online-communityOne of the key benefits of social media is the ability to create
dynamic, long lasting relationships with customers. Creating a useful
community can really add value to a brand or product and greatly
increase return business.

If you have a community that’s both inviting and
interesting to a customer then you’ll develop a stronger bond with them
and have the opportunity to reduce sales cycles.

However, in order to
benefit from this you’ll need to implement some solid management
strategy. 

The internet is littered with empty forums and half-formed
Ning groups, so here are a few universal rules that will help you grow a
successful, useful online community whether it’s for a blog, forum or
dedicated network:

Have a specific objective

Really think about what you want to achieve with a community.

It may be a more fluid and adaptable medium, but you should treat your community exactly as you would any other campaign. That means having clear, defined goals and targets.

Don’t forget to experiment

Your users are the lifeblood of your community, so it’s only fair that they have a say in its design and functionality.  

Set up a basic architecture, but keep it in Beta initially. Send out free invites to potential users and ask them to give the place a test run.

Take time out at least once a month to listen to feedback and act on member’s ideas for improvement. Don’t assume that you know better than your users.

Be open

As with most things online, content is hugely important within a community. Make sure you have enough quality, free content to engage the casual user on a regular basis.

It’s certainly worth expanding this by offering extra content as an incentive to full members, but avoid paywalls or complicated registration processes if at all possible.

Likewise, you should actively encourage contributions and think about offering rewards for key members and contributors.

You want to encourage discussion and participation, so allow customers to post guest articles and start discussion groups.

Micromanage

Some degree of moderation is definitely needed to weed out spam and discourage irrelevant content and conversation, but make sure you use your ‘mark as spam’ button with a degree of… well… moderation, as editing comments or removing too much content is annoying and disrespectful to users.

Make sure you have a clear policy regarding language and subject matter that’s appropriate, and employ an experienced moderator to actively manage things.

Engage the right people

There’s nothing duller than an inactive community, so make sure you have an activation strategy firmly in place before you go live.

Research key influencers and voices that can help with your objectives and produce content that will be useful and interesting to them.    

Don’t exploit the workers

Again, a working community revolves around user interactions and submitted content, but don’t assume that you are entitled to any of this.

Just because you’ve built the space doesn’t mean that users will automatically adopt. You need to offer real incentives and consistently recruit new contributors. Likewise, make sure you are actively involved in conversations every day.

Set aside windows of time to check in and add your own opinions, answer questions and start new discussions. Don’t expect users to put in any more than you do.

Spread the word

Finally, make sure you have enough widgets and social integration to spread articles and discussions across the web.

Add social bookmarks and ‘Like’ buttons, and actively submit content to sites like Digg and reddit as well as on related forums and noticeboards. Make sure you are present everywhere to begin with in order to kick-start your growth. 

 
While platforms and integration are continually evolving, the basic rules of governing and growing a community are fairly straightforward and if properly implemented should enable you to grow a long-term, high value community that will really benefit your business.