Group Hug: How to Build Community Using Forums & Social Media

by Dan Blank on September 9, 2009

(Major credit goes to Jeremiah Owyang and his community at http://www.web-strategist.com/blog/ for many (most!) of the tips listed below. I remixed many different articles & comments, so specific sources are credited at the end.)


When trying to engage your industry and build community on your website, a strong focus on strategy, personal connections and specific goals are essential to getting any kind of traction.

Integrate "Community" Strategy With Your Overall Brand Strategy

If you are launching a forum, creating a Group on LinkedIn or looking for value out of your use of Twitter, then you can’t relegate it to a separate project within your brand – it must tie into the basic value you are trying to deliver to your industry.

  • Have Specific Goals.
    If you are putting resources towards this, then you must think critically about your goals – far beyond vague statements such as: "we want conversations to take place on our website."

    Tie it directly into your existing goals. For example, if you are working on a print feature that could integrate user feedback, then develop the community in a way that serves this need. If you need to build a list of experts around a topic for a webcast, consider this when outlining community topics and how you will target potential members.

    Do you have a newsletter product that vastly outperforms your other newsletters? Consider not only launching a forum on this topic, but how the two will be completely integrated – how the newsletter will drive value in the forum, and vice versa. How do each of these then extend to a webcast, a print article, or a yearly conference?

  • Offer Specific Benefits.
    What is the one reason that a member of your industry would go to your forum? How will they be rewarded for this effort? In B2B media, editors are always telling me how busy the people they serve are – how they are in the field, building their businesses and careers. Consider this carefully when creating your forum, LinkedIn Group or Twitter account. You cannot expect these people to do the work for you – to create value for others. Sure, you can hope this develops over time, but when you first launch, the value to your audience must be specific, immediate and easy.

    A common refrain for community managers is: "if you build it, they will NOT come." While this is 100% true, once your community grows, it is more likely that the community will manage itself and provide value from their efforts, requiring less maintenance from your end of things.

  • Start Small and Focused.
    If you are launching a community, don’t create 10 different forum topics with the hopes that each segment of your audience will gravitate to their area of expertise. It is hard to get any kind of momentum when activity is spread out across too many channels. Think of it like a party – if things are spread out in too wide of a space, each area feels sparse and lame. If instead, you group everyone in a smaller space, conversations and connections occur more easily. What you are looking for is to create that noisy "happening," and then grow as required.

    Likely, you will have many ideas as to which audiences you can target and how you can offer value. Instead of starting with them all, focus on the one idea, the one topic, that people will likely gather around. Perhaps it is an event, a demographic, a hot topic or the like. Create one success story, then build upon that experience.

Online Communities Should Start Offline

You are not "creating" community by launching a forum, blog or Twitter feed; you are simply serving the needs and providing value to a community that already exists elsewhere. But if you are lucky, you would be pulling a loose community a bit tighter.

  • Identify & Partner with Existing Communities
    If your industry or target audience already has services or entities that connects them, then you should dive deeply into these places. Perhaps it is an online forum, a popular blogger that attracts a wide audience and lots of comments, an industry organization, or even an in-person event.

    Your community cannot be an island – that belies the most basic purpose of then entire concept.

    Who is active within existing communities? Who shows up to the monthly conference calls for your industry’s organizations? Who is blogging? Who is a regular contributor to a forum? Who started a LinkedIn Group that is gaining traction? These people should be your new best friends.

    Reach out to them via email, phone and in person. Find out what their goals are – ask questions. In their answers you will identify ways to serve their needs, and potential ideas to create your own community service that will be unique, yet part of a larger ecosystem. Existing communities are not your competitors – you NEED them to send members your way.

    A community that has close ties offline will be far more active and loyal when their efforts are brought online.

    Contribute to these existing communities – build a reputation as someone who offers value. This is the best way to market your own efforts. If you take without giving, you will find your efforts met with skepticism and a distinct lack of enthusiasm.

  • Allow the Community to Shape Your Efforts
    What are people talking about within existing communities? When you go to a conference or trade show, which session is packed? What do people talk about at lunch? These are the topics you want to target. Don’t just replicate the same conversation, find out what problems are pervasive, and consider ways you can add unique value.

  • Build Membership One Influencer at a Time
    Once you have a good idea – don’t just move towards launch. Canvas your network – find out what they think, ask them how this issue affects their business, and how willing they would be to talk openly about it. Ask for their input, and prove that it is shaping your efforts. Give them a stake in building the community.

