According to a multitude of reports, social business growth is only ramping up in 2012 and will continue to increase over the next several years. However, some organizations are debating whether or not to scrap their private online community. This trend is especially prevalent in the association industry where resource-strapped membership organizations set up basic private social networks expecting them to organically sprout into thriving online communities.
Are You Throwing the Baby Out with the Bathwater?
With participation in online communities being a strategic imperative in many industries, most organizations would be remiss to say that private online communities don’t work for them. As with any complex strategy, it is much more nuanced than that.
From our experience working with companies and associations that reach out to Socious looking to resurrect their online engagement plan, technology, strategy, and execution all play a part in the online community’s success or failure. Sometimes all three need to be replaced and sometimes holes only span one or two these factors.
Do Some Soul-Searching Before You Close Your Online Community
Before you ditch you private online community for customers or members, look at your business or association through the lens of the following five tough questions:
1) Does Your Strategy Fit Your Membership or Customer Base?
As associations and companies with successful private online communities know, there is no "silver bullet" to creating a successful community strategy. For instance, an association's online community strategy would look very different depending on whether it is a professional membership organization focused around networking and collaboration or a trade association where members are also fierce competitors.
Competitors would not want to share anything about what they are doing due to regulatory restrictions or for fear of another company finding out. In this case, you may need to shift the focus of the community from member collaboration around business practices to legislative collaboration and becoming a resource for members by curating content from industry sources to be a one-stop shop for industry information.
2) Have You Created Something Unique With Your Online Community?
Todays’ members and customers have many options for getting information. If your community does not give them something exclusive that they cannot get anywhere else, why would they use it? Unique features like a blog written by an industry thought-leader, industry survey results, quick access to product experts, and easy-to-use listservs for discussions are just a sample of the unique offerings for your online community. In fact, check out our resource 15 Ideas to Engage Your Members in an Online Community, which is full of ideas you can tailor to build unique online community offerings to your industry.
3) Do You Update Your Site at Least Every Other Day?
Let’s face it. If a member comes to your community and the poll you are running on the home page is from 5 months ago, do you think they will be inclined to think that this is a valuable site? Your customers or members want to see information they can do something with. That may be unique information they can use, new conference pictures they can view, new polls and surveys they can take, or members they can collaborate with.
You will have to create this information initially until the site starts to take on a life of its own. To get started creating a content and marketing plan for your online community, download our free Content Plan Toolkit.
4) Does Your Community Offer the Tools and Content Your Members Really Want?
Not all online communities should have the same features, content, or design. Just as your customer base or membership makeup is unique, so should be your online community. Unfortunately, many organizations launch their online community without conducting needs assessment interviews or customer surveys to help align their community with their target audience’s core problems.
Additionally, beware of technology platforms that have limited ways to keep members engaged. You strategy can be sound, but if you don’t have the built-in tools to keep customers and members engaged in your community, your community can flounder unexpectedly. Online community software platforms are very different from one another and having the right one in place plays a major role in the success of your private online community.
To help you with this, check out our resource Guide to Launching Your Private Online Community. In this guide we have some sample questions to ask members about features, content and functionality when you are initially launching your community, but it will also help with a relaunch.
5) Have Your Association and Staff Adopted Your Online Community as the Way It Does Business?
For many of the organizations I talk to that are not successful with their current online community software, they see their online community as “one more thing” they need to do. It is not an integrated communication channel for the organization. They view it as this ‘thing’ out there they need to manage over and above what they are already doing. If you are not fully integrating your site as THE way you communicate with customers, how customers or members communicate with you, and how members communicate with each other, then your community will fail. As we say, it needs to be the center of your universe.
BONUS: Two Important Final Points
A private social network is not about social networking.
As I pointed out above, private online communities are part of your product or member benefit strategy before they are a social strategy. Their security, collaboration features, and place in your organization's value proposition cannot be replaced by public social networks such as Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. If you close your private online community, focusing on public social networking is fine, but it is not a substitute. They serve very different purposes in your customer or member engagement strategy.
Look to your online community software vendor.
It is the responsibility of online community vendors to provide organizations with a realistic view of what it takes to build a community over the long-term, as well as what their platforms are actually both capable of and not capable of. Given that community building is historically not a purposeful business functions for many organizations, online community software providers should offer ongoing education and advice for businesses and membership organizations to be able to hone their private communities into thriving destinations.