An online community can help build relationships and affinity but before you start to build there are some things you need to consider.
There are many ways to help build your brand and community has found its way to the top of that list.
It makes sense. Community is great way to connect with people, build relationships, share ideas, build affinity, and even create leads for your business.
With this in mind, it comes as no surprise that many marketing and public relations (PR) professionals have become strong advocates for building community.
However, before you run off to build a community, there are some things you need to think about.
Just as a community can help you, if not done correctly it can do harm as well.
Today I’m going to give you five things you need to consider before you start building. But, first things first.
What is a Community?
When a word is so heavily used, it starts to take on many different meanings so let’s find a common definition.
Merriam-Webster defines community as: a group of people with a common characteristic or interest living together within a larger society.
Do a search and you find online communities based on every possible characteristic and interest you can think of. You’ll find communities for scrapbookers, agency owners, salespeople, marketers, doctors, nurses, coders, celebrities, and so on.
I’ve seen people on social media refer to the people who follow them as a community. On Twitter, people find community in the hashtags they follow.
There is a fine line in some of these groups between it being a community and something else.
Remember there is a common characteristic but there should also be a difference in how people communicate. In a community, there needs to be two-way communication. Not just between the people in the group but between the creator and members of the group. If you have set-up an online space for people to talk but your not part of it then you have created something other than a community.
At this point, let’s refine our definition. A community is where people share common characteristics and/or interests where there is two-way communication between both its members and the creators.
Who Are You Creating it For?
This is important because it’s going to influence how you set up your community. Is it going to be for a specific topic, business type, or industry?
Your choices will impact who will be included and who is excluded.
When I say you’ve excluded people, I don’t mean it as a negative thing. I’m talking about people who will be interested versus those who won’t.
If your community is for people with lingering issues from Covid, people who aren’t going through this are unlikely to be interested.
If you start a group for people interested in the Seattle Seahawks or the Los Angeles Dodgers, those who aren’t fans of those teams won’t be interested in your group.
A community of people who love art won’t be of interest to people who don’t.
Make sure you know who you’re building it for but this isn’t the only element that is going to influence the creation of your community.
What is Your Goal?
If you’re an individual, the goal may be as simple as to connect with people who share your views or your likes.
However, if you’re working in a business and you are trying to get sign-off from your boss to create a community, the first question you are likely to get is, “How will this help with our business goals.”
It’s a legitimate question. I don’t have an answer for you because this is subjective to your business. But, you need to have an answer for your boss or that might be the end of the conversation.
If you are the boss, you need to understand what your goal is by creating a community and how it will play into the bigger picture.
When you’re taking actions like this you need to know how they tie back into your objectives, goals, and even your values.
What is the return on your investment? Is it connections? Leads? Money?
It could be there isn’t a business return but it’s a way of promoting your industry or the behaviors and ethics within your industry.
Where to Build
First let’s talk about the obvious places.
Facebook is the biggest social media company and they have actively promoted building communities in Facebook groups. With a built-in user base of over 2 billion people, this is certainly an attractive place to host a group and it’s free.
The downside is people can easily go down the rabbit hole on Facebook and forget to visit the group. Though I will say I’ve run into this issue on other platforms as well.
LinkedIn is another option. This site is for professionals so any groups would need to reflect the professional nature of the site. In other words, this isn’t the place to start a group that focuses on Marvel movies. As with Facebook, it’s free.
Slack may have been built to kill email but groups have thrived on this platform. On the plus side, it’s not technically a social media platform so you won’t have to compete with a newsfeed, stories, or any other feature that the social media companies decide to add that could be distractions. The downside is there will be a cost.
I was in a Slack group where there were multiple channels for people to hang out on and then they deleted several channels and decided that you could be part of one of the remaining channels.
It was a business decision based on economics. It was really expensive for the people who owned the group and they felt like they need to cut costs. I certainly didn’t fault them, in fact, I completely understood.
It’s something you to think about if you choose to build on Slack.
Now for the less obvious options.
You could choose to see your social media followers as your community. This means you need to let people what you talk about. Say for instance you choose to do this on Twitter, in your bio you’ll need to be clear what topics you discuss.
If you say you talk about healthcare, the people you follow are going to expect this to be the case most of the time. If they show up expecting one thing and you deliver something else, it’s going to be an issue with maintaining the community.
Twitter communities have also formed around hashtags and chats. Hashtags are nothing new but I never thought of them as a community. They were just a hashtag but I watched Christina Garnett work to turn #MarketingTwitter into a community. She’s not the only one. Others have jumped and have helped promote this idea as well.
I’ve watched Michelle Garrett‘s #FreelanceChat and it’s not just a chat. Many of the same people show up every week because they share the common characteristic of being freelancers and are interested in the topics that are discussed. It may be a chat to some, but it seems that the majority of people feel it’s a community.
