Online communities bring together people from across the globe to share their experiences and expertise. They are vibrant, multi-dimensional and take social interaction to a new level. For people who create and manage such communities, the main source of satisfaction comes from watching their creation thrive and succeed. This is not the only motivation: creators of online community derive pleasure from the power and influence that they get from creating, managing and controlling a group of people, the fame and status that comes with it and the sense of belonging that community participation brings.

How to Build and Manage an Online Community

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This article discusses online communities and examines them in detail to see how effective they are for businesses. It covers the following areas: 1) an introduction to online communities, 2) evolution and history of online communities, 3) benefits of online communities, 4) creating an online community, 5) tools for online community management, and 6) a conclusion.

INTRODUCTION TO ONLINE COMMUNITY

Human beings are social creatures, and we need to interact with other human beings to be able to survive. This is the reason why we form groups and look to connect with other humans on some level.

1) What Is a Community?

A community can be described as a group of people or a social unit that comes together and connects to each other to share some common interest or value. Communities can be based upon geographical area, interests, ideas, location or area, religion, beliefs, hobbies or any other thing that is common to a group of people. Communities can be big or small, and can be confined to a small area or spread across the globe.

2) What Is an Online Community?

With the advent of the internet, more people have started to socialize and create communities in the virtual world. The rules of the game remain the same; these communities draw together people who share a common idea or interest. The difference is that these are created by users of the internet, and provide a cohesive unit for the people who use the internet. Since the online community is not confined by geographical constraints, the members of the community are spread across the globe. The communication within the community is through the means provided by the internet that include instant messaging, email, online forums, BBMs, social media, etc.

3) Online Community Is not Social Media (Difference Between Social Networks and Online Community)

People often consider social networks like Twitter or Facebook to be an online community. But this is not true, social networking and online communities are two distinct parts of the whole called Social Media. Social networking is not the same as an online community. The two share some common features, but their nature and functions are different. They both depend on the internet for their existence. People converge and form groups, find information and share things in both social networking sites and online communities. The similarities end there.

All social networks are formed of people you know or have met, or are people who are connected to someone within your social group. These people are your family, friends, acquaintances, and friends of friends, etc. People join social networks to stay in touch with each other, maintain relationships and forge new connections or relationships and to expand the social network. This is how sites like Facebook, Linkedin, Twitter, etc. work. A person can form only one social network. It is extremely difficult to have multiple identities on the social network, as it is such a personal interaction.

Online communities, on the other hand, consist of people from various walks of life and seem to be totally unrelated to each other. The only commonality between the people of an online community seems to be their area of interest. It is their shared ideas, interests, professions that bring people together to form a community. The members join in because they wish to share, contribute and learn from one another. Some members contribute, while others benefit from the collective knowledge shared within the community. Since people have many different interests and goals, an individual can be a part of several online communities at a time.

Given the nature of the two, social networks, and online communities can be targeted by businesses for different results.

EVOLUTION AND HISTORY OF ONLINE COMMUNITIES

The first form of communication using the internet was the e-mail developed by ARPAnet in 1972; these were person to person communications. Multiple messages that could be sent to multiple users took time in developing and became possible only in the 1980’s when a graphical user interface came into existence. The first online social communities appeared with BBM services. After this, many other social interaction services appeared which include Usenet News, Listservers, etc. Internet Relay Chat, better known as IRC, was developed in 1988, and this was the birth of instant messaging and chat where people could exchange text messages in real time. IRC services included ICQ and AOL. When the World Wide Web was developed in 1991, the internet as we know it now appeared. WWW popularized the net and facilitated the creation and existence of online communities. The first of these communities were fueled by online games such as Doom, Everquest, Quest, etc. Now the internet communities have evolved to encompass all areas of interest and knowledge. With the introduction of VOIP, video streaming, images, and sounds, the online communities have expanded into all areas of our lives. Smart devices have made the communities even more dynamic and accessible to its members, who can now interact with the community anywhere, on the go. More people are joining in, and the nature of the communities is changing every day.

