How to build an online community platform

“No business does business alone. We win together as a community.”  Those are the words of SAP CEO Christian Klein at an event in 2021. He went on to say that some of the greatest challenges of our time – the pandemic, climate change, and navigating disruption – would be better solved by connecting with […]

How to build an online community platform

“No business does business alone. We win together as a community.” 

Those are the words of SAP CEO Christian Klein at an event in 2021. He went on to say that some of the greatest challenges of our time – the pandemic, climate change, and navigating disruption – would be better solved by connecting with others. Value comes, as Klein explains, from the millions of interconnections that you make through your network. It comes as little surprise, therefore, that SAP has one of the most popular SaaS community platforms available today. 

Branded online communities are becoming competitive differentiators, especially for brands where customer churn can be particularly high, like SaaS. That’s why many people are exploring how to build an online community platform that meets their brand and target audience’s needs and will produce results over the long term. Indeed 81% of brands have recently invested in an online community for their customers.

Community platform options

Building an online community platform can be confusing as there are a lot of options out there, from free social media platforms to dedicated community platform software. This piece will help you understand the ins and outs of choosing and building a community platform.

Social media versus community software

First, let’s look at the positives and negatives of using a social media platform versus specialized community software. 

Social media is free, which makes it an attractive proposition for brands who want to try building an online community but who don’t really want to dedicate many resources to it. It’s also discoverable by users that you haven’t engaged with before. They may come across your Facebook Group because they’re in a similar one, for instance, or stumble across some community content. 

Yet, as the saying goes, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Social media platforms are designed to generate advertising revenue so it’s difficult to create a distraction and ad-free community experience on these platforms. Plus, user data is of incredible value to social media platforms (to inform their advertising products and services) so they don’t give this out freely — or at all — to community managers. Social media is not just a walled garden but a full-on fortress when it comes to sharing data. 

This hinders the community from the offset. For an online community to have a true bottom-line impact, it needs to be done well from the start.Online community software gives you greater customizations and will make the best first impression on prospective community members. Brand colors, imagery, content, and layout can be tailored to a brand identity, which makes the community more aligned with other marketing channels. Online ‘rooms’ for different topics or questions can help to curate content to members’ interests. Integrations with business intelligence tools and Google Analytics can help you extract useful information from your community to use in other departments like marketing, sales, and customer success. In short, using a dedicated software will deliver more business value long-term compared to a free social media option. 

That said, there is a role for social media to play in building your online community, and we’ll touch more on this later on.

Choosing the right community technology platform

We’ve discussed why community software is the clear way forward, but how can you pick the best one? 

Choosing the right technology vendor can make or break your community’s success. Your choice should center on two areas: your business goals (which influence your community goals) and the type of community you’re looking to build. 

5 main types of online community:

  1. Expert communities – spaces that enhance a brand’s authority in its sector by facilitating learning, knowledge-sharing, and collaboration between members.
  2. Event communities – to complement in-person events and hold virtual events.
  3. Membership communities – enabling members to meet one another, collaborate and connect. 
  4. Support communities – places where people can get advice from one another and troubleshoot any issues — works as an additional support resource for a customer success team. 
  5. Communities of action – uniting people under a collective mission and goals.

In some cases, a community will be a mix of these things. For example, the Oystercatchers Club is a community set up for marketing leaders and agencies. Through it, expertise and best practices are shared, and the community is also used to promote the Oystercatchers Club events. 

Different community platforms will have different features so your chosen vendor needs to be able to support the community format you’ve decided on. An event community will need the ability to host video panels, webinars, and align with offline events through discussion forums and post-event content. An expert community needs a way to vet expert members, highlight experts, and facilitate knowledge sharing and peer connections.

It’s worth noting here the difference between a community platform that’s set up to provide customer support, and an expert-driven one. A community built around its members’ expertise can still offer the support that a traditional support community can provide, but it goes a step further to empower and teach its members. It becomes a space for people to visit, not just to troubleshoot an issue, but to learn how to use a product better, to get feedback on a strategy, or to discover new insights that will improve their work. 

We recommend looking for a community software vendor who regularly seeks user feedback and improves their product. For your community to keep up with trends and member needs, your vendor needs to be continuously innovating with their platform. 

Finding your people

After choosing your community platform, your next focus will likely be on attracting your core community members. This initial group will consist of your brand’s greatest advocates. 

