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Considering a trip to the magical town of social media? The land where online communities self-organize and prosper from the passions of its residents—where voluntary user-contributed creativity helps communities grow and flourish?

Well, before you buy your ticket, you might want to double-check your travel itinerary and make sure you're up for it.

Online communities are no Shangri-La of free marketing and customer support. And just because you build them doesn't mean anyone will come.

Though online communities can deliver outstanding return on investment (ROI), they rarely produce value without significant investment, professional management... and consistent, intelligent, and engaging hullabaloo.

Hello, is anybody out there?

Marketers can have many good reasons for building and supporting an online community: solving customer service issues, sharing tips, driving positive word-of-mouth, influencing brand reputation and awareness, improving search engine rankings, and staying current with customers' demands and desires.

But if the benefits are so obvious, why do so many communities fail?

Online communities almost always fail because their creators forgot to ask themselves some very important question before they began: What benefits will the community offer its members? What unmet needs will it fulfill?

They need to have also asked themselves...

  • What will my community provide that can't be found easily via search?
  • What goodies—discounts, tips, insider info, and moments of delight—will being a member of my community offer?
  • Is there an audience of adequate size seeking the content I can deliver?

Professionals wanted (robots need not apply)

To have a successful online community, you have to make achieving that success someone's job and responsibility. And that person needs to be pretty talented—equal parts journalist, facilitator, marketer, and cool head under pressure. She must continually immerse herself in important industry topics and then drive the conversation from a marketing perspective. It's a job for a professional conversation manager.

True, a good part of the reason you are building an online community is to tap into the voluntary labor of its members. If your community truly satisfies an unmet need for a reasonably large number of people, free energy will certainly be had. But to work, that energy must be channeled by someone.

Think like a marketer

So, once you've attracted a member base, how do you keep them around? Here's a secret: People love promotion.

We all know few people admit to liking advertising. But everybody loves a little promotion. No matter how serious your community's interests, you should still ply its members with snackable content—a steady stream of stuff that will catch their attention in the microsecond it's on their screens.

Take a page from retail marketing: Everyone loves...

  • Sweepstakes with popular product or monetary prizes
  • Behind-the-scenes access
  • VIP treatment
  • Insider information

Simply asking open-ended questions on a Facebook wall is a form of encouraging engagement and can garner huge response. And you don't always have to be selling; in the social world, you have the opportunity to get to know your audiences without always pitching them.

Talk to them. Ask about them. Entertain them. But remember: No one wants a chaperone at the school dance. A good conversation manager knows when to step in and interact, and when to step out.

Listen closely

As with everything else, you have to take the good with the bad. Alongside the entertaining and positive engagement aspects of maintaining a community is the importance of moderation when backlash arises. Nobody likes negative feedback. But if you can't hear the problems, you can't fix them.

Always unflappable, conversation managers view a complaint or negativity as an opportunity to offer help and show that the brand's page or community is a resource. And they'll quickly rectify the situation. Just make it personal. A University of Missouri researcher found that using a personal, "human" voice to communicate yields higher user-satisfaction ratings.

Often, your help won't even be needed—at least not right away. If someone posts a negative comment, consider sitting back briefly to let other members come to the rescue first. After all, it is a community, right?

Why it's all worth it

We used to think human communities were constrained by Dunbar's number: the limit to how many friends humans could manage to have—about 150. But technology has enabled communities of friends to grow well beyond that assumed limit, into the hundreds, thousands, even millions.

But remember, no matter how slick or sexy, communities don't drive themselves. Although you can get more energy out of social networks than you put in, tapping into that "free energy" requires an investment. You need a real, live person with some marketing chops at the center of your community to really make it go.

Good luck, and bon voyage!

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Ronald Ladouceur is executive vice-president and executive creative director for Media Logic. With the agency since its founding, Ladouceur has been instrumental in guiding Media Logic to a leadership position in marketing for a social world. Reach him via rladouceur@mlinc.com.
Melissa Fiorenza is a conversation manager for Media Logic, where she oversees social media for clients in the entertainment, retail, and healthcare industries. Reach her via mfiorenza@mlinc.com.