BENEFITS OF ONLINE COMMUNITIES FOR COMPANIES

When it comes to businesses and companies, creating or participating in online communities can be very profitable. Having an online community is as good as having an extension of your marketing team, which can reach out to hundreds, if not thousands of customers. These customers act as motivators for your business and make positive contributions to the community. It provides the business an opportunity to promote itself and interact with its customers, and provides them with tailor-made experiences. It enables companies to:

  • Understand their customers and what they want better.
  • Find potential customers and interact with the community to increase conversions.
  • Research what products and services the customers desire and provide tailor-made solutions.
  • Gather market intelligence, analyze it and implement it in future activities.
  • Build brands and reputation for the company.
  • Induce discussion and debate about products and services provided by the company and any new products that are being introduced. The discussions within the community inform and familiarize people with the new products and its benefits, without the company having to sell hard.
  • Enhance its content reach.
  • Increase its customer loyalty.
  • Improve its customer care services and reduce the number of queries and support calls that the company receives. It increases customer satisfaction and encourages knowledge sharing.

CREATING AN ONLINE COMMUNITY

Building an online community is not an easy task. It takes a lot of dedication, patience, and hard work to create a successful community. A community provides a platform for interaction amongst the members as well as between the members and the administrators of the community. Having a community that is dedicated to your business is the easy part, but keeping the community thriving and growing requires inputs from the administrators as well as members of the community. Let us take a look at the process involved in creating, maintaining and expanding community.

1) How to Start Creating an Online Community

When you start creating an online community, you need to keep in mind that the community is completely dependent on internet. So you need to ensure that the community is one that can be easily accessed by the maximum number of people. You may need to take into account the internet speed, which is not the same for everyone. Some have high-speed internet while others struggle with very slow speeds. The community has to cater to both kinds of members. International communities that are spread across the globe also have to take into consideration the time zones and availability of the members. Before you begin, you have to decide whether you wish to create a private community where the membership is restricted, or a public community where anyone can join.

To build a community you have to do the following:

  • Determine a purpose or goal for it.
  • Decide who your target audience will be.
  • Design the site keeping in mind the tools for interaction and the structure of your community.
  • Decide upon the manner in which you will host the community.
  • Create the community using tools available.
  • Create interesting content for the community.
  • Invite or attract members to join your community.
  • Administer it properly so that the community flourishes and expands.

2) Who Can Participate in a Community

Online communities exist because people have a common interest and knowledge, which they wish to share with other interested people. Anyone who is interested in the theme or purpose of an online community can participate in it. The motivation to join may be to gain knowledge, conduct research, share ideas, social interaction and more. If there is a strong motivating factor and the desire to socialize, a person can join an online community. Some of these communities are private, and people may need invitations to join up. Most online communities are public communities, and anyone with sufficient interest can participate. There are many different types of communities online for people to join.

Types of Online Communities

Any community is bound together by some common factors. These factors determine the type of community that is available online. The five main categories based upon common factors are:

  1. Interest: People who share common interests or passions come together to form a community.
  2. Place: People are brought together by geographical areas.
  3. Practice: Profession or practicing certain activities is a binding factor of such communities.
  4. Ideology: People aspiring to the same humanitarian or global goal and following ideologies to bring about a change come together in such communities.
  5. Circumstances: People are brought together by circumstances or external forces.

Within these five groups we have various other categories which include:

  • Family Groups: These are communities where families and extended families get together to share news, views, and happenings.
  • Role Playing: This is for role players, where people dress up and behave like a character from a comic or mythology. This is a growing trend.
  • Medical Support Group: These groups are organized around the common theme of medical problems, especially major illnesses like cancer. People suffering from similar medical problems come together in such communities.
  • Ethnic Group: These communities are based on ethnicity. People belonging to a particular ethnic group come together to share their lives.
  • Travel Communities: Travelers form communities to share tips, reviews, and off-beat things to do and places to visit.
  • Professional Groups: These communities are organized by profession. People following a certain profession or interested in it come together to share insights, new developments, tips, etc.
  • Special Interest Groups: These communities could be organized along any common interest. It could be sharing the same space, living similar lives, sharing same ideologies or philosophy, etc.
  • Creative Sharing Groups: These communities attract creative people who share their work and guide each other towards greater skills development.
  • Geographically Related Groups: Formed along geographical lines, people belonging to a particular geographical area from these communities.
  • Collaborative Groups: When a group of people is jointly involved in doing something and collaborating together, they form a collaborative community.
  • Hobby Groups: People who are interested in a particular craft or hobby form a community where they can share tips and tricks with each other.
  • DIY groups: There is a growing group of DIY enthusiasts. These communities are formed on the common interest of DIY techniques and projects.
  • Relationship Groups: These communities could be created by corporations, businesses and companies to create a stronger relationship with their customers. These could also be created so that people could search for other people who are interested in having a relationship can come together and interact.