    Doing this is partially to create a great product, but also to create a network of advocates long before you launch. You can’t create buzz by marketing your community with banner ads and a newsletter blast; you create buzz by involving the right people, and giving them a reason to talk about your efforts and its value to their network.

    In the early stages, the goal is less about scale, and more about engagement and value. 10 highly engaged influencers is worth more to your brand and its goals than 300 "members" who visit rarely and never contribute.

Growth Comes from Leveraging Meaningful Interactions

Great products are often not unique, they are simply the ones that best tied together needs and solutions. So of course, an online community is 100% reliant on the network you create, and how you spread value.

  • Your Community is the Center of Your Business. Treat it That Way.
    Every online and offline product you have should tie back to your community. Every interaction you have should as well. Anytime value is created, it must be tied right back into your online community efforts.

    For a B2B brand, the goal of your community is people connecting with solutions.

    A topic used in a webcast should be brought right back into your community platform (eg: forum, LinkedIn Group or Twitter feed.) So should a feature article, an upcoming industry event, a blog post, a conversation you had with someone in your industry (privacy issues permitting), and your thoughts on the trends and topics your market cares about. This gives your audience constant opportunities to find value in, and contribute to, your community efforts.

  • Don’t Just "Advertise" Your Community, Prove it’s Value in Context.
    Sure, you can (and likely, should) create a promotion around your community – things such as banner ads, email blasts, inclusion in email signatures, etc. But consider this one small aspect of spreading the word. Give it a consistent presence on your best products and most popular pages, but when possible, do so in a way that integrates it directly into a meaningful context, giving people a reason to click through.

  • Don’t Create Silos.
    If a topic in the forum is getting a few replies, ask your Twitter followers what they think, and give a link directly to that conversation in the forum. If an editor weighs in with their opinion a day later, Tweet that too. Followers will want to know what the editor had to say. This will bring repeat traffic and new visitors as value builds.
  • Reward Top Contributors.
    If a few people emerge as regular contributors who bring a lot of value to your community, do everything you can to recognize their efforts and amplify their message. You can do this by mentioning their contribution in other media (a newsletter, web article or even in print); by creating a leaderboard of top contributors; or by reaching out to them directly via email or phone.

    Active contributors will consist of a small percentage of your overall audience. Here is an interesting chart to consider when thinking about the small group that will have an outsized influence in your community.

  • Consider Small Ways to Reward Everyone Who Participates.
    Perhaps you could feature "new community members" in your newsletter, or send a special offer to members who include a real headshot photo in their profiles. Maybe these are the folks who get the 20% discount code for your upcoming webcast. Do simple things that are welcoming and show that you care – treat this more like a house party – every guest’s happiness counts.

    As an example, I listen to BBC Radio 6 a lot, and they include their community in the broadcast by constantly reading off email and text messages their listeners share. The program has different themes and questions each day, and are always asking their listeners their opinions on specific questions or to share their specific experiences they may have had.

  • Members of Your Brand Need to Get Involved.
    Ideally, someone would have the role of "community manager" as part of their responsibility. Someone who lives and breathes the community, posts content, answers questions and thinks of ways to create "programming" for the community, much as they would for a magazine, TV show or radio program. Though, this person’s primary job is to listen to members of the community, and take action where appropriate.

    Your brand’s involvement should be all-inclusive. Each member of the team should create a profile and find a unique way to contribute. This not only builds more valuable content & a wider group of engaged participants, but you are also fully leveraging each of their networks. In the age of social media, you are only as powerful as the value of your network.

Tie Your Community to Events

Both in-person and virtual events are huge opportunities to deliver more value via your community platform. People want to connect before events, find value while there, and identify clear takeaways afterwards.

  • Pre-Event
    Use social media tools to identify who is going to an event, and find out their agenda and goals. Encourage these folks to share their experiences before, during and after the event. You might want to assign a hash tag for Twitter, or simply encourage the use of an existing hash tag. Begin using it yourself as soon as possible.

    Post your own content that adds value – such as primers, tips, schedules and anything that will make people’s experience that much better.

    Collect as much information as possible about the topics your audience cares about – this will shape your coverage during and after the event, ensuring you provide the maximum value.

