You’ve seen them around. You’ve been invited to them. Maybe you’re a part of one right now.
We’re talking about an online community.
Online communities are a valuable tool in a marketer’s arsenal. The question is: How do you create an online community?
Our guide will highlight how to create an online community and share some useful – and inspiring examples.
But first, let’s define an online community and talk about some of the benefits of creating one.
What is an Online Community?
An online community is a gathering place for people to connect, interact, and discuss shared interests, values, goals, and topics. There’s no size limit for an online community, and everything from a small business Facebook Group to a subreddit with over 1 million users can be considered an online community.
There are tons of different types of online communities ranging from expert networks to advisory communities and beyond. However, for brand marketers, there are two primary types of online communities that you’ll need to know about:
- Third-party communities
- Brand-owned communities
Third-party online communities are built on existing platforms like Facebook or Instagram. These platforms have features to help brands build communities and allow you to promote a community to an audience already using the platform.
One of the main comparisons between these social media groups and brand-owned communities is the ownership of the platform and the data. Establishing an online community on Facebook, for example, means that you don’t actually own your community. Your online community is completely dictated by the rules and guidelines put in place by the platform itself.
Brand-owned online communities offer many of the same (and sometimes additional) features that social media platforms can provide. However, the most important difference is that the community is all yours. You own the data. You make the rules. You aren’t reliant on another platform to build your community.
Owning your online brand community can also allow you to align it more fully with your branding. Depending on the technology you use, you may be able to inject your color schemes, fonts, and other branding elements. Conversely, a page created on Facebook offers limited branding elements while inserting its branding throughout your community. Not exactly an ideal situation for those looking to reinforce their brand.
Why Start an Online Community?
We know that marketers are already managing numerous strategies, from content creation to social media and beyond.
So, why would you want to start an online community? Isn’t it just another channel to manage?
Not exactly. There are countless benefits to starting an online community and managing it effectively.
Elevate consumer experience & drive loyalty
Online communities are an optimal way to elevate the experience consumers have with your brand.
Enhancing customer relationships means engaging with customers between purchases. To truly drive loyalty, you’ll need to think about more than just the transaction. An online community allows you to build a customer relationship with engagement activities between purchases and help foster loyalty to your brand.
Increase brand awareness & customer acquisition
An established online community gives consumers a place to share stories and interact with other community members. These interactions create authentic, shareable content that can help increase brand awareness and reach a larger audience. The importance of this user-generated content can’t be overstated, considering that 92% of people trust content shared by their peers over paid media. With UGC and word-of-mouth promotion, you’ll be able to bring new customers to your brand in an organic way.
Drive innovation for new (and old) products
Developing successful new products takes more than a shot in the dark. To learn know what your audience would like to see from your brand, you need to ask them directly?
An online community makes that process easy, allowing you to quickly and efficiently gather feedback directly from the source. You’ll have an always-on direct line to ask your consumers questions about the products that they really care about.
The same goes for improving your existing products and services. Polling your online community audience is a reliable way to gather insights about your current offerings and make meaningful improvements.
An online community provides brands with a cost-effective and highly scalable platform that means they don’t have to choose between acquiring new customers and engaging with current ones. This is a huge win for resource-strapped teams.
Certain online community platforms offer features and integrations that can help you optimize and streamline your overall marketing strategy as well. Choosing a brand-owned platform with deep functionality allows you to connect and operate various parts of your marketing strategy from one convenient destination, including customer acquisition, retention, engagement, and more.
How to Build an Online Community
After reading all of the benefits of an online community, you’re convinced that establishing one will help you streamline your marketing efforts and help you with your strategy.
But how do you actually build an online community? What are the steps? Where do you start?
Here’s our step-by-step process for getting started with an online community.
1. Determine your goals
For marketers, establishing goals for what you want to achieve is standard with any marketing strategy. The same goes for an online community. Before you get started, you’ll choose what you want to accomplish through community marketing.
Are you looking to build awareness? Drive more product reviews or support new product launches? Connect on a more personal level with your consumers?
These are all achievable with an online community.
However, depending on your goals, the functionality and features required may vary. This is where step two comes into play.
2. Choose your platform
As we mentioned before, you have options when it comes to the platform you use for your online community.
You can go the social media route and develop your online presence on something like Facebook. It isn’t a bad place to start with a built-in audience and several community-building features. However, you’ll lack many features, such as data ownership, audience segmentation, brand presence, diverse engagement activities, and more—which will limit the impact you can drive with your community.
Going with a online community platform means you’ll have all the functionality you need to achieve many different goals, from increasing brand awareness to collecting valuable insights for product development and more. Not to mention that you’ll own the community and won’t be subject to the rules of a third-party platform. You’ll also avoid needing to migrate your community down the road when you outgrow the current platform.
Choosing the right brand-owned community platform means diving into some of the deeper features at your disposal to ensure that you have what you need to achieve your goals. You’ll want to consider everything from surface features to back-end support.
3. Line up your resources
Once you’ve established your online community, it will require effective management and nurturing to ensure that you get the most out of it.