These are only some of the types of communities that are present on the internet. There are thousands of communities covering practically all the topics and interests that people can share.

3) Reach out to People

The most important part of community building is reaching out to people. Unless people know that an online community exists that can be of value to them, they will not join in. The most important ways to reach out to people is through the following tools:

  • Email
  • Newsgroups
  • Chats
  • Message Boards
  • Phone
  • In person

Other means include using good content, initiating interesting dialogues and discussions to attract people to your community. If you try and recruit a certain number of people every day, soon your community will be thriving and growing on its own. But there are few people who make that effort. Most community managers cannot sustain the effort beyond the initial flush.

4) Promote It

A community, like any other organization, business or company, benefits through publicity and marketing. Traditional tools of marketing and promotion apply to virtual communities too. Below is a list of such tools:

  • Conventional advertisements are a good way of introducing your community to the world;
  • Use Banner Ads and pay per click advertisement campaigns;
  • Write blogs and engage in social media promotion;
  • Use SEO;
  • Create a website;
  • Use Social media to talk about your community;
  • Use email campaigns to promote your community;
  • Use your professional and personal network to augment your presence and promote your community;
  • Participate in other similar communities and generate interest about yourself and your community;
  • Create offline events to engage your community members and meet them personally;
  • Use incentives like giveaways, contests, and online events to generate and sustain interest;
  • Constantly post interesting content on your site;
  • Use technology to keep the community members in touch with the happenings, news and views of the community.

5) Manage It

Managing an online community is much like managing any offline community. A community consists of many different people with different personalities, motivations and values. All these have to be taken into consideration when administering a community. During the initial stages, the community needs a lot of inputs from the administrators. The new members have to be initiated into the community and have to be guided through the onboarding process. Once the community is established, the interventions of the founders and administrators lessen, and soon the community is thriving and sustaining itself. The interactions between members develop on their own and keep the community growing.

5.1 Who Is a Community Manager and What Does He Do?

Any person who administers a community is the community manager. There can be one or many managers in a community. Community managers are also called administrators. Their job changes as the community grows and expands. At various stages of the community, its manager has to wear a number of hats and be a leader, a content manager, moderator, promoter and advocate, mediator, and an analyst for the community.

The main work of the admins or community managers includes:

  • Inviting new members and once they join, welcoming them. Taking the new members through the onboarding process, familiarizing them with the community, its rules and regulations.
  • Helping create relationships between members, introducing new members to other members, and promoting certain members who they feel might benefit the community.
  • Identifying the key members and influencers of the community and initiating a better relationship with them in order to enhance the growth and influence of the community.
  • Once the community is thriving, one of the key duties of the manager is moderating the community and ensuring that the members adhere to the rules; also initiating and encouraging topics that they want the community to discuss and steering the conversations toward these topics.
  • Creating new content, running campaigns and contests and organizing events for the community. Creating content that is original and search engine optimized, creating brand value and generating leads for a business or the community.
  • Finding ways to respond to certain community discussions and helping to address the needs of the cross-section of people who comprise the community.
  • Expanding the community using social media to increase the member base, if necessary. So a community manager has to be well versed in social media and other tools of promotion.
  • Creating reports and measurements regarding the community’s performance and its ROI.
  • Gathering inputs and suggestions from the members and implementing them into the community.

