Defining a community
Let's start this with a definition. According to www.merriam-webster.com a community can broadly be described as "a unified body of individuals". In its basic form it is simply a platform for you to communicate with your customers, and (shock horror) for them to talk back. After all the internet has always been about communication.
At the very core a community is an amplifier; it allows you an unparalleled level of access to your user base and empowers the otherwise voiceless consumer to get involved in the intricacies of your business. At its best the community provides you with an amazing insight into customers' views on your products and services, whilst highlighting both your strengths and weaknesses. It's a priceless resource.
My business, Sellerdeck has a long running community of designers, developers, implementers and retailers that was established in 2002 and has now over 10,000 members. However, setting up and running a community isn't easy.
Where to start
While it can be tempting to rush out and start setting up your own community, it's important to define a mission statement. You need to be able to explain why you are doing this, what's the objective and what do you want to get out of it?
Running a successful community is tough work; having a clear objective that reminds you of your goals as well as measuring the value it adds to your organisation keeps your feet on the ground. A mission statement is incredibly clichéd but essential.
Leading a community
No community succeeds without leaders and they need to be able to take the roles of the four Ps:
Community leadership is all about engaging and inspiring others. Constantly ask yourself: ‘Am I doing a good job?’ If not, don’t be afraid to ask for help. One idea is to involve key influencers and individuals in your industry.
It’s also important you don’t underestimate the effort it takes to run a successful community. At Sellerdeck several of us spend time on the community, from support and development staff all the way to our CEO. We take part answering questions and adding value — it’s highly inclusive. Having a few dedicated staff or a larger team is essential; without involvement communities wither and die.
One additional thought. Good leaders will help set the tone for the rest of the community so it’s vital you get it right.
Populating a community
I see creating an online community like a building project. My theory is you provide the bricks and mortar to build the community hall, and then your members will start attending and become active participants. But there’s more to it. Very often your customers will already be going to someone else’s ’hall’. This is especially true today with the rise of social networking; your customers may already have a presence on Facebook or Twitter. A successful community will take a broad view on customer’s presence and provide the bridge into your business.
If you are planning to provide a community yourself via a forum or other platform that allows open comment, you need to think carefully about how you attract traffic. Traffic equates to people, and more people means more involvement. Ideas to build traffic could be as simple as including details of your community at every ‘touch point’ you have with your customers such as outgoing email signatures, phone messages or literature. Whichever strategy you decide the key is consultation. Talk to your customers and involve them at every stage. If your customers are feeling empowered in the creation of your community there is also a greater chance they will end up being heavily involved.
If your community turns out to be anything like ours you will soon have a mine of amazing and insightful information. Not everything is business-related, but the wisdom of your customers is not to be taken for granted. Ask questions, use the answers to feedback into the rest of your business and always involve the community wherever possible.
We all like to think we have the answers, but most communities demonstrate that the power of many minds usually exceeds that of the few. Building a community of customers is a great way of learning about your business, it’s an empowering process for everyone concerned too.
Benjamin Dyer, director of product development for E-Commerce and EPOS supplier Sellerdeck. Originally published on Bytestart.co.uk