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6 Mistakes To Avoid When Building an Online Community

Posted by Mathijs Vleeming

#MadeToShare

Community-powered growth is the future. But with the rush to create online communities we see many common mistakes when implementing an online community. What are the potential consequences of these mistakes and how can we avoid them?

In this article we discuss

1- Starting With the Platform, not the Strategy

We cannot emphasize this enough, as it is one of the most common reasons for failure: Have a researched community strategy with buy-in from your organization and a large part of your envisioned community members in place before starting to build your online community.

To define a successful community concept and strategy for your brand, it is crucial to find the sweet spot between creating value for the organization, creating value for community participants, and having a clear understanding of how you are creating added value by enabling connections (in other words: How you are using the power of community): 

Source: FeverBee’s “Sweet Spot” Framework 

Organization business goals

What are the biggest pain points to which you think community provides an answer? What is the long-term value of community for your organization? What does success look like in 3 months; 6 months; 1 year; 2 years? How are you quantifying and measuring the business value of your community? It is essential that you have these clear to get the proper long-term buy-in and funding for your online community.

Member goals and needs

You cannot force a community. An online community will not work if it does not address specific and urgent member needs, problems, or goals. The most important thing to find out when building your community is if it meets the goals of your envisioned community members. This will ensure a bottom-up community approach, instead of treating your community members as an audience, which is a recipe doomed for failure.

It is best practice to test and research if your community concept has enough fertile ground with your envisioned members by doing a survey, interviews, and online research. Based on this research, you create your strategy: 

  1. What needs/questions/problems does online community solve for your target audience? 
  2. What behavior do you want members to perform? 
  3. What is the most important practical value community can give to its members? What does that look like? 

Power of community

Scalability is the power of community. How are you adding value by helping members to help each other? Answering this question will allow your community to scale. 

Why is it important to create your strategy before selecting a community platform? Because a purpose-driven Community of Action, Practice, or Circumstance has very different platform requirements than for instance a Support community.

When selecting the community platform, it is important to choose a community solution that matches your ambitions. Check if it can scale with your growth and has the ability to customize functionality according to your and your member’s needs. Check out our Online Community Buying Guide to discover the key elements you should focus on when choosing an online community software solution.

Often, a document with user stories and technical requirements is created as part of a Request For Proposal (RFP) that is sent to a shortlisted number of community platform suppliers, to analyze if and how these platforms can facilitate and amplify the desired behavior of the envisioned community. You should select your platform based on this.

If you select a platform before creating a strategy, you might end up switching because you find out your platform does not support your strategy. This means you need to migrate data and get your members to sign up for a whole new platform. Trust us, you want to avoid that.

You can avoid this by creating your community concept first. As this is something you might not do every day, you could involve a Community Strategy Consultant to help you in creating your concept and strategy. 

2- Not Hiring a Full-Time Community Manager, and Making Sure That Person Does Community Management Full Time

If you want your community to flourish, you must nurture it with passion and coordinate it with intentional, strategic actions. That’s where a community manager comes in.

However, very often, community management is a sub-task within an existing job profile, or Community Managers are actually hired to do marketing- or communication tasks. While community building requires specific social, technical, marketing, and organization skills and is a full-time role. 

Especially when launching a community, you want to give new members personal attention, identify and mobilize potential ambassadors and super users, personally make connections and introductions between members, and drive a content and activation calendar. This is usually a full-time role that is often underestimated. 

But given the (business) value of a successful online community for your organization and the total investment in your community (platform, events, etc.), it is not wise to not invest in a truly full-time Community Manager.

If you do not have the proper resources to drive your community from the start, a potentially very valuable online community might not come off the ground, despite a perfectly healthy community concept.

3- Setting Up a Community Platform and Expecting it to Take Care of Itself

A community platform is not a silver bullet. It is a tool that should facilitate and amplify community connections and interactions. Value is created through these connections and interactions between people. The challenge is to identify the needs to interact and common denominators to connect and find and utilize a community platform to facilitate and amplify these. But you have to drive this, especially in the beginning. And that does not stop with hiring a community manager.

When it comes to setting up a community, it is not: Build it and they will come, but: Build it with them and they are already there.

A successful community is built bottom-up, instead of top-down. A key strategy for building your community is involving your members from the start through surveys and interviews. Based on this, you can identify a select group of potential super-users or ambassadors and involve them in starting and running your community. Here’s why you should start with ambassadors:

  1. Starting small is the best recipe to start a community, to be able to build good relationships and group cohesion.
  2. Ambassadors can help you test and seed the community with content and people before launching
  3. They can give critical feedback on the community concept
  4. If you put together a group of positively-minded, constructive people, chances are your culture will be the same.
  5. Create a sense of ownership. You are giving the ambassadors actual influence by giving them a say in the community concept, the content, and the platform to be selected. Because of this, the ambassadors will be more readily prepared to help you for free.
  6. Ambassadors can help the Community Manager with the various tasks that have to be performed in the community.

 

If you do not start small with no clear identity or value proposition, you may overwhelm new members and quickly lose them.-

4- Not Strategizing for a Community Long-term

An online community should be an enhancement to the core activities of your organization and contribute to your main mission. It is not a quick fix to increase acquisition or retention.

