How to Build Online Communities and Skyrocket Customer Engagement

Nov 2, 2022 | Content Marketing

« Insights | How to Build Online Communities and Skyrocket Customer Engagement
olly kemp blog

16 Minutes Read

Branded online communities are growing in popularity today thanks in part to a growing distrust in social media platforms and how they handle customer data; But also from the perspective of providing a greater personalised customer experience, which increases engagement.

Branded online communities and virtual communities are growing in popularity on the Internet today.  This is because keeping customers happy, engaged and informed is getting ever more difficult. Increasing competition, evolving social media platforms and Web3 technologies are also changing the way people communicate online.

According to Statista, more than half of all millennials (57%) prefer branded products over unbranded ones. Furthermore, nearly three-quarters of shoppers (68%) prefer to buy products directly from brands instead of third-party sellers such as Amazon, eBay, or other marketplaces.  As the journal of marketing research points out, social communities are now the new post-pandemic normal of word of mouth and an online community is where the digital world has been thriving in the past decade.

online community statistic

In this article, we explore the different types of online community you can build today, along with the role they play in keeping you connected to your customers and even any clubs and societies you might be part of.  This article will give you a host of ideas about how an online community can help you grow your content marketing through user-generated content and build a brand around your most loyal customers.

In this insight communities are taking centre stage.

What is an Online Community?

what is an online community

An online community is a space where people with a common interest or goal come together, interact and share.  They proved popular during Covid-19 lockdowns, bringing people together from all over the world and helping those suffering from social isolation.  They also served as an enormous stress relief for many too during this time as many found that technology was stressing them out as they adapted to new ways of working from home.

Online communities are a great way for brands to engage with customers and grow their online presence.  This can be done through forums, discussion boards, video channels, social media channels, live chat and now branded community platforms.

  • Online Forums: A forum (or discussion forum) is a board where people with a shared interest gather and post about topics related to the board. Forums are public and can be accessed by anyone who is interested in a conversation or topic.
  • Video channels: Video channels are a great way to engage with customers and promote your brand. You can create a video channel and use it to share product or service information, host how-to videos, conduct interviews with your staff, or host discussions with customers.
  • Social media channels: Today, social media has become an essential part of the marketing campaigns of many brands. Social media channels are a great way for brands to interact with customers and engage with your community.
  • Live chat: Live chat is a great way to engage with customers who have questions or need assistance when shopping online. Providing live chat support is helpful for brands looking to increase customer retention and drive more sales.
  • Branded community platform: This is an online space where you control the look, structure and rules of your community.  It’s your online branded space and you are in complete control, not some social media company and you can have your own custom domain name too reflecting your business name.  They play a key and important role in your customer experience.

Why Are Branded Online Communities Becoming So Popular?

why are branded communities so popular

Social media marketing is a great way to build brand awareness and reach new customers. But, if you’re not engaging with your customers, you’re missing out on a lot of value these channels can provide especially if your brand is off-point.  For example, Twitter is great for spreading the word, but you can’t write much about your services and a long-form Facebook post likely goes ignored most of the time.  Content is also quick to disappear and detracts from online community participation.

Yes, you can use your social media channels to start discussions, solicit feedback, and host polls and you can use your channels to start conversations with customers and engage with them, but it’s not exposing your brand to the full extent, and the information of your followers is stored by the social media companies, not your business.

Fears surrounding how social media companies are harnessing user data have left many wondering can you trust social media today?  It is driving customers mad and business owners mad too, as scandals are breaking almost daily on news channels such as BBC News and the “dreaded” Fox News more frequently than ever.  It’s difficult to know what to use.

The simple solution is to simply build your own.  A place where you control the rules and dictate what’s acceptable in your online space.  Every time your members engage, you are growing your brand, your way.

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Personalised and branded online communities give you the opportunity to put a face to your brand.

Members of your online community can interact with each other and with your brand’s representatives. This gives your company a personality and makes your brand feel like a friend.  They also mean you can brand them so they match your company’s image and colour schemes.

