and mission will help steer your community content, connections, and events. It unites community members around a common interest or cause, which instantly sparks an exciting culture. At WildHub, for example, purpose is core to the community’s success. With over 1,000 members spread across 80 countries, it is vital that the community has a strong culture that drives innovation and best practice in conservation. 

  • Have a community manager and dedicated staff

Engaged communities are not a side project. Your community needs a dedicated person or team to oversee its strategy, vision, and content. Your community manager will listen to member feedback to better serve their needs, they will moderate discussions to ensure your community remains trusted, and they will tap into the culture, sharing the right content and events with members. They will also promote your community to attract new members. 

A community manager will typically post on the community under their own account and name, participating in discussions and essentially behaving like other members. This allows them to build relationships with customers on a human level and extract greater insight to shape the community culture going forward.

  • Find your biggest fans

If you identify your core members early on in building an online community, you will tap into an invaluable resource. Your core members are the most engaged, loyal people to your business and community. They are going to be the biggest drivers of your community’s growth, culture, and retention. Support them with the right resources and knowledge to spread the word about your community. It is imperative that their needs are met and they have nothing but good things to say about their user experience.

Treat them like the VIPs that they are by offering exclusive content, events, and early access to products and services that keep them engaged and recommending others. You can also set up private rooms in your community for them to network with each other, learn the latest news and product releases, and share their feedback. 

  • Phase your approach

A phased approach to online communities gives you the time and resources to focus on building the best community, one step at a time. Start with the basics – publishing useful content that your core members will appreciate. Over time, as your community expands, you can move onto events, webinars, and eventually even one-to-one access to experts. No community opens on day one with a reputation for being a hub of expertise; that title is earned through hard work and consistency over time. 

  • Make your member experience seamless

Nobody likes a frustrating experience and as your community grows, your members may find it tricky to discover the experts and content that they need. If your community is confusing in its layout and content is not easy to find, members will quickly be turned off and discouraged from becoming active contributors.

This is where having a clear community structure makes all the difference. Divide your content and members into different rooms, based on key topics or questions. These areas may attract different audiences with different interests in each one, and you may soon find new sub-cultures emerge through them. 

  • Activate participation

Successful communities have members who actively engage with others through the platform, as well as your people from your organization who interact with them. Two-way conversations are the heart of your community culture, either between your brand and members, experts and members, or peers. 

Consider the actions you want to encourage in your community. Depending on the type of community, you might want to focus on knowledge-sharing. Other communities might want members to ask questions and support with troubleshooting. And others might want to encourage members to collaborate on projects. 

Scientific publisher Springer Nature uses its online communities to amplify the voices of researchers. Initiatives like ‘Behind the Paper’ invite members to tell their personal stories behind their research. This has become a core part of the Springer Nature USP and brand identity. Likewise, the publisher wanted to deepen relationships between its editors and researchers. It set up rooms that highlight the work that editors do on the road, going to conferences, doing field visits, and lab visits. This gives a fresh insight into the varied and busy lives of editors. 

  • Consider monetization carefully

At some point, you may wish to monetize your community. This is where connecting with your members and staying true to your original purpose will pay off — ensuring that your monetization fits well with the existing community culture and doesn’t turn your community too sales-driven. Community monetization can take many forms including premium content and events, sponsorship, advertising, and eCommerce. 

Your members are the best experts to ask about monetization and explore a new product or service for your community. When you’re looking into this area, consult your members early on and let them beta test to provide feedback. 

  • Moderating and spam

Strong, sustainable cultures are built on a foundation of trust. This is one of the edges that branded communities have over free, social media-based ones. You can make them private and exclusive to certain audiences, like C-Suite leaders. This makes the community hyper-focused on exactly what that audience needs, something that’s extremely valuable in an increasingly noisy world. 

The Winmark Global community provides a secure, digital space for C-Suite leaders to share experiences and challenges. Content and events are highly tailored to this attention and time-poor audience, with relevant content surfaced as soon as someone logs in. There are 22 private rooms for every C-Suite function and 7 channels of topics that impact business leaders.

Moderation and spam controls tie closely with trust. Have mechanisms in place to check what’s being shared through the community. To build trust, discussions, and content need to add value to members’ lives. So that largely disqualifies sales-driven content from being shared. Particularly if it is irrelevant and spammy. 

Communities aren’t built in a day

Like Rome, you cannot expect your community to be built in a day. Consistency and dedication over time will build an online community with a thriving and engaging culture. You don’t have to do this alone, your members will be a key part of cultivating your community.

Zapnito’s community experts are also available to help. Contact us today to arrange a call. 

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