It can create a lot of value if you strategize for it long term. In fact, many people believe community-powered growth is the future. For existing community-driven organizations with active offline communities, creating active online communities is a must to stay relevant and address the expectations of future generations in the long run.

A community needs time, patience, and attention. Only the objective of facilitating a group of people over a longer period will repay itself over time in the form of new brand ambassadors, improved customer loyalty and increased sales.

With the rush to create online communities it is quite tempting to do a big launch and immediately start scaling your community. However, the crux of a successful community lies in using it to drive network effects that naturally attract members to your community and allow you to form a cohesive bond between them. Because that’s the glue that would keep your community together.

It is best practice to utilize a phased approach and build a solid foundation by ensuring strong relationships between new members joining your community from the start. This ensures that your community delivers the desired business value in the long run.

Community building is a long-term investment. It can take over a year for a community to move from the first stage of community building, where the community managers and ambassadors create most of the content and have to really push to get people to engage, to the second, where the community almost runs itself.

So keep calm and carry on experimenting, learning, creating, and listening to your members to get to that next level!

5- Not Setting a Budget

A community will never take off if you are unprepared to invest in it. Community engagement platforms, community managers, activities, and events cost money and other resources. This needs to be budgeted for accordingly. 

Platform

Online Community ≠ Social Media. Using ‘free’ social media tools sounds like a great and simple solution to build your online community. But is it? 

Using social media platforms for community management has a range of negative consequences:

  1. Data Privacy: The personal data of your members is not safe and secure, and you cannot use it to offer a personalized service. 
  2. Flexibility & Integration: You have to use the platform as is. Customization, integration with your own systems and community analytics are strictly limited.
  3. Ownership: You do not own the member experience. You are relying on a third-party platform that can change their policies, features, business model, content moderation process, or user-interface at any point without warning or consultation.
  4. Distractions: Members use these tools for wider business and personal matters – which means your association is not at the center of their experience.
  5. Advertisements: Social media platforms monetize your members through data mining and advertisements. 

 

Opting for an owned online community platform allows you to avoid all these undesired consequences.  Owned online community (or member engagement-) platforms are designed for effective and valuable community interaction. This is a much better starting point!

Even before COVID-19, there was a growing trend towards smaller communities or private niche interest groups, where smaller groups of people engage on very specific topics dear to them. Harvard Business Review calls this rising trend a shift away from public social media towards ‘digital campfires’.

When community building is your core business, you need to be in control. You need to own the continuous conversation and create your own safe and trusted digital space to thrive.

If you would like to read more about how an owned online community can drive a member organization forward, please check out our E-Book: “The Association Community Compendium – How to harness the collective power of your members”.

Community Management

Any community lacking a driving force to organize meetups, moderate, introduce people to each other or start conversations is doomed to failure. 

In addition to investing in technology, the organization also needs to allocate a budget for community management. About 1 FTE should be taken into account for this. The larger the community, the more additional manpower will be needed. If this is unfeasible, you should seriously consider whether you even want to start. 

It is important to identify the business value of your community in your community concept to set a budget that justifies the investment. 

6- Not Utilizing it Because it is Not Integrated into the Full Organization

Online community can support Sales, Communications, Marketing, Events, IT, Membership, Finance, Management, and Board tasks and goals. A successful bottom-up community approach is often part of a digital transformation. This sometimes requires a cultural change within the organization.

Organizations that are not open to change or feedback will find it difficult to support a community. In a community, participants will express their (uncensored) criticisms of your organization. How will you handle this? Is there enough willingness to take in feedback and do something with it? Or are you going to ignore any negative comments? If you are open to change and you allow the community to play a part in this change, you will find that members feel truly seen and are willing to go the extra mile for you. Gaining influence is a great motivator for wanting to take part.

Your organization and all stakeholders should completely buy into the idea of community and be ready to dedicate resources for a longer period. Look for ways to streamline community and communication between departments and remove any avenue for miscommunication. Once that is sorted and you know the problems that the community intends to solve and its added value, pro-actively show off early positive signs and quick wins to keep internal support up.

Once they see the value, your organization would be further motivated to help the community succeed. Apart from this, ensure that you have a reporting system that addresses the metrics for each department and keeps your colleagues updated on a regular basis to draw their focus to investing in the ongoing growth of the community.

Conclusion

Community-powered growth is hot. If a company can transition from simply delivering a product or service to building a community around its brand, it can unlock extraordinary competitive advantages and create a superior business model. This has become even more important in times of disruption.

But building a community takes perseverance, grit, and sometimes a cultural change to be successful in the long term. When launching your community, it is essential to start off with a well-researched community concept, strategy plan, and budget.

We hope that sharing some of these most common mistakes in community building will help you to start off with a solid foundation, to ensure your community delivers the desired business value in the long term.

If you feel anything is missing, if you do not agree or have any additions based on your experience, or if you have any questions, please feel free to get in touch and we’ll add them. We are #MadeToShare!

 

Find out how to effectively build your online community. Talk to our expert:

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