5.2 Qualities of a Good Online Community Manager

Not everyone is cut out to be a good community manager. It takes certain qualities for a person to be a good and effective manager. The qualities of a good manager include:

  • Some college education, though it is not an essential if the person has other important qualities like ability to communicate properly.
  • Great communication skills is important as a community manager is the face of the community, and this face needs to be able to gel and communicate with the community enough to lead it effectively.
  • Good leadership skills are another thing to look for. People will only follow and congregate around a strong leader, which is what a community requires.
  • Sound judgment to be able to decide what content and topic to introduce and share with the community.
  • Emotionally mature and able to empathize with the various members of the community and forge a strong bond amongst them. Should be able to give and take criticism positively.
  • Dedicated worker who is willing to work all hours of the day and night and is available to break important developments and news to the community 24/7.
  • Passionate about their work and their beliefs.
  • Being detail oriented so that nothing escapes the sharp eyes of the manager.
  • Should be creative and adaptable.
  • Needs to be level-headed and patient.
  • Should have an analytical ability. Should know analytical tools intimately and how to extract information from them to steer the community in the right direction.
  • Be able to work independently and make critical decisions quickly.
  • Be a problem solver.

5.3 How to Manage an Online Community

Managing an online community especially if it is created around a brand or a product requires careful thinking and planning. It also requires active involvement of the community manager. The things to pay attention to while managing a community include:

  • Finding a purpose to keep the community together. It is important to have a clear goal with which the members are aligned.
  • Constantly remind the members of the purpose of the community through emails, communications, blogs, chats, etc.
  • Use good content that is relevant to the purpose of the community to keep the interest level high. Encourage the members to create and post content and initiate dialogue and discussion.
  • Have patience; it takes a while for a community to take off.
  • Be friendly and approachable to the members.
  • Do not be afraid to kick out members who do not adhere to the community guidelines, are trolls, or like to create dissension.

6) Encourage Participation

In order to have a thriving and vibrant community, it is important to encourage participation by the members. Successful community builders do not build communities for entities that exist in cyberspace, but they create communities keeping in mind that there are real people behind the community handles and that these people have real needs, feelings, emotions, desires, aspirations, etc. It is imperative to understand that people are not alike; they each have their different perceptions and personalities. While encouraging participation, community managers need to keep in mind that not all members in a community will participate in an equal manner. In any community, the participation is as follows:

  • A majority of members never participate. They observe and read but rarely post comments or contribute to the community. These types of members are called lurkers and constitute 90% of users.
  • Some of the members read, observe and comment, but not very often. These members only comment occasionally. These members constitute 9% of users.
  • Most of the comments and contributions are made by only 1% of the members of any community. It is from this 1% that all the leaders and influencers of the community can be identified.

Based on the types of behavior observed we can categorize the members of any community in the following categories:

  • Public: Anyone who is looking for some information or answers.
  • Subscriber: Person who signs up for a newsletter, email or other such services provided by a community.
  • Prospect: A person who shows interest in a community and wants more information or details about the community and downloads extra information.
  • Customer /Member: A person who joins the community and becomes a member either by buying something connected to the community or signing up to become a member.
  • Loyalist: A member who is loyal to a brand or community.
  • Advocate: A person who will advocate for the community and promote it.

TOOLS FOR COMMUNITY MANAGEMENT

Community managers have several tools available to them to manage their online communities. These include:

  • Swayy.co – Content searching and sharing tools that allow you to search for content on the internet, share it and also display analytics about the relevance of the article to your community.
  • Scoop.it – Content curating and publishing tool.
  • RebelMouse.com – Digital publishing platform that allows content to be published across sites, apps, and social media.
  • Paper.li – Content curating and publishing tools that automatically collect and share content on the internet.
  • Storify.com – Allows users to create stories or timelines on social media.
  • Hootsuite – A dashboard tool that lets users schedule messages and manage social media, etc. from one single interface or dashboard.
  • Sprout Social – Social media management and collaboration platform for community and social media managers.
  • Bitly – Shortens links and provides community managers insights about links.

These are only some of the most popular tools that are used by content and community managers. Other tools include Google Analytical, Demographics Pro, Tweepi, Tweetdeck, Flipboard, etc.

CONCLUSION

As you can see from what has been discussed above, online communities are powerful tools for brand building and promotion for any company and its products or services. Not all communities are successful; sustained effort is needed to make a community successful. One of the biggest myths about community building is that the larger the community, the more successful it will be. This is not true of all communities. People prefer to interact in smaller groups or networks and often leave larger communities in favor of smaller, more intimate groups, and this is why a bigger community is not a mark of its success. A community is constantly evolving and follows a certain lifecycle. You have to be aware of the stage your community is at, to be able to manage it successfully.

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