How to build and run a community of your customers

Everyone is part of at least a few communities. So are you. By community I mean any group of people with a shared interest.

Some communities you join consciously, like a weekly yoga class, Sunday church or a political movement. Most communities, though, are hidden in plain sight. You might not realize that you are part of them.

WhatsApp groups are a perfect example of hidden communities. Whether you talk about trading stocks with friends or share ideas for the summer barbecue with your neighbors, these chat groups are all mini-communities. Also, having a job puts you in a community of employees. Becoming a mom or dad for the first time draws you into the invisible community of families with young children. And, people who love the products you sell, form a community of your customers.

Your customers might not be aware that they are connected through your business. But you are about to change that, and give them a place to meet and interact with one another.

It takes eight steps to build a successful community:

1. Discover your customers’ interests

The first step to connecting people through your business, is to figure out what is on their mind.

Which concerns and interests do people share, that lead to becoming your customers? Is it a specific subject matter, like traveling or owning property? Does it revolve around the area they live in, most likely the town where you set up shop? Or, is the group tied together by a certain mindset, such as caring for the environment or staying fit and healthy?

There are many ways to look at your target audience, so try to get as close as possible to a spot on profile of this group. 

2. Provide customers with a meeting point

After discovering the main topic to focus on, you will need to provide your customers with a public place to meet and an open platform to interact on.

Set the stage in such a way that it is clear to your customers where to participate. Most likely, it will be a combination of an online forum, third-party social media and local events.

Also, try to avoid fragmentation of the public conversation. This happens when people talk about the same topic in different places and, as a result, do not notice each other’s contribution.

3. Assign a community team

You now know what your customers want to talk about, and you have given them the means to engage. Rarely, though, will this immediately lead to a community that bustles with activity and manages itself.

You need a few dedicated people to kickstart the conversation and, once the crowd starts talking, to monitor and moderate what is being said. Every community needs a coach and a referee, especially a new community. Therefore, most companies with a successful community have assigned a team to manage it.

A common community team exists of several roles.

First, you appoint a community manager. Basically, this person is in charge of the overall community strategy and sets out the general guidelines for public conversation. The community manager is consulted when a matter in the community requires special attention or resolve.

The community manager works closely with a group of moderators. Moderators keep track of what happens in the community minute by minute. Like no other, they are aware of what is on people’s minds at any given time. Also, moderators are the guardians of the community guidelines, as defined by the community manager. When these guidelines are being breached, moderators will intervene in an appropriate way, ranging from a friendly warning to a permanent ban.

There are some additional roles you could consider adding to your community team.

A stakeholder manager is responsible for promoting the community within your organization. An application manager secures technical performance levels of your online community platform and pushes for innovation. A content creator coordinates the production and distribution of online publications. And an analytics specialist raises the bar for measuring the impact of your community efforts.

To a certain extent, additional roles can also be carried out by the community manager or moderator.

4. Define and communicate clear guidelines

As mentioned in the previous section, the community manager decides which behavior in your community is encouraged and which behavior is frowned upon. Moderators see to it that people comply to these preset rules of conduct.

When the community manager and moderators do their job well, a pleasant environment for conversation will emerge. This will, in turn, also help to resolve conflicts smoothly.

Having clear guidelines is of vital importance when you need to manage an online conversation. On platforms such as a forum and social media, most people briefly pop in and out, and share their opinion in a heartbeat. This makes them more prone to deviate from the main purpose of the conversation, or even to behave in a way that others find offensive. Moderators should be on top of this.

Offline conversations, such as the ones at a local event, are easier to moderate than online ones. People tend to act more mannered when they meet face-to-face, opposed to meeting online. Still, offline conversations benefit from mutually agreeing to certain rules of conduct as well, like staying on-topic.

Make sure your community members, especially new ones, know that there are guidelines in advance. For example, add a link to your guidelines in the confirmation email that people receive after registering as a new forum member, or briefly mention them at the start of a local event.

Keep your guidelines clear, easy to digest and predominantly encouraging. People should be excited to participate after reading or hearing about your guidelines, and not be discouraged or lulled to sleep.

5. Set the right example, but don’t overdo it

Usually, new communities do not start talking by themselves. So, it is up to you – or the community team you have assigned – to get the party started.

Your three main priorities should be: defining subtopics, publishing enticing content and guiding the conversation in the right direction. I will go into these priorities one by one.

Subtopics

The overarching topic of your community is probably too broad to have just one general conversation about.

