On company Web sites everywhere, community sections are popping up—both a cause and an effect of a climate in which more and more marketing directors and brand managers are being asked by their companies, "Why don't we do something 2.0?"

Although an online community can bring innumerable benefits to a brand, launching one is a project that should be considered carefully, to ensure that your efforts will have the desired results.

What Is an Online Community?

Often, the designated community sections of corporate and e-commerce Web sites do not actually function as online communities. Instead, they are pages where the company posts content for its customers, or they are message boards where visitors can publish comments on specific topics.

Online communities are about the formation of relationships among Web site users. To achieve that kind of interaction, certain factors have to be present:

  1. The members have to be visible to each other.
  2. The members have to have a way interact with each other directly on the Web site and a reason to do so.
  3. Members need to visit the Web site regularly over a period of time in order to get to know each other.

The third factor is the hardest to achieve. Normally, you need to establish a minimum activity level on the Web site. And until you reach this minimum threshold, visitors to the Web site are likely to find themselves alone there; and if they return a second time, they are likely to find that not much has changed since their last visit. They therefore have little reason to keep coming back. The dilemma is circular: you need activity in order to generate activity.

Accordingly, the launch phase of a community can be particularly difficult. You may have to invest money in member recruitment, offer incentives to members for participating, and artificially inflate the activity level on the Web site until you can reach the necessary momentum. All of this requires resources. Above all, it takes time.

So Why Bother?

If your community is successful, it can bring huge returns on the initial investment. It will be a direct line to your customer base, offering a unique opportunity to become a part of your customers' daily lives, and it will engage them in an ongoing conversation.

Just a few of the potential benefits:

  • User-generated content. Community members will constantly be posting new content, which will keep your Web site fresh, improve its search engine performance, and increase the number of visits.
  • Added value for your customers. By providing customers with a useful or entertaining community, you are increasing the value of your offering and creating a positive brand experience.
  • Increased customer loyalty. Your community members will feel like part of your brand, creating a deep brand loyalty that gives you an edge over competitors.
  • Control over your message. You can use your community to communicate key brand messages. And you will have the chance to deal with customer complaints on your own turf, before they are broadcast to the world.
  • Ideal marketing opportunity. You'll be able to market to your exact target population on a platform that's completely under your control.
  • Viral marketing. If your community is useful, the word will spread, bringing new visitors to your Web site and fresh attention to your brand.
  • Customer insights. A community will allow you to develop a profound knowledge of your target customers, their interests and needs, their communication style, and the details of their daily lives... all of which helps you market to them more effectively. You can also get advance feedback from your community on product concepts and campaign ideas.
  • Savings. All of the above-listed benefits potentially translate into savings. A functioning community can reduce the need to spend money on other marketing channels, as well as on SEO, content development, product testing, and so on.

The Downside

Building a community involves more than just the initial investment. You can't just put up a community page, walk away, and expect it to function on its own. An ongoing effort is required to recruit members, encourage activity, provide support, gather feedback, and keep the community alive.

And a new community is not likely to produce immediate results. In an interview for the book Online Communities Handbook, Stephan Musikant, managing director of the shopping community Ciao.com, emphasized that a real community "is not something you can do quickly on the run."

"People need to differentiate between setting up a group quickly for a promotion versus building a real community," Stephan explained.

Reasons not to launch a proprietary community:

  • You need to show fast results.
  • No guarantee of long-term support in your organization.
  • No technical resources for the project.
  • No resources to manage the community once it's built.

Next Steps

Before embarking on a community project, it's important to make a business plan. Consider your goals, your timeline, and the resources at your disposal.

Ask yourself:

  • What do I hope to accomplish?
  • How much backing do I have in my organization?
  • How soon do I need results?
  • In what ways could a community save us money in the long run?
  • What alternative options would allow me to reach my objectives?
  • Is launching a community the most efficient means to the end?

If you are looking to build a valuable asset for your company over the long-term, a customer community can offer enormous benefits in terms of marketing, public relations, customer research, and much more.

However, even if you don't have the time or the resources to build a customer community, you can still "do something 2.0" by launching a blog or marketing on existing social networks such as Facebook or Xing.

Some social networks also offer intermediary solutions that allow you to create a branded micro-community on their platforms at minimal cost and risk.

In the end, what's important isn't the platform or the tools that you choose—it's starting a productive dialogue between customer and brand.

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Nancy Strauss is the owner of William Victor Marketing Translations (www.williamvictor.net) and the author, with Anna Buss, of Online Communities Handbook (www.onlinecommunitieshandbook.com).