How to Build an Online Community and Future-Proof Your Brand
In our own lives, we all belong to a community, whether that’s family, a neighborhood or a workplace. These strong relationships thrive on being mutually beneficial.
Today’s online communities are a way for businesses to be part of that equation and give consumers that same sense of connection. While every business needs to create a website and build a social media presence, they can also use those platforms as a meeting place for people interested in their brand.
This article will focus on all the essential steps to creating an online community around your brand, from finding the right niche to creating a comfortable space for all group members.
What is an online community?
An online community is a group of people whose members, connected by a shared interest or purpose, interact with one other via an online platform. For many, being part of an online community may feel like a social occasion among friends, colleagues and even family.
In fact, you’re probably already partaking in an online community like Instagram, Facebook, TikTok or Twitter. These public social networks are just one of several types of online communities, proving that there’s lots of variation in how we choose to associate with other like-minded people.
A second form of online community is known as a branded community. This lets businesses bring people together under an overarching theme that’s related to their product or service, whether that’s vegan food, fitness or art. Customers get to reinforce a bond with their favorite brands.
Take the example of Stakiwi Colours, an international company that sells handmade artisanal watercolors and that uses an online forum to engage its audience. Upon entering its Wix forum, visitors will immediately find guidance for choosing the right pigment, ink and every tool needed to start watercolor painting.
Stacey Dodd, creator of Stakiwi Colours, notes:
“Wix Community Tools encapsulates everything I need from managing orders, listings, generating newsletters, establishing a safe, and interactive forum supported by a blogging platform. Community is an integral part of what I promote and it is a valuable resource to have a website where customers can purchase products, learn about their product and make new connections with fellow artisans. "
Benefits of an online community
Like Stakiwi Colours’ community of artists, people want to take part in the conversations that can directly impact their livelihood. This includes everything from their children’s schools to their favorite local businesses. In turn, organizations and businesses that are building their own online communities are bringing value to their audience and finding customer loyalty along the way.
Here are some of the benefits of having an online community for your business:
Builds trust and credibility: Think about the people you trust. They are family members, best friends and long-time colleagues. That’s because they listen to you, understand who you are, and are honest and transparent with you. These same characteristics make up an online community. With the right platform, a business can earn the highest levels of consumer trust, knowing their needs and delivering on that promise.
Boosts engagement: In order to encourage engagement, a brand must be able to connect with their audience on an emotional level. That comes easily when businesses are able to identify and learn as much as possible about their target audience through conversational spaces like online communities.
Free focus group: You can conduct market research via your online community and collect feedback from members. With this direct line of communication, you can pose specific questions to the group, and ask for their opinions, preferences or ideas on any given topic of interest. Using polls and discussion boards, you’ll be able to conduct qualitative research on multiple participants at once.
Return on investment: Online communities can lead to higher ROI. A study conducted by the University Michigan shows that customers are more likely to spend more after they join a company’s online community. Let's take a look at a recent example: Wix analyzed websites and found that sites with an online community have 2x more traffic on average than those without one. Furthermore, websites with an online community can earn 3x more revenue. A company-sponsored online community is a great tool for driving revenue.
Reduced support cost: Having an online community can help decrease support ticket volumes. In one case study, a software company saw a 28% drop in ticket volume after launching their community. That's because customers can find the information they’re looking for in an online community and get their questions answered faster than ever before.
Brand awareness: Due to the nature of the closed-knit environment, your community members will be inclined to spread the word about a brand that they so wholeheartedly support and trust. Word-of-mouth marketing vis-a-vis personal recommendations by clients are extremely effective when it comes to improving sales.
How to build an online community
01. Find a niche
All successful online communities share one thing in common: they are able to serve a particular niche. This allows them to show expertise in their area and provide valuable content to their members.
To find your niche, think about your audience and what topics are the most relevant, useful or engaging to them. For example, if you have a fitness business, you'll definitely need to cover a topic like gyms. Not only are gyms a major focus for fitness enthusiasts, but once you narrow down further to sub-niches, like how to plan and structure a workout, metabolism boosting exercises and hydration tips, you’ll be creating ample opportunities for all types of members to chime in.
