This, the third in the series, will focus on how to create a community that engages and builds loyalty with users. To do this, we’ve invited Angela Connor, one of the leading online community strategists and author of the book 18 Rules of Community Engagement (reviewed here), to talk to us about how to engage users within a community.
Angela Connor is Managing Editor of User-Generated Content at WRAL.com, where she has built her online community GOLO from zero to 11,000 members in just eighteen months. She also writes on social media issues on her blog Online Community Strategist and is @communitygirl on Twitter.
You say in your book that just providing the forum for people to start their own community is not enough (and of course we agree with that!). In your experience, what are the main things brands have to do to create a successful community (as well as reading your book!)?
“First and foremost a community must be nurtured. When you launch a community you must commit to it and provide ample resources for growth. It is a major undertaking and that is a fact that should not be underestimated. Can you think of any situation where an organization would launch a major product and let it go unsupervised? Why then do so many feel as though they can launch a community and leave it to its own devices to grow organically? Community is essentially a new product and should be treated as such. At the very least a community deserves a product manager or someone who is personally responsible for its success. Someone has to own it. If there is no real ownership, success is out of the question. “
What defines a successful community in your view?
“There are many levels of success, and that often depends on goals and objectives, but I will tell you a little story to illustrate my personal thoughts on success: There was a blog posted by the wife of a very popular, widely-known community member just today indicating that he had a heart-attack over the weekend. This member has been with the community I manage from the beginning and he is probably our oldest and wisest. He’s a retired lawyer who teaches Constitutional Law and is always up for a good debate. His wife, however, does not belong to the community and had never posted before today. He told her from his hospital bed to log in and post a blog letting the GOLO community know what had happened to him and that he was on the mend. Knowing how much the community means to him, she obliged. She identified herself as his wife, gave a few details about what happened and thanked everyone for providing something so important to her husband’s life that he would make her do this on his behalf. The kind wishes came in droves. That is just one example of my idea of success. A community is successful when people actually care deeply about the well-being of others even though they may have never met.”
How should brands plan their community development and what kind of resources should they allocate? Is this something they should lead in-house, or should they ask for outside help?
“There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ answer for this. I think it largely depends on your internal talent pool, and how much time can be allocated for community development. I don’t believe that it’s something you just add to the plate of an employee who already has a full-time job within the organization. This is increasingly becoming a field of specific expertise. There are people in the trenches, who have experience developing and growing communities, and if those people are available I would encourage any brand that is new to community to seek advice from those who have been there, done that. “
How can brands define the culture of a community? And how do they decide who to target (and who not to target)?
“I don’t necessarily believe that brands define community culture. The culture of a community develops from its members and how they relate and interact within the community. To the extent that culture can be defined, it’s important to establish guidelines, set expectations and lead by example. But beyond that, the culture develops on its own, and that’s a good thing. That makes it authentic. In terms of targeting, that’s where those important goals and objectives come into play. You must have goals going in. Community should not be an afterthought and neither should your target audience. Let’s keep in mind that you will often get the answers to the questions you seek, once the community begins to develop. It’s like an ongoing focus group. That is why it’s very important to have someone within the company (or contractor) with a finger on the pulse of the community. “
What should they do if they see the community moving in a direction they don’t feel comfortable with?
“Step in. This is where a community manager is crucial. I have often had to step in and remind people of our guidelines and purpose. It helps when there is an authority figure within the community who is respected. Reiterate your goals to the community. Perhaps members are not sure of your mission. Maybe you’ve never made it quite clear. Take a look inside before pointing outward.”
How should a community manager cope with negative comments?
“This is certainly an area where I’ve had a lot of practice! The first thing to do is take a deep breath. We must evaluate the comments and look at them as an opportunity to educate or turn a situation completely around. Oftentimes, there is an underlying issue or concern with these comments and learning how to get to the root is what helps you find solutions. A community manager without a thick skin is like a football player without a helmet.”
And how can they spot and reward those community members that make a positive contribution?
“The only way to spot these contributions is by being present within the community. I believe in publicly acknowledging good work. You can never give members too much praise. Remember that. By encouraging an environment of gratitude, you will find that others follow suit and give praise to those who contribute great content. Ask for more. Keep making it worth their while. They have to know how much they are valued and appreciated. This requires a great deal of work but it has the biggest payoff.”
Can you give us some examples of positive things you’ve done that have worked well in creating an engaged user group?
“I conduct member profiles where I spend time interviewing a member and then post the content of the interview prominently on the home page. Those profiles are wildly popular and have become quite a status symbol. I spend time actively commenting on content created by our members. I share my own stories, to get others to open up on touchy subjects. I hold impromptu contests that may only be open for an hour. I look for experts in areas of interest to the community and invite them to participate in live chats. One example of that was a chat with two financial planners once I noticed that many members were losing their jobs and fretting over their future. That’s just scratching the surface: I try something new almost weekly. I keep what sticks and discard or tweak what doesn’t.”
And any bad examples you’ve seen out there?
“The worse things I see in communities are forums with no comments, no new members and no clear presence of anyone from within the organization. I won’t knock anyone’s attempt at engagement – oh, actually, I have to take that back. I absolutely detest blatant marketing in communities. You know, when a brand acts as though they want to engage but they really want to push their own agenda. That is unacceptable and counterintuitive to the mission.”
One of the issues brands raise sometimes is what to do if the community gets too big to control. Do you have any advice on this?
“Well, I will in about six months! I’m currently dealing with this very issue. My community has grown exponentially and the staffing has not increased. One of my current struggles is maintaining the level of interaction that I’ve created and continuing to reach new members. Here’s one piece of advice I can offer though, something I’ve done which seems to work wonders. Solicit others who are genuinely passionate about the community to greet newcomers and familiarize them with the community. What I have found is that long-time members can sometimes be your best advocates: they’ve been around and understand the culture and dynamics of the community. That has been a great help to me. I also formed a small group that I can approach with new ideas and to get inside information of what’s happening deeply within the community trenches that I may not be aware of. Form alliances with members who value the community and want to see it succeed.”
Do you have any advice for the brand manager who’s been tasked with building a community but is having trouble selling the idea internally?
“Sometimes you have to show and tell. I’d say gather some of the success stories and share the details with the powers that be. Also, show them what can happen when you don’t build community. If that fails, they can always call me and we can brainstorm a strategy to scare them to death …
No seriously, the best thing to do, as I said, is provide examples of how it can work. Show them that there are people talking about the company and the brand regardless and that it only makes sense to join the conversation and potentially lead it wherever possible.”
Many thanks to Angela for talking to us, and we hope that this has been valuable – if you have any questions for Angela, or on any other aspects of commnunity engagement, please feel free to post them in the comments here.