If you have never launched an online community before, it can be a daunting task. Developing a new, long-term component of your organization’s strategy from scratch means you are in charge of the building blocks that will ultimately support or impinge the investment’s success. How the online community is positioned and put together from day one is critical. The key is to prepare, assess and strategize. With simple planning and a clear vision, a smooth and successful launch is easier than you ever anticipated.
Over the last few weeks, we have been chronicling the steps it takes to launch a successful private online community in great detail. To recap, we have created this to-do list to ensure you stay on the right track towards developing a thriving and successful online community.
Here are nine steps to successfully prepare for the launch of your new online community:
Step 1: Define a Topic
Communities are formed when people associate with one another around a common identifier. What will be the identifying topic that brings your community together? This can be a profession, hobby, activity, product, cause or social factor - just make sure the topic is unique to your community. If there isn't a vacancy in the market for your concept, you will struggle to grow a user base. Competing with pre-established online communities that cater to an identical audience is extremely difficult and will impede on member acquisition rates as well as long-term retention.
Step 2: Assess Level of Interest
Speaking of member acquisition - before launching an online community, it's important to figure out your total feasible market size. There are two questions to consider here:
- 1. Are there enough people interested in your concept for the member-base to grow over time?
- 2. Are these people already collaborating in other online communities?
Find out by doing a competitive analysis and reaching out to a segment of your target audience. If you don’t already have access to a topically-aligned contact, set a goal to connect with 5 new individuals each week via outlets like LinkedIn or Twitter.
Note that throughout this process it’s important to reach out to target audience members at a personal level. The rapport you build with these individuals will become increasingly valuable to your community’s long-term success. A very small number of members – especially in the first years – can drive an overwhelming volume of community activity.
When you are ready to begin having conversations with your target audience, be sure to assess their behavioral inclinations and social affinity for different collaboration opportunities (they will give you a head start on the next three steps we are going to cover). Also, vet for the type of resources people will find most compelling and the triggers that will best solicit their participation.
Here are a few examples:
- As someone interested in _______, would you join an online community where you could connect and interact with other individuals interested in _________?
- What specific _________-related topics interest you the most?
- In which activities would you be most likely to participate?
- Connecting to other people interested in __________
Step 3: Select a Platform
If a majority of prospective audience members responded favorably to your online community concept, it's time to start evaluating vendors. Keep in mind the activities your audience expressed interest in so you can choose a product that will maximize participation. For example, if feedback showed that your audience is most interested in an area for Q&A, look for a vendor that makes this kind of participation as easy and intuitive as possible, such as email-based participation (also known as listservs) or filing sharing.
Pro tip: When interviewing potential vendors, ask how many updates have been made to their online community product in the last 12 months. If they can't answer this question, or the number is small, move on. Members will become disenchanted with your community if it is unable to adapt to their needs over time.
Step 4: Create a Community Layout
By now, you should be acquainted with your target audience, their needs and the capabilities of your online community platform of choice. As a next step, decide whether or not the common identifier your community is centered around has important sub-topics in which different sub-communities would help facilitate participation. For example, if you are starting an internal community for your organization (the common identifier), each department can be a sub topic in which different sub-communities can be created.
However, be careful with this. If you create too many separate areas for participation too early on, you will have a lot of empty spaces. It is best to start with only a small number of areas for members to contribute so you will have a higher density of participants in each space. As specific sub-topics become more prevalent in member contributions, repeat the outreach process from step 2 and build sub-communities when there is dedicated buy-in.
Once you have defined the structure of your community and sub-communities consider what features each area will need. A community layout should easily fit into an intuitive navigation and include the following items (as applicable):
- Sub community topic
- Related discussion forums
- Related blogs
- Related wiki
- Related events
- Related file libraries
Step 5: Create a Content Calendar
Since all communities start at zero, it's important for the community manager to instantly establish engagement opportunities that illustrate a clear value proposition for joining and participating in a community. The community manager should plan to have at least 1 week's worth of content present in the community before launching, and at least one week of content planned for the week following.
Content calendars should include a mix of contribution types - discussion group questions, blog posts, etc. - that cover broad, general topics. A good volume of contributions to aim for would be 1-2 per day, per each staff member involved in managing the community.
In order to master the art of planning and creating compelling community content early - a content calendar is a key tool at all stages of private online community development.
Step 6: Establish a Group of Founding Members and Recruit Experts
Remember all the connections you made when surveying your target audience? Reach back out to those people to let them know that, based on their feedback, you are preparing to launch a brand new online community for people just like them! Invite these individuals to help shape the community by becoming a founding member and offer to highlight an initial contribution they have authored on a community landing page, or in the community's first email promotion. This group will be your first set of active members and help to establish strong peer-to -peer ties that build attachment.
Inside your company, recruit stakeholders to act as experts in the community - individuals that will ensure new questions coming from members will get helpful responses in a timely manner.
Successful communities grow much quicker when content creation is scaled across as many resources as possible, so continue to grow these two key groups!
Unfortunately, some people come to online communities to attract the wrong kind of attention. Be prepared in advance by establishing a clear set of community guidelines.
A moderation policy should be seen as a guide to online etiquette and detail what is and what is not okay to post in the community. Include a link to these guidelines in the community so members can easily reference this document.
Step 8: Establish Reporting to Track Key Community Metrics
Before your community goes live, ensure that you will have access to reporting on community activity, traffic, subscription and member acquisition data. You will need to follow these numbers closely to gauge where to focus your efforts, what is working and what is not. Make sure you have a spreadsheet or report that will track the full history of each data point over time.
It's also recommended to set goals for the community's first six months. These goals should be easily measurable, and attainable but aggressive.
Step 9: Do a Soft Launch
You're finally ready to launch your new online community! Your vendor has completed the implementation process, your community layout is all set up and you have a handful of active members ready to engage with newcomers. However, before announcing the community to the masses, spend some time ensuring the community is ready to make a positive first impression. Ask yourself these questions:
- Does the platform appear to be bug-free and intuitive? If not, what adjustments can I make?
- Has enough content been created to provide an engaging atmosphere for new members? If not, what topics are missing and what resources can I use to fill the gaps?
- What are the initial sentiments of the founding members on the feel, use, and features of the online community? If there are reservations, what tweaks can be made to better address the target audience?
If you have these three key concerns figured out, congratulations! You can now move forward in managing and growing your own online community. Start by putting the items you learned and prepared throughout the launch process into action, such as direct member engagement, process-driven content creation, and ongoing data analysis. Over time, you will see these simple building blocks create a strong foundation for your online community.
Happy community building!