02. Define your goal
Without a clear purpose or vision, your community won’t be able to give members a real reason to join. People need to know what they are getting into and whether their participation will give them something in return.
Your online community is built around your brand, but ask yourself, “What can I offer people that no one else can?” If you sell cosmetics, for instance, then your purpose could be helping members learn the best tips and tricks for doing makeup like a pro. That way, you’re not just providing a product, but also giving customers access to a valuable experience.
This is the time to look back at your mission or vision statement and review your company’s core values. Whether the focus is on diversity, excellence, creativity or independence, you can use any of these fundamental principles to guide your community as it grows.
03. Choose a structure
There are two different types of structures for an online community. You can choose between creating a forum or a group. Before you make a decision, you’ll want to know the advantages of each one. We’ve provided a breakdown of what to expect with a forum versus a group-based community:
Forums are spaces that host content-driven discussions and are also more organized than those in a group. That’s because posts are divided into categories so that users can search by specific topic. By adding the Wix Forum to your business website, you’ll be able to create such categories, making it easier for members to search and find information that they need. It also gives them a way to connect with one another and compare ideas.
Groups can be more personal than forums. Along with writing posts, members can upload their own photos and video, making the form of communication more media-heavy. At the same time, group content proves to be extremely relevant since the feed is organized by most recent posts. Members can also assign tags to their posts so others can easily find them. Additionally, they can create their own subgroups within the broader community, allowing them to narrow down on specific issues and increase overall engagement. Bonus: You can screen people before they can become members with Wix Groups. Create questions for prospective members to answer when they request to join using your Wix website. You can also include the rules and norms as part of your screening process and admit only those who agree to abide by them.
04. Build a member profile
Your members will further help you define your online community. That means you’ve got to know who you’re trying to reach. Creating a member profile will give you an idea of who your community needs to serve, so that you can provide an experience that will be valuable to them.
Start building a profile by asking questions like, “Are your potential members female, male or both?” and “Where are they located geographically?” Remember that these types of demographics want different things. Most online communities are diverse.
Once you have insight into your members, you might want to create inclusive engagement strategies. This will ensure everyone in your community is on the same page. For instance, set ground rules that enable participants to be respectful of one another. You’ll want to monitor the content so that it’s accurate, comprehensible and unbiased.
05. Create guidelines
Your online community is part of your corporate image. Just like any branding asset, you’ve got to protect your online community using guidelines to uphold its quality and values. Members need to feel safe, respected and welcomed at all times.
With this in mind, you’ll want to write a set of ground rules defining appropriate versus inappropriate language and behavior. You’ll also want to consider adding consequences to the list in the unfortunate case there are rule breakers among the audience.
Afterwards, you can simply pin the rulebook to the top of your forum or group page. Alternatively, you can add the rules to the About section, where it will be readily accessible for members to find.
06. Set up management
In order to run a vibrant online community, you’ll need to set up management behind the scenes. As you may already know, launching a community requires a lot of work and effort. But over time, your members will grow confident and engage more, creating their own posts and answering one another’s questions.
First, you’ll want to define the roles of moderators and admins. These people will help you maintain the integrity of your community and encourage participation among members. They are also responsible for responding to comments and helping new members feel welcome so that your community continues to operate smoothly.
In a forum, you can assign a moderator status to any of your forum members. Choose someone with excellent judgment and social intuition who you can trust with the keys to your office door. They will be able to delete and disable commenting on posts, move posts between forum categories, pin posts and help with answering questions. Furthermore, you can incentivize and even reward those members who are engaging and really contributing to the community’s success with customized member badges.
For those who have a group, you can appoint a member to serve as Group Admin. This should also be someone possessing the right credentials and whom you trust. They will be able to moderate discussions, pin posts, approve new member requests and even revoke membership.
Finally, stay connected with your online community wherever you are using the Wix Owner app. With it, you can invite people to join your community space and give them an app of their own, Spaces by Wix. That will enable them to join in the conversations on mobile, too.
