Businesses have embraced online communities as a means of communicating with their customers—and for good reason. An online community offers unmatched opportunities for customers, prospects, advocates, and fans to support and engage in conversation about their favorite brands in a brand-safe environment.

Yet building a successful online community isn't as easy as it might seem. A thriving community requires defined goals and a clear strategy if it is to consistently attract and engage participants. Below are five tips to help you build an online community.

1. Determine your goal

Determining your goal seems obvious, right? But, in fact, many companies think about their goals for an online community in very broad terms when they should, instead, have in mind more specific objectives.

Here are a few questions to consider before committing to an online community:

  • What are your current and future business goals?
  • How does an online community meet those needs, and what purpose does it serve?
  • How will you integrate an online community into your broader marketing plan?
  • Who are you looking to attract to your online community, and is it the right forum for engaging with them?
  • Are you looking to monitor conversations about your brand or actively participate in them?
  • Do you want to monetize your community and content? What monetization model is appropriate and relevant to your business and your customers?
  • Do you plan to develop multimedia or to host user-generated videos?
  • What communication tools are appropriate for your audience? Will users be more comfortable with text or media-based communication?

Answering those questions will help guide your campaign and help you determine which tools to use, what you'll consider a success, and how you'll measure return on investment (ROI).

2. Identify metrics

By what metrics will you measure success and ROI? That is another often-overlooked element of social-media campaigns. If you haven't defined success metrics for your community, how will you know if it's working?

Granted, measuring social media isn't always easy, but there are some basic factors you can track while you develop more complex ROI measurements. Examples include:

  • Increase in the frequency of mentions about your brand
  • Decrease in negative mentions about your brand
  • Increase in the number of community members
  • Increase in user-generated content submissions
  • Increase in the content consumed
  • Increase in sales leads/revenues
  • Increase in the number of trackbacks and links to your content
  • Activity metrics: pageviews, members, blog posts, comments, time spent on site, etc.
  • ROI metrics: ad revenues, product sales, etc.

3. Develop a marketing plan

Like any social-media or public-communications vehicle, your community will benefit from a dedicated marketing plan to attract traffic and encourage engagement and repeat visits. To drive membership and user engagement, it's vital to focus your attention on community-specific marketing activities, such as contests, members-only content, giveaways, psychological rewards, etc.

In addition, your online community cannot thrive in a silo. Consider the community as a central hub for all marketing efforts across your business. Every marketing campaign you roll out should encourage customers to join and participate in your community where you can retain interest in and encourage dialogue about your brand.

For example, if you're rolling out a new product, consider a community-driven contest that challenges users to submit a blog post or video highlighting why they love or how they use your new product. That not only supports your overall marketing goals but also drives engagement, new users, and fresh content to your site while reinforcing the value of your product among a highly targeted audience.

4. Identify monetization goals and strategy—brand-building vs. monetization

To monetize or not goes back to your goals for building a community in the first place. If your goal is to use social media to enhance your brand or gain feedback from your customers, monetization may not be part of your strategy.

However, if monetization is an important objective, there are various monetization models you can use. Consider which method works best for your brand, business, customers, and revenue goals. Here are some examples:

  • Advertising is probably the most common and debated monetization strategy. Pre- or post-roll video ads (the commercials you see before and after a video plays), ad overlays (ads that take up the bottom third of the video), and affiliate partnerships (through which you can buy products that are featured in videos), can all help you generate ad revenue or sell more products.
  • E-commerce is a hot monetization topic as brands determine how to better integrate the buying process and turn valuable customer buzz into immediate sales.
  • Pay-to-participate is a unique model that social networks and online communities are experimenting with. Users pay a membership fee to receive members-only content (similar to online magazine subscriptions) or a nominal entry fee to participate in a contest or tournament.

A word of advice: Don't feel obligated to monetize your site. You can obtain value from your community in several ways that don't always equate directly to revenue. Sometimes a brand needs social media to stay current, competitive, and in touch with its customers.

5. Determine how you'll build it

If you don't have an in-house team of designers and developers, there are multiple resources that can help you build your online community website, including advertising and interactive agencies, social-media technology providers, and self-service solutions for the do-it-yourselfer.

Few companies have the internal resources, technology, and knowledge to build their infrastructure and execute a successful community in-house. In fact, most businesses outsource to an agency or a technology provider, or a combination of the two. Although those communities typically benefit from feature-rich and technology-rich implementations, the price tag can be prohibitive for many smaller businesses.

Self-serve solutions are great for any company but may not offer the range of functionality required by some larger brands or for complex campaigns. They are typically less costly to implement and manage, since you build and maintain the site yourself.

In the end, you will need to determine your budget, your internal resources, your goals, and your timeline to identify the option that makes the most sense for you. Just be sure to allocate enough time for the build so that you're not scrambling to launch your community site at the last minute.

Building a successful online community involves many different factors, including technology, design, and marketing, which take time to integrate properly. Allocate two to three weeks minimum for a basic community and two months or more for large-scale, complex campaigns.

* * *

An online social community has many business benefits. Businesses can use those communities to stay connected to their customers, to extend the lines of communication with prospects, and to place their brand at the center of the conversation.

With forethought and planning, you can establish a dynamic and engaging online community in no time.

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Cynthia Francis is CEO of Reality Digital (, where she leads the vision and development of engaging social-media and digital-media properties for today's leading brands.