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You wouldn’t begin building a house without architecture and design in place.  But that’s what many companies do when they decide to build a branded online community.  They select a technology platform and quickly move to the implementation stage without crafting the business plan, outlining the goals and measures of the community – and most importantly, understanding their customers’ needs and how the community will serve those needs.

If you want your online community to succeed, you need to do a lot of “pre-shoveling”  – spending a good amount of time creating a foundation and frame for the community in advance of construction.  Here are seven questions you need to answer before you break ground:

1.  Who Will The Community Serve?

Too often, organizations don’t think about the audience they’re serving in enough detail to construct an online community that is beneficial to its members.

For example, a company may say that the online community is intended for its customers and partners.  But, for a software company that has a SaaS offering and an on-premise model, customer needs are very different based on the line of business.  Plus the needs of the companies’ partners are completely different from those of its customers.  There are different segments within your base, and you need to consider who is the most important to serve.

Sharpen your focus on the specific audience you are trying to reach.  Maybe it is your customers, but it must be customers for a specific product line, geography, functional title, or business size.

Never underestimate the importance of nailing your audience.  Understanding who you aim to serve is crucial to driving the how, where, when, what and why of your community.

2.  What Is That Audience’s Pain Point?

Once you have identified your audience, you need to understand what makes them tick.  What challenges do they face?  Where do they currently turn for answers?

Remember: You’re not articulating why the audience is critical to your organization – focus on the issues they need to solve.

You don’t need to address all of their problems.  Start with one or two of the most pressing, evergreen issues. Many large online community success stories began by solving a single business problem and evolved into more complex solutions that tackle a range of issues.

3.  How Can An Online Community Make The Pain Go Away?

Map your audience’s needs to your business needs.  Let’s say you’ve identified that your audience needs to tap the wisdom of their peers to inform their business decisions.  And you’ve determined that your business needs more insight into customer challenges and experiences.  Voilà!  You’ve found the intersection of needs that an online community can address.

Aligning your business needs with the needs of your audience is a crucial step in building the business case for your online community.  It does no good to identify a business need that is irrelevant to the community.  Nor does it make sense to identify a customer need that your company can’t address.  Look for the sweet spots.

4.  What Kind Of Community Should I Build?

The next step is choosing the community model.  There are three types of online communities:

Information Dissemination communities are built to share and gather information, but not to interact and connect.  This type of community is frequently used in regulated industries like pharma and healthcare.  It’s the easiest to build and has the lowest returns.

Shop Talk communities enable their members to transact around an issue or question.  For example, when my printer won’t work, I go to the Epson community and another user, printdude201, tells me how to fix it – and I never speak to him again.  The point of these communities is customer service and call center cost reduction.

Professional Collaboration communities allow customers or partners to interact with each other and the company within a private, gated community.  Thomson Reuters, for example, built a private community to serve the needs of legal professionals from small law firms.  These communities provide a win-win: members gain valuable access to the wisdom of their peers, while the company can spot trends and accelerate the development of new products and services in response to customer needs.  Tough to build and maintain?  Sure.  But Professional Collaboration communities deliver the biggest bang for your buck. 

5.  Do We Have The Community Building Characteristics We Need To Succeed?

Online communities are not for everyone.  Your customers – and your organization – need to exhibit specific characteristics that make them “community ready.”  As a litmus test, you need to answer, “yes” to these questions about your customers, their problems, and your company’s products or services:

  • Are your customers eager to share information and experiences with other customers?
  • Are they willing to participate in offline user groups or in-person customer summits?
  • Do your customers gain major value by learning from the experiences of other customers?
  • Do your company’s offerings solve important problems for your customers?
  • Do you need to supply continual product enhancements to meet customer needs?
  • Do company revenues depend on product or service upgrade decisions by customers?

6.  How Will We Generate Content?

Content is the fuel that drives online communities.  At launch, a community must already be stocked with valuable content.  You’ll need a content plan and editorial calendar to keep it well stocked for at least six months.

At about the six-month mark, your users should be contributing content – and a minimum of 40% of your content should be coming from members.

But your content job will never be finished.  You’ll need an ongoing plan to elicit, edit, and showcase knowledge and member-generated content in tandem with all of your company-generated content.

7.  How Are We Going To Measure Success?

You must determine your critical success factors or KPIs before you launch.  Many “measurable” metrics (number of members, time on site, number of posts) are too far removed from the business strategy, and member needs to be meaningful.

To demonstrate the impact of community on your organization, align community measures with the organization’s business goals and objectives.  Think in terms of increased customer satisfaction measures, higher NPS scores, improved customer loyalty, more rapid customer service resolution, and greater input from customers on product and service enhancements.

The most valuable thing you can do for your community (and company) is to measure success in business terms. 

What’s true of building a house is true of building a branded online community: start with a strong foundation.  Craft a solid business plan.  Understand your audience and their needs.  And, most importantly, connect the features of your community to those needs.  It won’t be easy but, by asking the right questions up front, you will be poised to build a community that can deliver enormous benefits – to your customers and your organization.