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How to start (and build) an online community

Online communities can be a powerful addition to the marketing mix, where you engage with customers on a one-on-one basis in real time.

Back in the day, ‘community’ referred to the people who lived close to you, visited the same stores, went to the same schools, and who shared common challenges and aspirations. The digital age changed that.

Nowadays, our most intimate and engaged community interaction happens online and in many forms.

Sure, you might be a member of your local area Facebook group, where you discuss issues like proposed changes to bin night, and promote events like the local footy club fundraiser, but chances are, you’re also involved in other broader online communities.

New parents are probably participants in several parenting groups; small business owners may be involved in online business owner communities; and fans of Squid Game may have been quick to join a community of viewers, eager to discuss plots and characters.

Some of the most vibrant, engaged and useful online communities are those run by businesses and organisations, who manage, moderate and strategically leverage the online community to engage with potential and existing customers.

What is an online community?

An online community is a place where people with a common interest or goal get together to discuss topics, share ideas, and support each other.

There are many benefits to being part of an online community, aside from the obvious of not having to get out of your pyjamas or even leave the house to be an active member.

Online communities allow you to interact and form bonds with people all around the country, even the world. It doesn’t matter how niche your interest, in the online world there will always be those who share them.

And forget planning monthly get-togethers, booking halls and planning food, meetings of online communities are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

From a business perspective, online communities can be a powerful addition to the marketing mix, where you engage with customers and leads on a one-on-one basis in real time.

Why start an online community?

Online communities allow you to engage leads and massage customers through the buying cycle.

Say, for example, you are a hardware chain. Online communities allow you to share information and advice on particular projects, such as how to build a deck.

In this particular conversation, you would include information about the products you sell to support this project, such as sanders or oil. Once interest has grown, you can hit your community with a special offer or discount, thus, converting the lead to an actual customer.

Online communities are particularly effective at the retention stage of the customer buying cycle – an activated group consistently doing what used to be done via follow up phone calls or emails.

Online communities also engage others to do your marketing. Airbnb runs a community forum, for example, where hosts share tips, resolve each other’s issues, and induct new hosts, setting them up to grow their businesses.

Online communities often reveal more than any focus group can, and can even throw up brand ambassadors.

For example, a Facebook community was set up to promote The Barefoot Investor, a best-selling financial book by Scott Pape, and it soon became apparent that single mothers made up a large cohort of readers. A spin-off community, Barefoot Investor Single Parents, was set up, spearheaded by single mums and dads enthusiastic about sharing tips with others.

How to start and build an online community

If you’re thinking about setting up an online community, here are a few tips on how to start and build one:

Define the goal for the community

The first thing you need to do is define the goal of the group, and it must be two-pronged: what do you want to achieve as a business, and what do members want to achieve by being part of the community?

A common goal is to create a group of customers who purchase from your business regularly. The goal of your community members is most likely information, offers and almost certainly friendship and connection with other like-minded people.

People might join an online community of paddle boarders because they want to find out the best places to take their board out and share photos and stories of their hobby.

Others might be looking for information about what to look for when purchasing a paddle board, or how to stay upright for more than 30 seconds.

The surf business who created the group would have very different goals, most likely to promote their boards and accessories and keep people interested in continuing to paddle and continuing to buy the latest gear.

Select a platform, develop a profile, promote your community

With online communities, it’s rarely a case of ‘build it and they will come’.

Businesses need to get in front of those they want to join their communities, and this means selecting a platform where those people are active.

A fitness or health business might choose Instagram, a platform popular amongst those who enjoy sharing images of their routines and transformations.

Just like real-word communities, businesses also need to get out there, introduce themselves and let people know who they are, what they do, and what they are interested in.

Businesses need to do marketing groundwork to establish their brand and their offering.

At the heart of every profile needs to be what you can offer the member. It might be advice, it might be support, it could be exclusive promotional offers, and it certainly must have a collegiate inclusive vibe.

Once this is done, it’s time to promote your group. Strategic advertising is very important, putting you directly in front of those you want to target.

Facebook video ads have proven particularly effective in engaging people, inspiring their interest, and encouraging them to join.

Integrate community into your marketing

Online community groups require constant monitoring and maintenance, and once they have grown, should become an asset in your marketing mix, alongside social media and email marketing, as well as offline marketing assets such as print, TV and radio.

Foster your community and consider the ways in which you can market to your audience. Is it an upsell? Is it audience growth? How will your marketing influence your community?

Once you have defined this, you can move forward with a strategic plan that allows you to integrate community into your everyday marketing efforts.

Call in the digital experts

Creating and building an online community is just one part of a diverse marketing mix and it should complement the activities you’re already doing.

Assemblo is a full-service marketing agency based in Melbourne, and we develop creative and effective digital strategies, that take into account the entire mix of digital marketing assets, including online communities.

To find out how we can help your business to grow, give us a call on (03) 9079 2555 or send us a note via the contact form below.

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