Online Community – Why and How To Build a Successful One

building relationships through an online community

An online community of customers, super fans, suppliers and potential customers can benefit businesses of any size or age. By bringing fans and followers together you create a space for them to love, hate or debate your brand and related topics. I’ve written quite a few online posts about social media, but this post is dedicated to building communities through social networks or networking software, and why you should think about building an online community.

Examples of Forum Software for Bulletin Boards

What Can an Online Community Provide?

  1. Boosts potential, current and future customers engagement
  2. Assistance with Search Engine Optimisation (SEO)
  3. A sense of belonging to customer and suppliers
  4. Provides social media content
  5. Community-based “help” forums (e.g Apple).
Screenshot of Apple's Support Online Community
Screenshot of Apple’s Support Online Community

Part of my job is advising business owners about online strategy. I love the dynamic nature of the business, as there is no way anyone can become an expert 100%, because the minute we think we have a hold of how it works, the search engines change and new technology, algorithms or networks take over and the old tricks take over.

Building a true and genuine online community means you don’t need to outsmart the search engines because you are doing exactly the right thing: following a theme of interested parties, links and content.

Whether off or online, we human beings need connections with other human beings, shared experiences, family, friends and community. So which ever network or channel we focus on the one commonality is community.

Vogue Australia Online Forum Front Page
Vogue Australia Online Forum Front Page

Why is it important that the community is authentic?

Human beings need to feel heard, loved, part of something. Authenticity is so important in social media. As entrepeneurs we need to genuinely include our customers/clients as part of our businesses, small or large.

About 8 years ago I joined Weightwatchers Online, in its early stages. It was the “points tracker” and more importantly the community online that kept me engaged and I went on to lose 12 kg. The community kept me engaged to follow through. Fast forward 7 years, to a brief stint as the PR and social media manager of Weightwatchers. The culture wasn’t a good fit for me, but I learned a lot about online communities there. WW utilise the online community through bulletin boards, Facebook by creating groups online for each “meeting” area, so that the members can offer support and motivation. They also have Instagram and LinkedIn with very active contributers and brand ambassadors.

These unofficial groups are moderated mildly by WW but the goal is to make them look personal and organic, and not too professional or corporate. There are also WW rock stars who are unpaid advocates of the brand as well, who, with up to 70K of followers influent the way that people feel about their weight loss journey and WW.

Weight Watchers Support Group Community
Weight Watchers Support Group Community

Use the example of Tesla Motor Cars. They sold 35,000 cars in 2014, however they have almost 1 million followers on Facebook, 667,000 on Twitter and 221,000 on Instagram. This doesn’t even doesn’t include the massive online forum Telsa has. Now, my reason for all these figures is that not everyone in the community owns, or ever will own, a Tesla car, but they do like the idea of association and aspiration. Being part of a community isn’t about selling a fancy car. It is about aligning themselves with a future of luxury sustainable transportation.

Tesla Online Community
Tesla Online Community

Just because someone might never be a customer NOW doesn’t mean they can’t join the community and dream.

Focus your social media efforts on:

  • being genuine to your company values
  • making authentic connections with your online community
  • encouraging linking, sharing, and hashtags
  • user generated content
  • encourage feedback, good and bad

An online community, whether a Facebook group, forum or segmented subscription groups, will make your job a lot easier and will reinforce your business values.

While the immediacy of sales now keeps a company afloat, the community is what will drive the philosophy of the company and that sense of belonging that will bring in the customers of the future.

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