A Community Manager can handle the monitoring and management of your community, using it to amplify brand initiatives and ensuring it fulfills its role as a key consumer acquisition, retention, and loyalty driver. They can also be responsible for segmenting and channeling the assets the community produces – from user-generated content (UGC) to data and insights – to the right teams.
Brands that do not have a Community Manager will want to ensure the platform they choose can provide training and guidance for their team. In addition to expert training, Vesta also offers a fully managed community package that provides an experienced team of community managers and client success leads who act as an extension of your team and will ensure the success of your online brand community.
4. Establish your online community guidelines and rules
As dull as it can be to outline a set of rules and guidelines, it’s necessary to the success of your online community. You want to establish the norms and expectations so you don’t have community members posting whatever they want and ruining the experience for others, right?
Social media groups used as online communities will come with their guidelines to follow. The platform itself determines these rules. However, they’ll still require moderation depending on guidelines you’ve set for the group that falls outside of the platform’s jurisdiction.
A brand-owned online community means that you set all of the rules. As we’ve mentioned, you won’t be bound to the guidelines set by Facebook or any other social media platform. It’s up to you to create a list of rules for members to follow. These rules can be anything from prohibiting profane language to cracking down on spam messages.
5. Set up your online community
Once your planning steps are complete, it’s finally time to take action!
Setting up your online community will look slightly different depending on which route you take. For a social media group community, you’ll follow the steps the platform provides, adding the branding elements the platform will allow, including photos, logos, and brand language.
Setting up a brand-owned online community depends mainly on the service provider. The same steps apply: Add photos, branding elements, language, etc. You’ll also want to create your initial activities and/or content to give community members something to engage with on day one.
Some brand-owned online community platforms offer additional help to get you set up and ensure continued success. Vesta’s community success team will help you get your community up and running in as little as 4 weeks. And once set up, as we mentioned earlier, our team will assist you to deliver continued community success.
6. Start promoting your online community
You’re all set up, and your branding elements are in place. You’ve created your initial content and activities to get started.
Now it’s time to spread the word. There are several ways to get the word out about your brand new online community, including:
- Emailing your existing customer base
- Creating banners, pop-ups, or links on your website
- Using existing social media accounts
- PPC ads
- Letting customers know before (or after) a purchase
- Using referral incentives
Promoting your online community doesn’t stop when you have a few members. As your online community grows, you’ll have a league of fans you can incentivize to invite their networks to join. You can also use the valuable user-generated content they produce to promote your community to potential members. This highly-scalable strategy can help you continuously and organically bring in new community members.
7. Engage with your community members
Thriving communities have engaging activities and content for members. Brand team members also participate in discussions themselves.
There’s a limit, though. Remember: Your online community is about the members. You’ll want to engage in meaningful ways without taking away from your community members.
Depending on which online community platform you choose, you’ll have different engagement activities to choose from which may include:
- Social sharing campaigns
- Referral programs
- Discussion boards
Community members participating in these activities provide brands with valuable insights and data. This data can be used to improve your business decision-making, from future marketing strategies to product development and improvement.
Examples of Successful Online Communities
Now that we know how to create an online community and the steps you need to take to get there, let’s look at some successful online communities.
These are brands that have used online communities to great effect and have found success in multiple areas by leveraging their online communities’ power.
Although hello products had a strong online brand presence, they identified a missing piece: An online community.
The “hello friends” community has generated thousands of pieces of UGC, reviews, and photos across key online channels. Using their online community, they’ve cultivated a large audience of consumers ready to drive brand advocacy and push conversions across the brand’s assets.
With their community, hello products have seen a 22% increase in brand loyalty despite being a challenger brand in a competitive space.
Online communities are all about word-of-mouth promotion, and that’s exactly what Grubhub gets out of their Tastemakers community.
Grubhub’s online community members participate in campaigns to spark social sharing, from posting photos on Instagram to hosting virtual dinner parties with friends.
They also take advantage of opportunities to gather insights and data from their audience using polls, surveys, and discussion boards.
Grubhub’s online community helped them achieve a positive brand opinion rating of 90%.
An online community is one of the best ways to build a direct relationship with consumers. With their Taste Buds community, Sir Kensington’s created an area where consumers can share their direct thoughts about new and existing products.
Sir Kensington’s online community allows them to get product recommendations directly from the source. By asking their audience directly, they eliminate the guesswork of figuring out which new products their consumers want to see.
So far, Sir Kensington’s community has generated over 34,000 survey responses as well as compelling qualitative feedback to develop new products that are in final testing and on track to hit store shelves next year.
Building an Online Community Doesn’t Need to be Difficult
There’s no doubt about it. An online community is a valuable asset for your marketing team.
Online communities provide a wide range of benefits, from assisting with future marketing strategies to improving customer relationships.
They also allow you to collect valuable insights, data, and feedback on products and services.
With Vesta’s community platform, you’ll have one of the fastest online community setups in the business – just 4-6 weeks to launch. Our client success team has developed a proven setup process to ensure efficient and successful community building from start to finish and immediate business impact upon launch. And we’ll be there with you every step of the way.
Regardless of the community platform you choose, you’ll have a smooth online community setup process by following our guide. All you have to do is get started.
Your audience is waiting.
Interested in more?
Check out our eBook on creating a winning brand community strategy in just four steps.