Humans are social beings. We need to meet like-minded people, we grow by learning from experts, we are challenged by those with different experiences and viewpoints. That’s why leading brands are increasingly using online communities to build stronger connections with their customers and employees.
Planning and building an online community are major parts of the journey - but success ultimately hinges on what happens afterwards. Your online community management will make or break it. This can be tricky; it requires patience, consistency, and the understanding and acceptance that mistakes will happen along the way. To help you out, we’ve created this ultimate guide. Read on to learn everything you need to know about managing an online community.
What is online community management?
First things first: what even is online community management? Simply put, this term refers to all the tasks involved in the upkeep of a community after it has been launched. Its purpose is to create a thriving, engaged community by regularly sharing topics and content, listening to members, and actively participating in discussions.
Why is community management so important?
Community management offers several benefits to organizations that are willing to dedicate the time and resources to do it effectively.
First, it creates an engaged audience that aligns with your target market. This makes it easier to sell to your market, involves customers in the product development process, provides an option for beta testing, and develops significant brand loyalty.
Online communities also leverage the power of peer-to-peer and peer-to-expert connections. This builds trust, both in your brand and your product. The Oystercatchers Club, for example, enables marketing leaders and agencies to share their expertise and, in the case of agencies, showcase their work for feedback. It offers exclusive access to some of the marketing sector’s greatest minds and cutting-edge discussions to drive the industry forward.
A well-managed community can breathe new life into your brand, raising awareness and adding a human element to your brand identity. The discussions and connections made through your community can foster goodwill towards your brand and make it more memorable.
The value provided by an online community can make your brand stand out from the competition. Particularly if, by joining your community, members gain access to support, advice, and content they otherwise wouldn’t receive elsewhere. Internally, the value derived from your community will drive sales, inform marketing, and help with product development. Salesforce Trailblazers shows this in action. Through the community, members gain access to exclusive content and learning opportunities. Some Trailblazers can also provide feedback on Salesforce’s products and even gain early access to some features.
Community management framework
1. Have an online community management strategy
The first step in consistently engaging and growing your community is to create a plan. Your online community management strategy will provide structure and accountability for your day-to-day work in the community. It’s particularly critical in the early months of your community when there’s less user-generated content, fewer discussions and members are less likely to engage independently.
When developing your strategy, begin with your goals. Aligning with business goals ensures that your online community is adding tangible value to your organization. Lining up with your community’s objectives ensures that everything filtering down from it - like your topics, content format, and post cadence - fulfils those goals. Finally, think about individual member goals and how your community can support them.
Next, consider your audience’s needs and preferences. What kind of content do they want to see and when do they want to see it? Discover the times when they are most active online (and, therefore, when your community posts should increase). Look at what formats are most popular with your members. Some people prefer video to written posts, for example.
2. Create compelling content
It’s important to note here that not all content is equal in the eyes of the community. People won’t engage with content that isn’t valuable. It must make their lives and work easier, keep them up-to-date with the latest trends and news, or give them an edge over competitors in their industry. Therefore, your content must go beyond simply selling what you do repeatedly. By all means, as your community matures, add a couple of sales-driven posts. But they should be in the minority.
Having a library of evergreen content that can be reused will help you to keep posting consistently. Content can be updated and recontextualized for different purposes — as long as it continues to add value for your members. Content can also be repackaged into different formats, a blog might become an infographic, a presentation can become a video. This makes your content last longer, meaning greater returns, and a wider reach.
Always have a mind for innovation — what new content and topics can you offer your community that will set it apart and grab attention? Varying what’s on offer, from events to articles, will encourage people to check your community more regularly.
3. Offer multimedia formats
Conversely, having a range of multimedia content available to your community will meet different people’s preferences and communication styles. Approximately 65% of the population are visual learners, so offer content that will be more easily absorbed and remembered by them.
Some other formats that could suit your community are:
- Webinars and expert panels.
- Live streaming.
- TV studio filming.
- Community roundtables.
Don’t be afraid to experiment with new formats to test what resonates the most with your members.
Webinars, for example, can be used to present a speaker’s insights, demo a product, or train the audience in a particular skill. Expert panels and roundtables are a great way of exploring a topic or trend and gathering several different perspectives from industry experts. Live streaming offers greater exclusivity and authenticity to those who tune in live, which can give extra incentive for people to engage with your community. For further reach post-event, recordings can be shared for those who couldn’t attend and to encourage longer-term discussions.
Finally, for a real air of professionalism, a TV studio filming can make your event look really slick. This involves a professional film and TV crew handling the practical details of your recording, from sound to lighting. It’s worth exploring if you have a flagship annual event. Simplycommunicate chose this option in November 2020 when hosting their annual simplysummit event, taking the capabilities of virtual events to new heights.
