‘Community’ must be one of the top 10 buzz words right now for almost every company, firm and business in operation. Mark Zuckerburg said you can’t build a community – you can only find one that is currently communicating and give them a platform to communicate better. I would add to that – you can also attract individuals who might not have known how to communicate or not known the avenues on which they could do so (especially in something more segmented then general conversation, which is what Facebook is).
Do You Have a Community?
Before you think about building a community, the first step is to check to see if you already have a community. The funny thing is that whether or not you are trying, communities often spring up on their own in the most unlikely of places. While I was working at Smucker Foods, they had a forum on one of their legacy sites – Robin Hood flour. This forum had – unbeknownst to anyone working at Smuckers – grown into a thriving community. People were sharing vacation stories, personal experiences, and everything in-between – and they didn’t have to spend a time advertising this community – it grew on its own.
What you first need to do is take your business/product/company and see where people are already talking about it. Is there a Facebook fan page already set up? Coke noticed early on that its customers were setting up their own fan pages for the product – so what did Coke do? It empowered them – giving them tons of stuff to give out, and offering to support them in any way they could. Check on the web, on forums, on Facebook and see if you can find any communities built around your product or brand.
Let’s say that your product doesn’t have a community though, where do you begin?
Building a Community
In my humble opinion, communities form around two things: content and platform. You need to provide your community with great content; it will be what originally attracts them to the space. Then, you need to provide a great platform – one that facilitates easy conversation, ease of use, and no downtime.
On the content side, the first thing you want to do is decide who your community is, then what kind of content they will be looking for. Are they looking for education, insight, how-to’s or stories? Find out what they are looking for (or take a guess) and start putting great content out there.
The second step is to build your users a great platform on which to communicate. The first step here could be just to create a basic forum to allow users to initiate conversations. Over time, you will build it out to include features that you feel users would enjoy, as well as those they request. Never stop asking your user base what you can do to improve the experience; by doing so, you will help them form an emotional bond with the community as they feel more like a partner then a user. Continue posting great content and improving the platform, and before you know it you will have established a growing community.
What’s the Point of Having a Community Anyways?
There is a lot of value to having an active community build around your site or brand. Firstly, they serve as a great testing bed for ideas, products and offerings. Instead of having to go out and run tests, feasibility studies and whatever else, you can just put the question out to your user group and ask: is this a good idea? Now, you might get overly positive data back, but at least it’s a quick way to acid test any idea.
Additionally, on implementing new ideas, you now have a vast base of beta users. You don’t need to go out and recruit: you have volunteers right in front of you. Additionally, while testing your product, users will form an emotional bond with the product as their feedback turns into actual changes – your beta users will also become your first customers – which makes for a much safer launch.
Finally, it will open up the channels for great new ideas. People have lots of great ideas about many of the products they use – but they have no way communicating those ideas to the target firm. They have no easy way to get in contact, so they just sit on the idea until the opportunity passes by. Instead, you are able to offer your customers an easy and efficient way of getting in touch with management – they have a community in which to reach out from. Maybe it’s a specific idea section, or a form of direct mail, but putting that channel out there means that a lot of people who normally wouldn’t be bothered can actually end up using it.
Forming, growing and fostering a community is perhaps one of the most overlooked tasks in marketing these days. Companies fail to put the appropriate effort into forming these communities, and therefore do not receive the benefits. Apple launches products so effortlessly because they have developed a community around their products – a community that can’t wait for the next one to come out. Put some time into growing your community, listen to their ideas (and actually DO them), and the rewards will come much faster than you think.