The Value of an Online Community
Building an online community is a great way for companies to encourage deeper relationships with customers, enthusiasts, and most especially – developers. Technology companies are particularly adept at leveraging active participation, good will, and sheer word-of-mouth power of the cloud crowd.
Many sponsor technical communities for developers like teaching, customer support, and newbie coaching. People flock to well-structured, well-run forums for advice, problem-solving, and to share their work and ideas.
Some communities spring up of their own accord, sparked by a lone enthusiast trying to solve a problem who attracts people with similar interests. But more likely, communities are created by companies willing to prime the pump and get things rolling. These communities can be of great value for companies looking to build loyalty, engagement, while sustaining relevance. So how can a company build a thriving, self-perpetuating community that’s aligned with company goals?
Here’s why a purposeful brand can help you create and run a vibrant online community:
Define the goals for your online community from the beginning. What are you trying to accomplish? Set clear objectives and expectations that are consistent with your company’s business and product strategies.
Business strategy and brand strategy are inextricably linked. Since the brand is the part of your company that customers see, your Brand Strategy is an essential part of any community initiative.
Determine who are you talking to. Who are they exactly? What do they need, want, and believe? What do you want them to do, think, or feel? At Emotive Brand, when we develop a strategy, it starts with deep understanding of all stakeholders, target audiences, customers, and yes, the community.
Persona Maps and Persona Journeys are extremely helpful here. Persona Workshops cast a wide net and then probe deeply into the key people your company wishes to influence. It’s easy to map their demographics, industries, job roles, responsibilities, and influencers. More important, you can discover their needs, pain points, beliefs, and feelings so you can match messaging and/or product solutions to answer the specific needs of specific types of people.
What topics do you want to cover in your community site? What content do you want to host? What message do you want to send?
Brand Strategy helps here, because it includes Positioning to define your company offerings and the Messaging needed to target the right strategic messages to the right people, as defined in your Persona Maps.
Quality matters. Developers will spend a lot of valuable time on your community site researching problems, asking questions, posting solutions, studying documentation, and downloading code. So the least your brand can do is to create a clean, well-lit place that’s usable and attractive. Use your brand to guide the brand experience you want people to have when engaging with your community.
The Brand Promise that’s at the heart of your brand will give you the charter to invest in a high-quality community site.
Developer sites are frequently created by engineers for engineers. But they shouldn’t look like freeware, even if running on an open-source platform. There needs to be a consistent, symbiotic relationship with the corporate brand, even if you’re hosting the community site separately from the corporate website.
Brand Guidelines will specify acceptable designs and prohibit unacceptable designs that might damage the corporate brand.
Geekiness is cool. We love geeks. Almost 97% of our CEO clients are engineers! We honor them. We make them heroes (check out our work for VMware). But that doesn’t mean that your community site needs to go overboard with geek-speak or drown in abstruse jargon. Simplicity, directness, and clarity are always the key to good communication.
The Brand Voice defines the way the brand speaks, and how it should not speak. It also sets the tone for the community discourse, which is crucial if you want a brand-appropriate site that grows because it’s inviting for people to join.
The Brand Promise – the promise your brand makes to the people who matter – helps crystallize the brand’s role in the community. You can choose the proximity to the community that’s most comfortable for your brand. Branded communities fall into four camps:
Full engagement – with active participation by designated company brand ambassadors to provide technical support, ideas, postings, documentation, code, and site moderation.
Moderate engagement – company staff is involved for editorial purposes, policing member postings to prevent bullying, remove trolls and keep things clean.
Low engagement – built and then run with a let them come-to-me mentality, basically hands off, allowing community members to run the show.
No engagement – companies who channel customer support into static lists of FAQs, better than nothing, but it sure isn’t a community.
There’s no better way to understand people who are important to your brand than by paying attention to the community. Communities are built to encourage dialog between interested parties in two-way or multi-party conversations. Your brand has the opportunity to participate and listen.
Brand Strategy can help you listen attentively and respond appropriately. Empathy should be the guiding light for any community, and rooted in any Brand Strategy.
9. Care and feeding
Once you start a community, it’s up to you to keep it going. It’s like a garden. You till the soil, plant the seeds, water and fertilize, pull the weeds, and encourage growth. You welcome the bees and birds, too. And you do it every single day. Only then can you enjoy the fruit.
How you behave sets an example and drives the culture of your community. A Brand Strategy specifies both the strategic shifts a brand is trying to make, and the behavior necessary for people to live up to. How you behave sets an example and drives the culture of your community.
Your online community may turn out to be a genial collection of like-minded enthusiasts or a contentious battleground trolled by argumentative egomaniacs. Either extreme can be valuable as long as you have them under your tent. When you build a community that’s aligned with your Brand Strategy, you can enjoy the benefits of reduced customer support overhead, loyal and interested long-term users, a rich environment bursting with good ideas, and a vast team of de facto ambassadors willing to spread the good word about your brand.
Emotive Brand is a San Francisco branding agency.