Members are then part of your own social community and you can have multiple community managers authorised so that you can control the information posted ensuring no rules are broken. It can provide a great customer experience and make people feel they belong to something bigger such as your mission or purpose.  It can also be a great way of growing your customer base and keeping your community active for longer, especially after they have purchased your products or services from you.

The best thing about online communities is that they allow you to connect with your audience in a personal way.  Members of your community can share their opinions, ask questions, join in online polls and get answers from experts (which in this case is you!).  If you’re looking for ways to improve your product or service, you can find out what your customers really want and need too.  It’s a win-win!

Examples of How You Could Use Your Online Community to Build Authority and Brand Awareness

You can use your own online platforms to create your groups and content channels as you need to.  For example, you could use community building for any of the following scenarios and build your community for people around:

  • Providing Enhanced Customer Support: This can be used for announcements, answers to common questions and deep-dive content on how to fix common problems.  It provides a space for customers.  You often find these popular with online tech companies like Microsoft and Apple on how to fix common problems.  You can also use it to promote new products and feature updates too.  Some customers may use it to post and share their personal experiences too.
  • Building Up Membership Communities: Perhaps you want to charge users for the privilege of being part of a community. You could charge a small fee which would go a long way in ensuring your community members are legitimate and serious about the topics they wish to engage in and not become a place for the latest conspiracy theory.
  • Improving Product Design: These are great for developing and seeking product design feedback.  Perhaps you want to collect results from polls, opinions on what could work better, how a product performed in the real world and have a space which brings it all together.
  • Developing a Company Intranet: These are internal communication channels which collect, support and allow the flow of internal communication within an organisation.  Why not modernise this with a friendly social design to get more engagement than the traditional old-looking systems many companies still use today?  You can then still use this for dispersing planning, policies and procedural documents quickly and easily within the organisation rather than via email.
  • Providing Information Portals: This can be helpful for supporting particular types of people in your organisation.  For example, if you’re a transport company, you might want to have a driver portal where you can chat directly with your drivers without the general public having access to information such as internal policies.
  • Supporting Social Groups: If you have a common interest, why not bring collective knowledge together in the form of a community?  Help one another with saying books to read, feedback on the latest movies or perhaps advice on how to stay fit and healthy. The options are endless!
  • Supporting Committees and Event Organisers: If you have ever been on a committee you’ll know that communication is key in between meetings. You can create a dedicated online committee on a community portal to keep all your documents and discussions in one place, keeping everyone on track of progress too! No more searching through long email threads to find the latest minutes or agendas!  It’s also great for people who don’t use WhatsApp, Telegram, forms of instant messaging or other business chat apps.
  • Building a Fan Community: This is where you can exchange thoughts, ideas and reviews on topics you might be a fan of.  This could be your favourite TV show, Podcast, game, movie, holiday destination, you name it.  If you like it, no doubt someone else will too, and across the world too and your community could connect the dots.

There are so many different types of communities you can build today on the Internet and of course, they can be accessed from anywhere in the world on any device too.  You get to create your own Internet community and not have to be reliant on a user being part of a big tech network.

What Are the Benefits of Building Your Own Online Community?

benefits of an online community

Online communities are becoming increasingly popular because they offer businesses many benefits.  Advanced consumer research reveals that people want to belong to something today, not just be sold to.  Here are a few more reasons why you should consider creating one for your business or organisation:

Grow Customer Loyalty

If you keep supporting your customers they will keep learning and growing from you.  By giving them an interactive touch point online you are making it much easier to stay connected and make them feel at home.

You Can Provide Support from a Central Place

With an online community, you can answer questions directly which may help others too at the same time.  So rather than send 1000 emails with the same answer to the same question, you can post the answer once and then provide a link to its location in the community.

You Keep Your Customers Engaged and Together

Each time you make a post, your customers can be automatically notified about it if they keep their notifications enabled.  This means if they raise a topic in your community when someone answers or provides a solution, you are keeping them engaged.  You also bring people together no matter where they are.