07. Add a members area
You can further enhance the community spirit by adding a members area to your site and giving members an account of their own. This way, members can send private messages to each other and keep the conversations flowing one-on-one.
With this feature, each community member gets their own profile page where they can keep track of all their interactions on the platform and check out which members are following them. Using a specialized members chat setting, you’ll help reinforce the bonds that form between members around your brand.
08. Select privacy settings
At this point, you’ve got another major decision to make about the direction of your community. Will it be public, private or a mix? Either way, it’s got to maintain a high sense of integrity.
People trust branded online communities that are secure spaces for meaningful conversations. With that in mind, you can create private categories with your Wix Forum that lets you give access to selected members. This provides them with a highly intimate space where they know the crowd and may even share exclusive content with each other.
Group members can actually design their own secret group with invite-only membership. These subgroups are only visible to their members.
09. Write your first post
When writing your first post and future posts, always keep in mind who your audience is. Think about their needs, interests, concerns and what makes them engage. All of this will help you develop topics that are not only relevant to them, but that is also original and ticks all the boxes.
Let’s take a look at quick tips to create a great post in an online community:
Have a descriptive title. A strong headline will capture the attention of your readers and get them to click.
Use correct formatting. Break up longer posts into different sections, using either bulleted or numbered lists. Check your font size, colors and typography to make sure there’s consistency throughout. Also remember to proofread everything you write before publishing to avoid any spelling or grammatical mistakes.
Add visuals. They can make your post look more interesting and eye-catching, plus people will be more likely to share it with others.
Use tags. This is an effective tool for readers to find related content. Tags can also give admins a sense of what the most searched topics are. This is crucial when building a content strategy for your online community.
Post in the right category. Organization is key to helping readers quickly find what they’re looking for.
10. Promote your community
Now that you have your online community up and running, it’s time to spread the word. We’ve compiled a couple of ways to go about it.
Email marketing. As a business owner, you understand the importance of building an email list for all your marketing campaigns. You can tap into that magnificent mailing list and send out a newsletter or special email with a quick heads up to let readers know that your online community has finally launched.
Share posts on social media. You can easily promote your forum posts on any of your social media accounts by clicking the Share icon. This allows you to leverage existing followers in your social channels and bring them up to date with what’s going on.
Monetize your online community
Subscription plans are by far the most effective way to make money with your online community. Your most devoted fans will want to pay money to access more of your valuable content. Create a pricing plan that allows you to sell different priced packages, giving them options to choose from.
Sell merchandise to your community via your online store. You can design branded products, from t-shirts and totes and mugs, that will appeal to your members.
Organizing events and meetups is a great way to monetize your community. Just charge an admission fee. And it's also a perfect opportunity to directly talk to members and reinforce those connections with them in-person.
Examples of online communities
With over one million members, Airbnb shares its infinite knowledge on hosting, from tips and tricks to more technical issues about the platform. Airbnb helps local hosts connect with one another, offers meetups and encourages them to share their stories. The online community also provides customer support and is a database of information and important questions concerning cancellation, payment and pricing.
As one of the web’s most popular travel communities, Trip Advisor’s forum offers relevant topics for its members based on destination. There’s a search bar at the top and a help center that features user guidelines, technical support and even a private area with exclusive benefits for paying members. HP The Hewlett-Packard Company’s online community stands out among the rest. On its first page, HP offers a warm welcome to new members in this memorable post titled, “First Time Here? Learn How To Post And More.” Non-members can also ask questions to this community, which is made up of over 3 million and growing.
In the past, HP has hosted meetups with experts in attendance as promoted in its community posts. You can even browse the online community to view quality photos of their events.
Before you start browsing through Visa’s online community, there’s a popup cookie notice that lets you know the site is using cookies and trackers that process personal data. This is a best practice by most business websites. Once you click Accept, you can access an array of community topics, questions, answers and even webinars at no charge.
By Cecilia Lazzaro Blasbalg Small Business Expert & Writer