Albert M. Muniz, Jr. and Thomas C. O’Guinn identified three key characteristics behind successful communities (and people are number one in the list): 

  1. People: A group of individuals with a shared interest and common goals that allow them to come together and differentiate themselves identity-wise from those outside the community.
  2. Behaviors: These individuals carry out specific acts and behaviors that solidify the community culture and meaning. In a community of action, this might be volunteering on a set project, in an expert-driven community, it may be sharing a piece of unique thought leadership. 
  3. Belonging and accountability: Community members understand the need to help others in the community and collaborate to achieve their shared goals. 

Your core members will likely include existing customers who regularly engage with your brand through other marketing channels. You can also look at your social media followers to uncover who constantly re-shares your social posts and creates user-generated content about your products. Strategic partners and internal experts, like your CEO, can also be invited to this core membership group. 

Encouraging members’ first actions

Once your core members are onboarded to your community, you need to give them things to do that (as above) help to build a sense of belonging and your community culture. These actions might include:

  • Asking questions about the community, product, shared goals, or to resolve challenges that someone is experiencing. 
  • Posting answers to questions, offering first-person experiences, and creating content.
  • Providing feedback on the community experience so far and offering ideas to help it mature and grow.
  • Connecting with other community members.
  • Sharing the community with their professional social networks to attract new members.
  • Attending and participating in community events, webinars, and video panels.

These first actions will begin engaging your members and will set the tone of your community early on. 

Posting content

Your community should have a regular cadence of content that your brand posts to keep it interesting. At the start, you’ll have to do more posting to spark discussions and engage members but eventually, your members will start to post their own content and ideas. This is where your community will really drive value for its members by becoming a hub for unique expert insights and to showcase members’ expertise. 

As for your own content, try to avoid anything that’s too sales-driven and remain authentic to your community’s mission and purpose. Think out of the box and explore different content formats, going beyond company blogs and articles with a letter from your CEO, for instance, or a “day in the life” post about your development team. Exclusivity will attract and retain members. Ask yourself what unique insights your brand can offer the community and use this to shape the content that you post to it. 

Organizing your community

As more people join your community, you’ll realize the need to organize the community itself and the content created in it. How you structure your community will depend on the size and needs of your community userbase and your long-term community goals. 

You may decide to segment your community based on topics and interest areas or you may need to split your community out into smaller ones. Springer Nature, for instance, has communities set up around each of its 20 publications, like Sustainability and Cancer research. 

Whatever your approach, make sure your community pages are intuitive to use and its content is easy to find. 

Managing your community

Community management is what will help your community grow long-term beyond the initial launch. It’s pretty involved, so best outlined in its own dedicated piece. Broadly, some areas you’ll need to focus on at the start are:

  • Appointing your community management team: Depending on the size of your community you’ll need at least one community manager who is responsible for the day-to-day engagement, analysis, and policing of your community platform. 
  • Building a community engagement plan: Members join your community because they want to connect with others and grow their knowledge. A well-considered community engagement plan will meet these desires by offering unique opportunities to network and share knowledge and content that’s valuable to them.
  • Set your rules: Your moderation strategy will keep your community free from spam, abuse, and aggressive selling tactics. It creates a trusted space that your members will want to seek out and engage with regularly. Some rules to outline include expectations for member and moderator behavior, your complaint and resolution process, and zero tolerance for any discriminatory and abusive acts. 
  • Measuring progress: Your success metrics and key performance indicators (KPIs) will change as your community evolves. At the start, your community manager might focus on a handful of measures that show the growth, attractiveness, and ‘stickiness’ of your community. These include month-on-month new active member stats and month-on-month member churn. As your community matures, you may want to consider additional KPIs like month-on-month engagement or active member vs passive member numbers. 

Building trust

Trust is such an integral part of a successful community that we need to delve deeper into it. Trusted communities get the best from their members because they are ‘safe’ spaces where knowledge can be shared (and trusted) and members can be honest about their experiences. 

So how can you build it?

Trusted communities are rooted in authenticity. Your community cannot simply be a sales tool for your brand but it needs to be centered on a mission and have values that align with its members. If you build a space for like-minded people to meet and work towards common goals, concerns, and interests, your brand will benefit organically from this. 

Of course, moderation will help you build trust too, along with ‘gatekeeping’ — ensuring that members are vetted before they can join the community and that exclusivity is kept. For example, Wilmington Healthcare has a community set up for GMC-registered doctors to share trusted information to improve patient outcomes. As part of the sign-up process, they need to provide proof of their GMC membership (and therefore, proof of their medical expertise and qualifications). 

The secret to sustainable growth

By now, you hopefully have a good idea of how to make an online learning community platform successful and long-lasting. Building a community is an involved process, but a worthwhile one. In an increasingly noisy market, having a community of engaged and loyal customers will help your brand stand out and grow sustainably.