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Things to Consider Before Building an Online Business Community

business ideas, online communities

Sean O'Brien is Executive Vice President of Strategy and Communications at PGi.

In today’s always-on, interconnected society, online communities are everywhere; odds are you belong to several yourself, whether it’s to stay connected with old college friends, learn new recipes, share your love of photography or simply stay abreast of the social buzz on the news and events of the day. And as with any major technology trend, online communities are finding their way into the world of business.

Alongside smartphones, tablets and mobile applications in the BYOD and BYOA trends, social media and near-time social collaboration are emerging with huge value propositions for businesses. According to a recent McKinsey study, social technologies could unlock as much as $900 billion in annual value for businesses worldwide. With the promise of increasing your brand’s visibility, improving employee communication and productivity, efficiently supporting your customer base and reducing expenses, small businesses are considering online communities of their own. But a virtual community requires a lot of time, resources and planning to build long-term ROI and measureable success.

Should your small business build an online community? Here are four things to consider.

Identify your audience and its needs

As with any social business endeavor, before you can know what to say, how to say it or even where to say it, you’ve got to know who you’re talking to. Engage with marketing, your customer support staff, or even just take a look at your existing social properties to find out where your users are and how they’re reaching out to your business. It also never hurts to take a look at your competitors as well; are you entering into unknown territory by considering an online community, or is it a common practice in your industry?

Here’s an easy test for you, one that you can do this very moment — take a common product issue or customer service problem for your business and search Google. Are your customers already engaged on Quora, Yahoo! Answers, or other discussion forums looking for information or support? If so, consider taking ownership of those conversations. By creating your own community where your customers can find the information and support they’re already looking for, you build brand awareness, create customer loyalty and retain the potential of activating those users, either for additional revenue or as advocates of your brand.

Evaluate costs

Arguably the biggest question before you get started down the path of building an online community is a simple one: what’s it going to cost? You’ve got to consider platform and hosting expenses, infrastructure creation and maintenance, design and hiring additional staff, just to name a few.

Luckily, your small business doesn’t have to tackle the creation of an online community infrastructure yourself; with the propagation of cloud computing and cloud services, several companies provide viable options for easy and cost-effective creation of an online forum with all of the accompanying technologies, features and metrics tracking. When PGi looked to create our internal employee network — and later, our social customer communities, the iMeet Community and the GlobalMeet Community — we engaged Jive Software, the global leader in social business platforms, to do the heavy lifting.

Make sure you have the right people, both inside the company and out

An often-overlooked component of setting up and maintaining an effective virtual community is having the proper people in place to run it. While the ultimate goal is to have a self-sustaining, organically growing community filled to the brim with customer advocates, you’ve still got to get your community designed and built out — a task that may not be scalable for your existing support staff.

In addition to a key manager or director overseeing the creation, design and maintenance of the community itself, you’ll need to employ at least one Community Manager to help monitor discussions, engage your user base and escalate support problems as well as potential sales leads to the proper channels. Over time, customer advocates within the community will begin to emerge, and you’ll want to recognize and empower them as well, whether it’s through a simple gamification module of ranks and titles or by featuring them as power users for all of the community to see.

Identify what a “win” looks like

Any online community is a living, breathing thing; its focus and purpose can shift and change as your user base grows and becomes more engaged and involved. As such, it is vitally important to have proper analytics in place and tracking mechanisms for determining who your users are, where they’re coming from and what their behaviors are. One benefit of these data is that this information can inform decisions about the design of your community; dedicate more real estate to regularly accessed sections, cut or revaluate areas that aren’t performing well and, over time, tailor the ideal user experience for your community’s unique audience.

More important, however, is having an overarching context for this data. You need to identify what a “win” will look like for your new community and its team before your piles of metrics have any meaning. What are you hoping to accomplish? Increased site traffic? Improved SEO? Reduced customer service expense? Reduced churn in your customer base?

One of the most exciting — and daunting — aspects of a community is that it really can touch all areas of your business, from general brand awareness to lead generation and conversion, and it’s essential that you’re not only capturing that data but also intelligently evaluating it. Only with concrete goals in place will all of your efforts in researching, building, maintaining and empowering your community be realized as tangible benefits to your business and its objectives.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of BusinessNewsDaily.

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