The five keys to building a strong online community

Build it and they will come? Such a common mistake. We’ve met many organisations who started out installing a free community tool and waiting for the crowds to join them. When only a few people engage, the excuses pile up: there are too many networks already; our members don’t want/need a community. More often than not, members DO want a community: they didn’t engage with you or your program in the first place to be left high and dry after the initial buzz. The idea that there are too many networks is a fallacy, too. People will comfortably sign in to any number of social tools provided they have a compelling reason to do so. And there lies the challenge: how compelling is YOUR online community?

1. Leadership = the art of followership

You cannot compel followers, and you cannot compel engagement. Charlene Li, in her recent book The Engaged Leader, reminds us that leadership is a two-way, constant, authentic relationship. If you want the people in your wider network to come together to form a strong community, you have to communicate effectively the reason they should follow you there, and stay in the loop.

2. Use genuine content

If you can bring experts into the conversation, people have a reason to engage. Reporting second-hand information, however good, is not as compelling as hearing it from the horse’s mouth. Forming a community around a business network? Get the senior executives in your member organisations to post their take on the world, not the interns and junior marketing staff. The value of your community is linked to the value of your content.

3. Manage brand ambassadors

Managing an online community can be overwhelming – it’s a full time job, a career path for many. When you start out, use your brand ambassadors to inject their enthusiasm. Get them on board with the goals you’ve set, both in terms of the benefits for community members and the benefits for you. In most cases the key target for an organiser is member retention and referrals, while the goal for members is to network and learn and gain value. Fulfilling the members’ goals fulfills yours.

4. Harness complaints

Don’t fear criticism about your community. What’s the old plea from shop owners and restaurateurs world wide? If you love us, tell others – if you have a problem, tell us. Nobody is perfect, and it’s a human habit to pass on the negative to the world; the widespread use of social media amplifies complaints. This can be turned to your advantage! Deal publicly and swiftly with any issues, and engage with the complainant. If they took the time to complain, there’s a good chance they are ready to help you improve what you offer, and if properly managed they can become a strong resource.

5. Get creative about driving engagement

People won’t just log on to your new community for fun. They need to be reminded it’s there, and given that compelling reason to engage. Get creative about driving engagement from other places. If you have a regular newsletter, add links to posts on your community. If you have a face to face event, register the attendees by adding them to an interest group and showing them how they can carry on networking online. Make your community the go-to destination for your members to fulfill their own needs, and by doing so you can reach your goals.

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Kate Baucherel