Promote Offers, New Features and Product Ranges

Perhaps you have a number of offers coming up.  Perhaps you want your VIP community’s first dibs on a Black Friday deal.  Maybe you want some feedback privately on a new product you’re designing.  This is what you can use your community for before anything goes public.

Capture User Generated Content

Rather than come up with all the ideas to engage your customers, let your customers talk to one another and see if they can help out.  An online community means that your customers can ask you questions directly, but it doesn’t mean your customers can’t help out either.  They might even have little workarounds to problems you hadn’t even thought of, which improves the solutions provided.  It makes it more hands-on and authentic and you keep all the interactions too.

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Improved Team Collaboration from Anywhere

You can engage other areas of the business that can provide different points of view from one central place.  Perhaps you have a remote team working out of multiple offices and you need to keep up to date with what your customers are asking for.  An online community can become your home and as it grows, keep not only your customers informed but team members too.

An Ever-Evolving Business and Customer Resource

As you change, so will your community.  What matters this month might be yesterday’s news.  The great thing is you will be able to evolve with your community.  As topics and interests change you can keep your finger on the pulse and respond accordingly.  You can also inform your members of trends that are happening before they happen, showing you care and what the best for your community members.

Reduce Your Support Costs

Gartner reports that anyone using an online community today can reduce their support costs by up to 50%.  You need to make sure however that you respond in a timely manner but it means that your community has another point of reference and may find their answer faster than sifting through old emails.

Scale Your Website

In building your own online community you offset the resources your website would need to support such a task.  With OJE Technologies branded community platform, all photos and files for example are stored away from your web server keeping your website functioning quickly.  It means with a subdomain you reap all the benefits without the high overheads, and of course, the community platforms remain fully managed and taken care of on your behalf.  It’s a great way to build your content and one of the best ways your website can save you money.

How to Get Started with Your Branded Online Community

how to get started with your own branded community

To grow your online community, you need to first identify where your customers are hanging out and join them. How do you do this?

Start by researching your competitors and see where they engage with potential customers. Are there any forums where your customers are active? What about social media channels? What about video channels? Once you’ve identified where your target customers are, it’s time to join the conversation.

Engage with customers and provide value wherever you can. Be friendly and helpful, and don’t forget to mention your brand name.

You also need to decide whether your own community is going to be private or public.

Each has its pros and cons:

Choosing a Public Online Community

This means that anyone can join with or without verification. They just sign in, can post and get engaged right away (usually once their email has been confirmed). The advantages of this are that you can quickly engage with people, but the disadvantages are that you might attract the wrong crowd, but also anything that is posted can be seen by everyone. This can be great for SEO, but it also means competitors can see everything too.  All content can be shared freely too.

You often see this with an online gaming community or large business community such as delivered by What3Words and TomTom to support their customers as quickly as possible.

Choosing a Private Online Community

A private community is just that. You can see nothing until you sign in. This is great for protecting valuable content and perhaps providing how-to’s which you want only your customers to see. After all, if customers have access to this it makes them special. The downside is you lose the SEO benefits but it can help protect and keep your community safe by ensuring you verify who can join and who can’t.  If a user shares content from a private community, a user will just log in which they won’t be able to access.

These are popular for exclusive content that only your customers see, dedicated support documents, company Intranets and even for private clubs and societies to use who just want their information easily accessible in a branded format, but not freely available to all.

Create Your Brand Identity

Your brand identity is the overall look and feel of your company. Think about what makes your company different from others in its field. What sets you apart from competitors? How does your company stand out among all the rest?

how to grow your online community

How to Grow and Build a Successful Online Community

Here’s how you can easily grow your online community from scratch to one which enables you to thrive and support your customers better than ever.

Keep it Focused

If your community is all about the latest movies, don’t stray into politics as that’s not what your community are there to discuss.  Keep it focused on the topic as much as you can by providing sub-forums per category.

Make it Easy to Join and Participate

There’s nothing worse than it takes ages to sign up for a community.  Make sure you offer more than one sign-on option unless you want to keep things totally private.

Be Welcoming and Inclusive

Make sure you welcome new members and engage all sorts of topics that get raised – even if you’re not too sure how to answer.

