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Building a successful online community, Part 1: Planning

Janne Lehtinen • 2016-02-26

Starting an online community is one thing; making it successful is quite another. Read on for Part 1 in a series where we explain how you can start a community and make it successful!

So you decided to start an online community. Maybe you squared down a bunch of community platform options and decided on one that you felt was most you, ran through the setup wizard, and played for a bit. Now what? You’d be excused for feeling perplexed with all the options available.

The purpose of your community

Like with any project, plunging head first into action seems tempting, but first, let’s sit back and think about your vision for a bit. What is the purpose of your community? Why is it needed, and what are you looking to achieve by starting one?

To find out, think about what was the trigger that gave you the idea of starting one in the first place. Maybe there aren’t existing online communities focused on making miniature wax models of sci-fi movie characters, and you decided one is needed? Or maybe some exist, but they are in a different language, or they focus on a wrong movie genre. Or maybe the existing communities just plain suck!

You might run a company that manufactures and sells specialized hardware, and you feel, rightly, that your competitors have an edge because they run active online communities.

You could be a developer who’s created an open source software project on your spare time, and starting a community around the project seemed like a good way to get people to spread their expertise and help each other out.

You might also work for a software company and you’ve been assigned a task of building an extended, interactive, commentable FAQ section, a.k.a. “The Support Forum.”

It’s essential to find out what the purpose and goals of your online community are, so let’s figure those out before doing anything else.

Vision: my awesome online community

Let’s forget for a moment that you want your community to become immensely popular, because that alone is typically not enough motivation to keep you going until you get there, maintain your enthusiasm in the long run, or make the community meet the financial objectives laid out for it by your company.

To figure out what the real purpose of your community is, try to envision what you really are looking to achieve with it. What would your preferred outcome be for the community?

Let’s fantasize!

Enthusiast websites: Would it make your website the number one place for wax model enthusiasts the world over, making you a leading authority on the subject — maybe replacing your day job as your main source of income from ad placement revenues in the process?

Organizations: Are you looking to offer a haven for people seeking help for a specific, rare medical condition, where they can exchange information and help each other out, to become a trusted source of knowledge and comfort, ultimately making the world a tiny bit better for people with the illness?

Manufacturers: Would it encourage your users to share tips and resources relating to your wood tools and generate more traffic onto your company website, increasing brand awareness and sales of your product?

Software companies: Would it become a knowledge base for your audio processing plugin collection where users help each other out with problems they face using your company’s software product, freeing resources from support?

That’s to name just a few examples of the myriad possible intended outcomes. Whatever your motivation, taking the time to find out specifically what “wildly successful" would mean to you in any given project will help you plan the steps you need to take to achieve anything close to that success.

Identifying your audience

After you’ve figured out what the main driver behind your motivation for starting a community will be, think about your visitors. Who are they? What do they want? Where can you find them?

If you are looking to start a fansite, this is probably an easy question, and your visitors are like you: people interested in a specific subject, looking to share experiences and gain knowledge, and to connect with like-minded people. In this case you will intuitively know what they will probably like and can easily make decisions about things like your community’s design, the type of language you want to use, and so on.

Maybe you want your existing, as well as competitor’s, customers to engage in online discussions on your website. In this case, you should also already know the potential visitors pretty well (if not, your product just might not be as successful as it could!)

You should make a list of who you think the typical visitors to your community are. How old are they? What are their main interests? Which social networks do they hang out in? How technical are they? And so forth.

Make sure to list anything you think is remotely relevant here! This will help you every step of the way in building a community your audience feels at home in, as well as reach out to them once your community is ready for launch.

Home for your community

Once you know who your potential visitors are, you need to think about where your community resides—in other words, where in the internet do you want your community to be? There are several options on offer here:

Traditional forum If you already have a website and you’re looking to add a traditional forum page, fine—that’s how these things have been done for decades now, with varying degrees of success. If your visitors are used to forums—like when you are trying to lure in people from existing forum based communities, and often from the age range of 30–50—this might be what they expect, even demand. This option works great when you want to isolate the discussions from the rest of your site, like when your community is meant to work as a support forum dealing with any issues with your product.

Distributed discussions If your audience consists of mainly young people used to more modern social networks, chat apps, etc, or slightly less technical people who’ve only recently taken the plunge and started using Facebook, then you might not be able to capture your users’ interest by just introducing an isolated forum page on your site. In that case you might want to consider turning your entire site into an online community, where anything people might want to discuss is directly commentable?

In practice, that means spreading the discussions all over your site in the form of blog commenting, discussion threads on gallery pages, comment sections under reviews. Then you can have that traditional forum page aggregating all of that discussion into one place, working as a hub for all of your site’s discussion.

Standalone community If you don’t have an existing website but want to start a forum, then you simply need to decide on a catchy name for your community and, optionally, for your own domain. This is the easiest way to start a community—it literally takes seconds—and works great for short term informal projects or clubs with your friends and colleagues, or for testing purposes.

App If you’re an app developer, consider embedding the community directly inside your app. This will effectively turn it into a social media app where people regularly return to check on new discussions and participate in them, while engaging with the other app functionality.

This calls for a plan

After you’ve clarified the purpose for your community, profiled the typical visitors, and decided where to place the community, you’ll have enough information to carve out a plan of action to get your hands dirty and start making your successful community a reality.

*Stay tuned for “Part 2: Building your community" next week!

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