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A thriving online community can be a huge asset for any brand, serving as a primary contact point between the client/consumer base and staff, an informal kind of focus group, and an inspiration for brand evangelists. Depending on your individual type of business, there are several different approaches you can take to community-building, each of which carries a different level of effort and commitment of time.
The Stand-alone Community
The most difficult and time-consuming type of community is the stand-alone, where users must go to a single-purpose site, like a forum or threaded comments feature. This approach is only viable for brands with a very large user base and a very specific focus.
Zynga, one of the largest casual gaming companies in the world, has a user base numbering in the hundreds of millions, and these players make extensive use of the Zynga forums in spite of the fact that they play these games on Facebook, an established social network.
Gaming companies are a perfect example of brands that need a separate venue for their users/players to gather and discuss gameplay; there is a very specific set of topics and a need for a more robust interface to manage complex conversations. Most large-scale communities employ one or more full-time community managers and tap their most prolific users to help with moderation.
The amount of time it takes to grow a community depends very much on your source of members. Starting from scratch when you have a limited audience with a casual relationship with your brand is a daunting task and inadvisable, as a community with too few members and only occasional updates is actually a liability to your brand, giving an impression of disinterest. It is vitally important to be realistic in your expectations and avoid overestimating the potential to attract and retain members.
Even stand-alone communities nowadays offer their users the ability to authenticate (provide login credentials) through various social media sites that offer such services: Twitter, Google, and Facebook are among the top services used for this.
For brands who do not have a built-in audience large enough to justify a separate community, these pre-built social networks provide even more support in the form of a platform for the community. No matter what the size of the audience, though, most users expect to be offered a variety of ways to identify themselves with your service, never expect them to too much work to connect.
The Social Network-based Community
The Roxy, a small concert venue in Los Angeles has accomplished this brilliantly, with over 63,000 followers on Twitter and over 200,000 fans on their Facebook page. They engage their followers with amusing questions and polls, and their staff monitors the page regularly and responds to fans who post there.
The vast difference between the number of followers on the two services illustrates how important it is to identify the correct venue for your network; in this case, with its easy integration of multimedia and images, as well as the ability to participate in a simple discussion thread, makes it a perfect place for an entertainment-oriented business. Every business, and every audience, is different, and careful consideration should be given to the type of interaction you wish to see.
Engage your Audience: Ask, Listen, Respond
Engaging community members is a task which requires a commitment to continuing support, and a consistent and thoughtful policy governing interaction. The successful communities referred to above place a very high priority on listening to their members. They often ask open-ended questions and then let the members respond at length. Zynga, in particular, establishes topics for specific new features and asks members what they think; they listen to the answers and frequently make adjustments to gameplay rules in response to the comments there.
They also use their forums as a way of communicating with the user base; for example, if there is a widely-reported bug, rather than field all the complaints through their trouble ticket system, they start a topic, give the member a short list of guidelines to help them submit a good report, and use that as a way to both notify their users that they are aware of the problem, and help their developers troubleshoot the issues.
Communities aren't built overnight; depending on the size and audience, it could take months or more to really reach a point where members have bonded with the site, and each other. Letting members know you are listening, and they are important, will build goodwill for your brand while giving you valuable insights into how people view your product or service.
Conversely, if you neglect your community or fail to pay attention to what its members are asking for, this will harm your image. You need someone on your team who will take ownership of the project and make sure that the interactions are adequately monitored and moderated, while putting a human face on this aspect of the company's PR efforts. Are you ready to take your online presence to the next level?