Encourage and Reward Participation

Through the use of gamification, you can reward your users for the number of posts they make and replies.  This means you can quickly show your most loyal members which can provide confidence to other users about their level of expertise too.

Be Responsive to Feedback

When you start a new community it can be really fun and kind of a “shiny new toy” syndrome. Communities take work so make sure you keep being responsive to your community and responding to feedback as best you can.

Keep it Fresh

No one likes stagnant content anymore so make sure you give a reason to keep people coming back to your community.  This means posting content potentially each day or at least weekly to keep giving a reason for members to come back and engage with you.

Promote and Protect Your Community

Make sure you get the word out about your community on social channels, blogs, other internet forums and even across your video channels.  People love to belong to something, and growing your own community can keep people coming back even if all you sell is Christmas toys!

Develop a Content Strategy

Now that you know what kind of content you want to produce, it’s time to figure out how best to share it. Are you planning to publish blog posts, videos, podcasts, infographics, eBooks, or something else entirely? Once you decide on the type of content you want to distribute, you can begin thinking about how you’ll promote it. Will you rely solely on word of mouth, or will you also try to attract traffic through search engines?

Identify Keywords and Trends

Keywords are words or phrases that describe your product or service. They’re used to find relevant information on the Internet. For instance, if you sell books, keywords like “best book” or “book reviews” may help you find relevant articles and blogs.  If your community is public, then this is key to growing your online content so that it can be found easily online.  This is done through keyword research.

You can identify keywords by looking at your existing products and services, talking to your customers, and analysing competitor websites. Once you’ve identified keywords, you can use tools like Google AdWords to bid on certain terms or use Google Trend to find out what’s popular. By bidding on specific keywords, you can direct searchers to your site when they enter those terms into search engines.

online communities statistic

Add Content Frequently

Now that you’ve got everything set up, it’s time to start adding content. Start by writing posts and pages that answer questions visitors may have. These can range from simple tutorials to detailed product reviews.  You can also curate content and post it in your community.  This keeps your members informed and means you don’t always need to be writing your content from scratch.

Analyse Your Data

Once you’re happy with the way things are going, it’s time to analyse the data. Use tools like Google Analytics to see where people are coming from and what they’re doing once they get there. This will help you determine if changes need to be made so you can continue improving your website.

Analysing data will help you understand which parts of your community work best and where you need to improve. Use analytics software to track visitor behaviour and measure conversions so you can see what’s working and what isn’t.  You should also assess your content metrics to see which content is most popular and of interest to your members.  This can give you future ideas on what to focus on.

Evaluating results means looking at how well your efforts are paying off. You’ll want to look at metrics such as traffic, engagement, and conversions to determine whether or not your efforts were worthwhile.

Keep Up With Trends

As technology advances, new trends emerge that affect the way we do business. For example, mobile devices are now an important part of our lives. If you don’t keep up with these trends, you could be missing out on opportunities to reach potential customers.

Stay Organized

Keeping organized is key to running a successful online community. Make sure you have a calendar set up to keep track of upcoming events, deadlines, and other important dates.  Don’t miss important milestones or say the wrong thing at the wrong time.

Be Consistent and Active

You should also try to interact with people who visit your site. Respond to comments, join discussions, and ask questions as often as possible. This helps you develop a relationship with your audience.

Don’t Forget SEO

Search engine optimization (SEO) is essential when it comes to ranking high on search engines. Include keywords throughout your content, but avoid keyword stuffing. Also, include relevant links back to your site, especially if your community is open to the public.  Each post is a new URL that can work to your advantage online across all your marketing channels.

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Maintain Consistency

Maintaining consistency is another important aspect of creating a successful online community. Create a schedule for posting new content, and responding to comments.

Make Use of Public and Private Forums within Your Community

A forum is a great way for members to share information with each other. You can also create a private forum which only members have access.  You could even charge for the privilege of allowing access to premium content too.  Breaking forums down into sub-forums also helps keep topics on point and makes sure nothing gets too cluttered or confusing to the end user.  It also ensures you remain focused too.