  • During the Event
    Collect and share content across a variety of media. Take photos and share them immediately; give concise recaps of sessions as they happen; and tell people where the action really is. Encourage real world connections, whether it is pushing people to a particular session or inviting them to drinks afterwards.

    Take every opportunity to listen to the chatter on social media (forums, Twitter, Facebook, blogs, etc.) Integrate this content, into your own coverage, and use it as a jumping off point to expand its value.

  • Post-Event
    Continue conversations from the event in forums and on Twitter. What were the big take-aways? What issues emerged as the most critical to your community? Keep the connections and value going once the event has ended.

    Survey community members as to what was most valuable and consider ways they can partner to solve some of the big issues that piqued their interest.

Track Success and the Value that is Created

At regular intervals (monthly? quarterly?) go back to the first step, and consider how you are delivering on your goals.

  • Measure the Immeasurable.

    Is the goal of the community to find more sources for article content? Measure this on a regular time-frame (eg: 3 new story ideas that came from the forum.) Is the goal to bring a larger more engaged audience to a webcast? Measure how many people sign-up through the forum, or how many conversation threads about the webcast occur before, during and after the event.

    Measures such as these will become benchmarks and the basis for judgment as to the value this effort is bringing to your industry and your brand. When assessing your resources each year, this data will make it easy to know where to focus.

  • Share.
    Communicate these metrics to all stakeholders within the brand, to the sales team, to management, sister publications and the digital folks. This will not only keep it on people’s radar, but also be instrumental in strategy meetings about how to shape the brand in the future.
  • Collect Anecdotal Feedback.
    Consider surveying forum members after the community begins to mature – or include a question or two about the forum in your regular brand surveys. The goal is to identify needs that need to be met and the value it is already providing.

  • Consider Dollars and Cents.
    Consider if data from other parts of your business need to be integrated to identify the full value of the forum, and how it relates to the total affect it has on your brand. Does it save money, does it bring in money, is it a primary marketing or editorial channel, does it influence the industry and promote positive connections that reflect well on the brand? What assumptions can you make about cost savings and any affect it has on revenue.
  • Other Potential Measures:
    • Customer loyalty
    • Customer retention
    • Community size
    • Number of new topics and replies
    • Forum content that lead to other editorial content. How is the forum aiding editors in doing their jobs and serving readers? What value would be lost if the forum was shut down?

    • Purchase influence within your brand (webcasts, subscriptions & events)
    • Purchase influence outside of your brand (products & services)
    • Referrers – are other forums, bloggers, Twitters sending traffic to specific discussions? Does it have influence beyond the forum itself?

I know what you are thinking: THIS IS TOO MUCH WORK! There are too many barriers; too many competing projects that bring direct revenue into your business; and too few resources. But consider these intriguing benefits of building an active online community:

  • Community users remain customers 50% longer than non-community users. (AT&T, 2002)
  • 43% of support forums visits are in lieu of opening up a support case. (Cisco, 2004).
  • Community users spend 54% more than non-community users (EBay, 2006)
  • In customer support, live interaction costs 87% more per transaction on average than forums and other web self-service options. (ASP, 2002)
  • Cost per interaction in customers support averages $12 via the contact center versus $0.25 via self-service options. (Forrester, 2006)
  • Community users visit nine times more often than non-community users (McKInsey, 2000).
  • Community users have four times as many page views as non-community users (McKInsey, 2000).
  • 56% percent of online community members log in once a day or more (Annenberg, 2007)
  • Customers report good experiences in forums more than twice as often as they do via calls or mail. (Jupiter, 2006)


Here are some sources for this information and more.
From Jeremiah Owyang and his amazing community of contributors:

InXpo:

Will Pate:

Neighborhood America:

Impact Interactions:

  • http://twitter.com/brandonacox Brandon Cox

    Wow – a very comprehensive kind of article. As I've devoured it, I think your point about not building silos is especially helpful. Thanks so much!

  • http://www.danblank.com DanBlank

    Thanks Brandon! Jeremiah has created something very special with his community, it was a real pleasure learning from them. So much about social media and the modern web is about “openness,” and I think that it requires people to take down a lot of personal barriers they have put up. Overall, I think this is a positive thing for our culture, especially when you consider this from a worldwide perspective.

    Have a great day!
    -Dan

  • megancharade

    Hey, came over from ProBlogger. This is a lot to take in! But solid information. I'll definately popping back to refresh myself with the main points. Thanks Dan!

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