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How & When to Build an Online Community

Post by Maria Ogneva, Director of Community

This post is inspired by conversations I’ve had and will continue to have with clients and their teams. I thought it would be appropriate to share this out with our readers, as many of you may be pondering the same questions.



The basic questions that you are probably asking yourself is “Should I create my own social network / forum, or just “piggyback” onto existing networks? If I do create my own, should I start from scratch or use a platform like Ning? If I use Ning, should I get listed as a Ning network or just use it as a white label service and point it to my own URL?” And if you aren’t asking these questions, you should be. Because as a community manager (even if your job title is not technically “community manager”), you need to grow the community in 1) numbers and 2) engagement, you should be evaluating ways in which you can make things more social, viral, interactive, informative and just plain fun and useful. Let’s dissect these questions one by one.

Should you create your own social network or piggyback onto existing networks? Well, that really depends on what you are trying to achieve. Do you already have a strong brand and want to build a community of idea, feedback and information exchange? Then you should build your own. You can use existing networks in which you participate, to let people know about this community: i.e. send a Facebook Fan Page update, tweet about it and post a link to your community page from your homepage. If you are building your brand and are a fairly new company, you should consider focusing your efforts on joining and becoming active on other networks. Chances are, if the topic is well talked about, there are 1-5 networks / blogs with significant traffic, after which things get very fragmented. Vying for attention against established networks, if you don’t have a unique angle, if going to be next to impossible. So join up with existing thought leaders and authoritative sites and contribute thoughtfully. Where do you find these networks? Do a quick search on Google, Twitter, Facebook (groups and fan pages), Ning directory, as well as use Technorati to find authoritative blogs that may have lively conversations occurring on them.

More importantly, you need to ask yourself why you are forming this network. If you want to become a thought leader and rally people behind a fairly niche topic, and there is no strong community about that topic, then you should create one. As this topic becomes more popular on the social web (because you 1. know your stuff and chose a topic with a lot of growth potential, and 2. you propel this topic to dizzying heights with your social media savvy), you will emerge as the thought leader and will have the “first mover” advantage.

For example, if your brand is all about blending socially responsible fashions with eco responsible fashions, you may want to focus on building a community around eco-sensible fashion that also enriches communities in Africa. However, if you are Nike, and you just want to develop a community where your users can interact with other users and non-users, and where you can interact with all of them, you can build your own community around your brand. One quick caveat: because your readers’ attention is so fragmented, and they are increasingly busy, the key questions that you need to ask yourself are: “Am I doing this for me or for them? Does the world really need another social network?” The most popular and fruitful community efforts stem from engaging consumers about their pain point vs. giving them a place to chat about your product: GetSatisfaction does a great job of enabling you to do the latter. You have to transcend beyond a product and into the issues. One of the best examples of a big brand building a community around an issue is Dove’s “Campaign for Real Beauty”. Notice how none of it is about soap or body wash; it’s about empowering women and helping them feel beautiful in their own skin.

However, if you are simply looking to raise awareness of your new brand and / or company and want to benefit from the eyeballs that are already engaged in a particular topic, then you probably want to interact with existing content and its readers. As I reference in my last post, you want to keep your interactions relevant and only link to your content when it makes sense, otherwise you will come across spammy. For example, if you are an indie fashion brand, you want to become familiar with the editors, readers and content of a site like Smashing Darling, engaging in discussions, and starting your own discussions.

Should I build from scratch or on a white label platform? Let’s say you decided to build your own network, because your topic “Eco and socially responsible fashion” is under-represented. You now have to decide whether you will build your community from scratch or use an existing platform. That will depend on how custom your features are. Chances are, because social networks aren’t a new concept, the tools that you want already exist on Ning, Wordpress (or via WP plugins), or other white label social networking and content management systems. With just a bit of customization and design, you can change your Ning network to look like something that doesn’t resemble Ning at all. For a premium fee, you can point it to a non-Ning URL and get rid of all the ads. If, however, you are developing something groundbreaking that’s not part of an existing white label solution, you should build from scratch. In that case, you should probably be building this social product and monetizing it, instead of building communities. I presume 99% of our readers will want to opt for the former option of using and assembling existing features into a package that makes sense for you.

Whatever you do, you should be on Twitter and Facebook at a minimum. Monitoring conversations on Twitter and interacting with those users can go a long way, and you don’t need to set up a network at all. Forming a group on Facebook can be great for fast growth, because, let’s face it, it’s the second largest social network, and you can easily leverage the connections that your friends have with their friends. If a friend of yours joins your group or comments on an item, all of her friends will see it in their feed, and hopefully engage with you.

You can read more of Maria's articles at FashionablyMarketing.Me.

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