Branded online communities are increasingly appealing to non-profits, professional associations, and B2B and B2C brands. In an online world that is becoming more crowded and dominated by search and social algorithms, communities can provide a safe space for individuals to connect and communicate.
As someone who speaks to many brands that are launching their online communities for the first time, I commend those who take the risk to better engage with their customers. However, even the few brands that have the courage and conviction to launch an online community often have misconceptions when starting out. These misconceptions can lead to surprises, disappointment, and ultimately, failure for the community.
If you’re considering launching an online community, here are a few common misconceptions you should be aware of:
Misconception #1: “If You Build It They Will Come”
It’s surprising how often brands believe that launching an online community is simply a matter of setting up a technology platform, creating a few groups or sub-groups, and inviting their email list. Many of my clients are shocked at the amount of work required to manage the community once it’s launched.
It’s important to understand that simply building a space and calling it a community does not guarantee that people will show up and start engaging. If you’re considering launching an online community, be prepared to dedicate at least a full year to thoughtfully creating content, events, and activities to engage your community.
The effort required to build a great community is front-loaded, meaning you’ll need to put in an asymmetric amount of work relative to the return in the first year. Building the community is just the beginning; managing it is equally important.
Misconception #2: Tying Growth Metrics to the Community
Attribution is already difficult on the marketing and sales side of the equation. There is no problem with starting a branded community to help with acquisition (i.e. the community becomes a product/service benefit) and/or retention. However, it becomes tricky when you start making claims about “ROI from the community.” The community shouldn’t be a place to sell products or services, so it’s hard to attribute direct revenue from it.
With the membership communities that I manage, we see increases in retention rates correlated with community engagement and value gained from the community (we measure this via surveys and polls). However, we all know that “correlation doesn’t imply causation.” We can measure what happens within a community and ultimately how healthy our community is. But just like marketing attribution, it gets a little murky when we try to tie our community metrics back to growth metrics. In short, the metrics for community are not particularly useful for growth.
If you’re having trouble justifying this line of reasoning with your boss (or the person funding your community program), reach out to me. I’d be happy to give you a few pointers on how to handle the corporate speak.
Misconception #3: Only Focusing on Online Interactions and Engagement
Online communities provide the opportunity to build community at scale. However, it is important to remember that the true value of community lies in gathering people together face-to-face. The are the original, OG communities.
Too often, we forget that physical, in-person connection is one of the best ways to build communities. When working with our clients, I always challenge the team to think about planning small, in-person events to bring people together and engage the community. This is also a great call to action to encourage the community to self-organize.
The Yelp Elite community events are a popular example of an online community that gained strength through its in-person events. While more difficult to plan, manage, and budget for, these events bring a completely different element to your community. While online interactions are great for day-to-day communication, creating in-person events can provide a shared experience that truly strengthens your community.
Misconception #4: The Path to Building a Mature Community is Linear
Whenever we kick off our community strategy workshops, I always tell our participants that building a community is a messy endeavor. We typically start with assumptions and then try to validate them through research, surveys, and interviews.
Based on these assumptions, we build a strategy and launch our community. However, what often happens is that the community wants something different than what we assumed, even if our assumptions were somewhat validated. This requires us to update our community strategy.
In the first year of launching a community, you go through this cycle many times. It’s a constant pulling of information and feedback from the community, followed by pushing new content, events, and more, and then starting the process all over again.
After the first year of your community launch, you’ll likely go through these cycles a few more times, but in the 2nd and 3rd years, your community will really start to mature. For example, your community members may post more content, send more direct messages, and even take on leadership roles.
This is the promised land of community building, but don’t forget that the journey to get there will probably be messy.
If you’re considering starting an online community for your brand (whether it’s a non-profit, association, B2B, or B2C), kudos to you! Online communities are great channels for connecting with both prospects and customers. However, just like any digital channel, there are a few hurdles you need to clear to give yourself the best chance for success. Have you thought about some of the common pitfalls that I listed above? If not, and you want to chat, please reach out!
Need more ideas on how to acquire and engage new members to your community? Check out my monthly Members Welcome (Spotify) podcast.