How Are You Going to Manage Your Community
You’ll need to set-up rules that everybody is expected to follow and know how you’re going to hold people accountable.
The one big turn-off to me in the decision not to create a community is moderating it. There are going to have to be moderators. Otherwise, you risk the community turning into the wild west.
I just don’t have the time to spend all day making sure everything is running smoothly. This includes promoting a sense of community and making sure people don’t feel ignored.
This begs several questions: Do you have the time to do it? Do you have several employees who can split the responsibility? Do you need to hire people to do this? Do you have the budget to build a community if there is a cost involved? What kind of training might need to be involved both at the start and on an ongoing basis?
There is a second piece of this puzzle. In many communities the people who are moderating it are also engaging within the community.
I know what you are thinking. “You told me earlier that if the creators of the community aren’t engaging you’ve created something other than a community.”
Yes, I did and this is where it becomes complicated. Being a moderator and a community member can be a fine line to walk. Are you going to be able to wear both these hats at the same time?
Before you say yes, remember you’re human. You are just as likely to get caught up in the conversation as everybody else. If you’re not able to step back and see the whole picture, which means recognizing and putting aside your own biases, you could be perceived as part of the problem. It’s not a good look when you’re the moderator.
This leads to the next issue. Hopefully, everybody is civil and respectful but is this unlikely to be the case all of the time. At some point, it’s likely there is going to be conflict.
The question comes down to this: How are you going to deal with things when the situation becomes disrespectful?
Each platform will have its own challenges when it comes to keeping some sort of order. It’s easier to do on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Slack because you can kick people out if it comes to it.
On Twitter, it’s not necessarily so easy. If your community is built around you, then you can block the person and that’s the end of it. If the community has been built around a hashtag it becomes more of an issue. You may have to report them.
As with everything in life, sometimes the rules aren’t broken so much as bent. You will need to decide if you need to deal with it and if so how.
When I worked in human resources at Intel we used to get calls occasionally from managers who wanted to know if they could take a specific action. It could be something such as an employee who wanted to work from home one day a week.
We would go through the guidelines and if it wasn’t an issue I would them know that they could take the action but if they did they would be setting a precedent. This meant that if they did this for one employee they needed to be prepared to do it for all their employees.
This same mindset applies to your community. If you are letting some people bend or even break the rules, and then put your foot down when others do the same, you are engaging in discrimination. This will not go over well.
Most people don’t want to create waves so they may not say anything but it could mean they don’t visit your group as often or they may disconnect altogether.
But, there will be some people who will decide to call you out publicly on platforms that you don’t control which will hurt the reputation of you and your community.
Is it Really A Community?
At the beginning of the article, I stopped and we defined the word community. I did this so we would have a common definition going forward.
This doesn’t mean that everybody using the word community is using it in the same way as we defined. There are some who are using it simply because it is the buzzword of the day.
It may seem strange that I’m bringing this up but I’ve had a couple of experiences where I joined groups and then realized they weren’t what they were touted. They weren’t communities but fan clubs.
You need to be honest on what you want to create. Everything we talked about before is impacted if you are really trying to create something more akin to fandom than community.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that creating a fan club is a bad thing. However, the experience needs to match the expectation.
I’ve mentioned in the past that I used to play drums and one of my favorite drummers is Jeff Porcaro. Jeff was in the band Toto but he also was a studio musician. He’s played on albums by Paul McCartney, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Bruce Springsteen, Lionel Richie, Don Henley, Michael McDonald, Randy Newman, Dolly Parton, Aretha Franklin, Pink Floyd, Chicago, and Steely Dan to name just a few.
He died in 1992 but I’m in a community on Facebook where we share our stories about him and how he influenced us as drummers. We also share videos and songs he played on.
It’s much more a fan club created for fans by fans. It’s an example straddling the line between community and a fan club.
Forums are different as well because there is usually a single issue that brings people in, such as a problem. Once that problem is fixed, then people leave or stop engaging.
What you might find is that how you see it and how other people see it could be completely different.
While you may have every intention of creating community it’s ultimately up to those who show up how they see it and use it.
I’ve been in marketing groups where people only show up when they have a problem. It doesn’t mean you don’t have a community but it does mean those people see it less as a community and more like a forum.
If everybody is only showing up with problems to be fixed you’re going to have to decide how you can promote a sense of community which is talking and building relationships.
Are You Still Interested?
There is much to think about and right about now you might be thinking, “Is it worth it?”
Only you can answer this question.
I can only say that I’ve been in communities where I’ve learned a ton and met some great people that have become friends.
I’ve also been in communities there weren’t really worth the time because the company or person that created it made it all about them.
Now it’s up to you consider what we’ve talked about and make the right choice for you.