This month we’ve been focussing on the future of social customer service. At our July event in London we learned how disruptive businesses like Telefónica’s giffgaff have been re-writing the rulebook by empowering their own customers to answer support enquiries. Giffgaff’s success is due in no small part to its innovative rewards structure; the more a member helps the company, the more points they earn allowing them to buy extra airtime credit, get cashback via PayPal or send a donation to charity (which the company generously matches).
But it takes far more than clever rewards programmes to build an active, vibrant virtual community. It also takes a lots of energy and creativity to find ways to make your brand experience come alive online. So, here are twenty top tips we’ve collated for you to help you build and manage a successful online community:
- 1. First up, let’s make sure we’re all doing this community-building thing for the right reasons. Spend some time carefully defining the purpose of this exercise to confirm that building a community group is the right way to solve the challenge. If it isn’t, go do something else. If it is, read on!
- 2. Now you know why you’re creating a community, let’s agree what’s in it for the members. Most collectives have a shared purpose, something that’s really worthwhile for them, that gets them excited, making them want to get involved. There has to be a meaningful reason for your community to exist. Once you’ve defined this, you’re all set to start building it.
- 3. Consider carefully whether you need to create a new community from scratch or if you might be better off piggybacking on an existing group of likeminded people. Existing LinkedIn Groups, for instance, may offer the perfect start point for your community, allowing you to either shift the current agenda to meet your stated purpose or to steadily build up a strong enough following that you can eventually migrate to a new online home at a later date.
- 4. Make sure you have a multi-year commitment from your company to any community before you get started. A community is for life, not just for Christmas! If there’s no long term commitment in place, setting out to create a community could be among the most counter-productive things you could do.
- 5. You should host your community in a place where members are happy to congregate and are likely to revisit. Increasingly this means Facebook or LinkedIn, but dedicated community forum pages on your company site may also work well as long as they offer all the basic functionality we’ve come to expect from social networking sites. The crucial consideration though is that it must be easy for people to find your community and remember where it is.
- 6. Behind ever great online community is a talented, energetic community manager. This is the person tasked with nurturing the community and making sure it evolves and grows as intended. The best community managers have a genuine interest in the community’s purpose and are often great ‘people people,’ comfortable chatting with new members and helping everyone get the most out of the experience.
- 7. Define specific goals for your community managers. These should extend beyond mere growth targets. Metrics like engagement levels, weekly active members and speed of response are often more reliable indicators of community health than its absolute size.
- 8. If possible, connect your internal social network with your external communities, taking care to ensure staff understand the differences between the two so they don’t cross-post inappropriate content. Bringing external voices into your social intranet, even if just through a widget that shows the latest moderated community comments, is a great way to help staff see what’s going on outside of the corporate walls. Over time, employees can be encouraged to engage directly with the external community, helping answer enquiries and resolve issues.
- 9. See if you can feed your virtual community with online content from other social networks like Twitter and Facebook. This can help community members feel part of wider ecosystem, encouraging them to engage with your company activity across other networks. The more involved people feel, the more likely they are to return and actively contribute to online discussions.
- 10. Integrating your community into other communication channels is often essential to help it grow and encourage repeat visits. Regular email communications or articles about the community in company newsletters and blogs will help recruit new members and give existing members reasons to revisit. Consider the many communication integration points that are available to you and plan to inject topical content about your community where appropriate. Be creative, there are usually many options open to you like your company website, microsites, social network pages, brochures, invoices, and even email unsubscribe pages!
- 11. Extending beyond a purely ‘virtual’ community by finding ways to bring key members of your community together in person can sometimes be a great way of unifying the members. Consider whether organising a get-together for selected members—ideally a social gathering of some sort—might be an efficient way to reward members for their active participation and incentivise their continued involvement.
- 12. The best way to recruit new members is to have your existing members find them. Giffgaff uses this technique to devastating effect, with every new customer being actively encouraged to invite in their friends in return for point rewards. These ‘member-get-member’ schemes are often highly efficient; we tend to trust the people we know far more than companies and corporate messages.
- 13. Get into the habit of collecting feedback from your members all the time. It’s no good relying on an annual survey; the online world moves much faster than that. Quick surveys and discussion groups can be created on the fly; it’s this agility that makes the community what it is, giving members great reasons to engage and come back regularly.
- 14. Be sure to acknowledge receipt of all feedback, however negative, thanking people for their views even if different from your own. It’s more important to be open and honest about what you can and cannot fix than to try to shy away from tricky topics. A healthy, well-nurtured community will be grateful for your honesty, and more forgiving of any shortcomings.
- 15. People often value recognition more than material rewards. And this is especially true in online communities where involvement is motivated by wanting to take part, not by a payoff that may follow. Find smart ways to recognise great contributors to your community. There are many ways of doing this: status symbols like badges or points, thank you messages, retweets from the community manager, ranking on a league table, and so on. Be creative, but try to think ‘recognition’, not ‘rewards’.
- 16. Customer service and support are amongst the most requested features of any online presence. Explore how your community content could be re-purposed or made more visible to non-members to help answer their questions. By definition, FAQs (frequently asked questions) are not new, they’ve been asked and often resolved before. What better way to show you’re listening and helping your customers than by showing how you resolved issues in the past or by allowing your community members to help other customers directly?
- 17. Think about the value exchange between you and your community members. There must always be more in it for them than there is for you. It might help to visualise member benefits sitting on one side of a seesaw and the effort required from those members on the other side. If the member benefits don’t outweigh the effort they need to go to, the seesaw will be tipped in the wrong direction and it’s unlikely your community will grow organically.
- 18. Every good party host knows that their job is to introduce people to each other and make sure everyone is having a good time. Being a community manager is no different. There will be many people in your collective who would love to know each other, to tap into the wider knowledge of the group and expand their network. Find ways to connect active contributors to each other based on shared interests or behaviours. Your members will be grateful for the introductions and be more likely to return the favour by introducing some of their own contacts into your community.
- 19. The ultimate goal of many communities is to become a self-managing, self-developing entity in its own right, outside of the control and jurisdiction of the founding organisation. It’s worth keeping this long term goal in mind as you develop your community; the more involved you have to be day-to-day, the lower the chances of the community surviving if you were to scale back your efforts. Sometimes, letting go a little can be a good way to test how strong the community really is and how ready it might be to become self-managing.
- 20. And, finally, don’t forget, often the best place to uncover great ideas about how to improve is from the community itself. Don’t be afraid to share your issues and challenges. A little openness and humility can go a long way to helping the community solve its own problems, allowing you to slowly step back and enjoy the fruits of your labours!
Good luck building and nurturing your community. Have fun, and don’t forget to let your SMLF team know how you get on.