4. Showcase community members
When it comes to finding topics that resonate, ask your audience what they want to see. Discover what their ambitions and pain points are, then create content that helps them. As your community matures, tapping into discussions and debates can show you trending themes that you can use for content. Even better, involve members in that content’s creation.
Ask your influential members (the people who get the highest engagement on their posts) what they’re working on or thinking about. Interview them and tell their stories. This will help to build connections between members as well as highlight your community’s experts. You could also use this tactic to showcase less visible members who have something valuable to add.
Springer Nature does a brilliant job of this across its 20+ communities. Its Behind the Paper series showcases researchers and paper authors in a human way - enabling them to tell the personal story behind their work. It also highlights the work and experiences of its editors, showing readers what editors are working on, what they’re looking for, and building trust between the two groups.
5. Reward your members
Some members respond well to incentives and competitions. When done well, such tactics can really drive your community’s growth and ongoing engagement.
Providing exclusive access to content, experts, or events through the community will give people a reason to keep returning. Likewise, you can personalize their experience by sending a celebratory message on special events like their birthday or the day they first joined the community. Shout outs and spotlights can also make members feel valued and foster connections across the community.
Competitions can encourage greater interaction, especially in the early days of your community. Similarly, you can reward members for recommending others to join. A word of warning, however: don’t overdo it with gift cards, discounts, and freebies. Your community engagement may become reliant on these and if you then stop or reduce these incentives, your membership will plummet.
6. Encourage networking
As a community manager, part of your job will be ensuring people engage with your community organically (that is, without your prompting or posts). Your ideal scenario is that people return to your online community constantly to post their thoughts, take part in discussions, and share their knowledge. The foundation to this is built through networking.
When people network with their peers through a community, they begin to see it as a vital place to meet and talk. It generates value for them, going beyond a place where they can simply interact with your brand. Your efforts will encourage people to join, but it's the network that will convince them to stay.
WildHub is a Zapnito-powered online community of conservationists that supports the efforts of WildTeam to protect endangered species across the globe. The community boasts over 1,000 members spanning 80 countries, meaning its influence is felt on a global scale. Networking and communication are crucial to animal conservation, particularly during the pandemic when international travel has been heavily restricted for the majority of people. Without a way for conservationists to share ideas and collaborate, countless species would be at risk of further endangerment.
Your members might need a push before they begin networking with each other organically. Some ways to encourage community networking include:
- Virtual or in-person mixers where people can break the ice and find common interests.
- Webinars and video panels where discussions are sparked.
- Starting open-ended discussions in a room or channel.
Two more tips for community management: policing and feedback
The tactics mentioned above, when used consistently, will take your community to the next level. There are two other considerations to make that will help your members get the most from your online community.
Processes to police your community and deal with issues
With any luck, problematic members will be a rarity in your community. Even so, it would be remiss to overlook this important aspect of online community management.
Setting community rules
The first step in avoiding any issues within your community is ensuring everyone understands the rules. These will be unique to your community and audience, but generally, some good ones are:
- Respect each member and different viewpoints.
- Don’t post derogatory and abusive comments or posts.
- No spam (or sales, if this is relevant to your community).
- Stay on topic (comments and contributions should remain relevant to what’s being discussed).
- Keep it accurate.
- Observe copyright and trademark law — and any relevant local legislation.
- Respect privacy.
Engage privately with problematic members
If there are issues with an individual in your community, it’s worth engaging with the person in private to explore if they have a genuine grievance. Messaging them privately before taking further action will also give you all the facts you need to make a decision. For complicated matters, you can turn to an inner circle of core members to come to a solution. Finally, as a last resort, a permanent ban should be considered.
Remember, your community is only as strong as its members. Most of them will be there because they believe in the community. So, protect this trust by being prepared to act swiftly when dealing with problems in the community.
Gather feedback and act on it
Feedback from your community is essential if you’re going to understand if it’s meeting your members’ needs and expectations. It will also tell you if you’re hitting your KPIs and goals.
You can gather feedback through regular surveys, one-to-one meetings, group sessions, or posting the questions directly in your online community. Aim to do this at regular intervals so members can anticipate when the next feedback round is coming. Incentives can also encourage participation.
Ensure that the questions you ask align with your KPIs. For instance, if one goal is to boost retention, you could ask members if the community makes them feel more loyal towards your brand. If a KPI is to increase sales, you could also members if they have made a purchase from your brand in the last 6-12 months and if the online community influenced this.
Results from this can help you shape the future of your community and can also be shared widely with stakeholders to increase buy-in for your online community.
As you can see, online communities require a great deal of maintenance. Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither will your community. As long as you have a plan to consistently engage with your members, encourage interaction, and understand if your community is hitting your targets, you’re on the right path.
It’ll be more than worth it in the long run. A well-managed online community will provide endless opportunities to boost your brand, foster deep connections with your customers and prospects, inform your strategies, and connect with influential thought leaders. By putting the groundwork in now, your organization will benefit for years to come.