Promote Content On Your Blog

If you manage and maintain your blog well, you can promote content in your community within your blog posts too.  This is a great way of creating internal linking for your SEO efforts and expanding on the content you provide and keeping people within your brand and Internet spaces and social channels.

Enable Social Shares

Add social media buttons to your community to enable your members to share helpful content with others.  If it’s a public community then this is a great way to grow it online via other social sites like Facebook and LinkedIn.  If someone likes a user’s post or wants to share an answer with a friend, make it easy for them to do so.

Grow Your Email List

Utilise your members and grow your mailing list by letting them know what’s hot in your community.  Sometimes the strangest topics take off and to keep people intrigued you should let them know.  The one place most people go to every day is their email inbox.  Give them some joy and let them know what’s happening in your community on a regular basis.

What Online Community Examples Are There for Inspiration?

popular online communities

Here are some excellent examples of online communities to give you some ideas and inspiration:

  • Netmums: The UK’s biggest parenting website offering local info, expert parenting advice, chat, competitions, recipes and friendly support.
  • Reddit: Billed as the front page of the internet. It is an amazing community where users submit links to articles, videos, images, etc., and other users vote them up or down based on their relevance.
  • Stack Overflow: A place for programmers to ask questions about programming. There are many different kinds of questions asked here, but one thing is certain: it’s a great resource for learning new things.
  • Quora: An interesting question-and-answer site. You can read through questions from various topics, and get answers from experts in those fields.
  • Product Hunt: A place for product hunters to find products that they like.
  • Medium: A blogging platform with a focus on quality writing.
  • Twitter: A microblogging service. Users post short messages called tweets.  Twitter recently got a new Chief Twit with Elon Musk.
  • Facebook: A social networking website. Users connect with friends, family members, co-workers, etc. It’s rather well-known.
  • Campden Online Community: A Cotswold town community used throughout the Covid-19 pandemic to keep the local community informed.
  • TomTom: One of the best SatNavs on the market has a community to support its users and capture ideas.
  • What3Words: This is a community for spreading the use of What3Words technology and releasing their latest news.

Common Questions About Online Communities

Below are some common questions relating to how to build your online community.

How Do I Get Started?

The first step is to decide what you want to accomplish with your online community.

Do you want to sell products or services, promote a new product or service, increase sales, or generate leads for your business?

Once you have decided on the purpose of your community, it will be easier to determine which platform and tools you need.  Do you want to have a standard community provided by a social media company, or would you like your own branded community?  If you would like your own branded community, then you can talk to us about how we can help you build yours.

Why Should I Build an Online Community?

Building an online community will help you reach people who are interested in what you’re doing. You’ll be able to share information about your business or service with others who might not otherwise know about it. It also helps you build relationships with potential customers.

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How Can I Keep People Coming Back to My Online Community?

You need to make sure you are providing value for your visitors. If they don’t find what they’re looking for on your site, then they will leave. Make sure you provide content that is useful and relevant to them. Also, try not to be too ‘salesy’ or pushy with your marketing messages.

How Does a Branded Online Community Differ from a Facebook Group?

A branded online community (or forum) is a website where users are able to post questions and answers about topics related to their brand or business. It allows for interaction between members of the community, who may be interested in learning more about the topic being discussed. Users can also leave comments on each other’s posts.

Facebook groups, on the other hand, allow people to discuss issues within their own personal networks. They are not necessarily tied to any particular brand or company.

Moreover, a Facebook group has no moderator or administrator. This means that anyone can join and start discussions. However, if someone does not follow the rules of the group, he/she could be removed by the administrators.

Summary

Creating your online community means you stay in control of your members.  This means you can communicate with them easily, and frequently and aren’t bound by a big tech company like Facebook dictating what you can and cannot do.  Not only that, it means you get to brand the experience that your customers get by adding your logos, and colours and building your community structure how you want it.

If you want to increase and retain your customer or client engagement, then one of the best things you can do is build your own online community.  Chat with us today and start your journey – it’s easier than you might think and you’ll be glad you did.

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