Defining subtopics helps your community members to join the conversations they care about the most and to meet like-minded people. For instance, a community built around the topic of gardening can have subtopics such as growing your own crops, outdoor furniture and balcony gardens.

While some subtopics remain popular and are here to stay indefinitely, other subtopics come and go over time. So, be ready to adapt to what people want to discuss today. Simply keep an eye on the ongoing conversation, and try to spot emerging and fading trends.

Content and events

Now that you know which subtopics are currently trending, it is time to kickstart the conversation and set the right example.

Publishing captivating content and organizing inspiring events about popular subtopics are a sure-fire way to get a first response from your target audience.

Types of online content that work well as a conversation kickstarter are blogs, social media posts and newsletters, containing a combination of well-written copy and eye-catching visuals.

Great ideas for hosting a local community event, on the other hand, are interactive seminars, workshops and customer panels.

Moderation

Moderators monitor what is being said in response to published content or at an event hosted by your company. They might choose to join the conversation on behalf of your company. One reason for a moderator to participate can be to streamline or expand the ongoing conversation. Answering direct questions or dealing with accusations can be another.

As a moderator, you should try to avoid putting yourself in the spotlight on your platform or at an event too often. Don’t assume that everyone always expects a response from you. Instead, take a step back and observe. Operate from the shadows. Let people create their own community. And only intervene when your contribution is expected or will leave a lasting impression.

6. Get from behind your desk!

That’s right, you heard me.

Force yourself to step out of the comfort zone of the office environment at least once a week. Go explore! Meet people in person or invite them over. It might surprise you, but this single ingredient could turn an unresponsive community into a lively one.

Sure, interacting with people from behind your desk, through online platforms, is an effective way to reach a large audience and to stay in touch with your most active community members, but this should never lead to you hiding behind your digital avatar or company logo.

Meeting someone in person or visiting a certain place can change the perspective and appreciation of everyone involved, in ways online platforms are incapable of.

7. Plan ahead

To summarize what we have covered so far: building a new community requires you to set the right example, which means publishing thought-provoking content, bringing people together and strategically intervening when the kickstarted conversation falls silent or derails. Most of these efforts come down to improvisation and acting after the fact.

Some of your contributions, though, can be planned and prepared ahead of time. Make sure you do, and avoid being hijacked by responding to unpredictable, last-minute occurrences all the time.

Planning ahead for a timespan of three months should be sufficient.

Throughout the year there are many annually reccurring moments, like holidays, anniversaries and other traditions that most people are familiar with. To name a few: Valentine’s Day, summer festivals, major charity events and schools reopening in September. These moments are going to happen no matter what.

You simply need to pick the moments that are relevant to you and your community, and jump on the bandwagon. Then, utilize the seas of time you have created, by producing mind-blowing content, like high-end video, or by organizing an event double the standard size and budget.

To manage these ambitious projects, I highly recommend setting up a content and event calendar. This will help you to visualize when your planned activities will take place and the amount of effort needed to meet your deadlines.

8. Measure your performance

Knowing how well your community is performing should not depend on your gut feeling or personal opinion. Irrefutable evidence comes from cold data. If you are unable to provide yourself or your management with verifiable performance figures, your community will eventually lose its viability.

Trying to connect your community efforts to financial business goals is difficult, though. For example, how does a rising number of engaging community members translate to more sales among these people? This correlation is commonly called Return On Investment.

ROI, for short, is a set of figures management is usually very curious about, and rightfully so. “Is this worth our time and money?” Therefore, sit down with management and discuss which obtainable data will be looked at to determine desired performance levels.

A sound way to start reporting on community performance is to set up a benchmark. A benchmark is a factual reflection of the state your business is in before launching a community – or before changing the strategy of an existing one.

Be sure to only define benchmark data that you can directly affect with your community efforts, like the number of ideas proposed by your customers or the percentage of customer ideas turned into approved product changes.

Aside from ROI reports for management, you should also look at statistical data to optimize your day to day community activities and content publications. Are your social media posts, for example, meeting the goal you have set in advance, like reaching x amount of people or converting x amount of visitors into new community members? And have the results improved over time? In other words, are you applying the lessons learned so far?

That’s all folks!

Hopefully you are feeling confident to build – or improve – a community of your own at this point. One that will excite your customers, improve mutual understanding and boost your reputation.

Once your community is up and running and you are looking for the next challenge, consider diving into tutorials about co-creation and content marketing. Also, I would like to point out the blog section to you, which covers inspiring best practices of businesses running a successful community.