In 2004 social networks were a groundbreaking channel for brands to self-publicise and broadcast their news. Today, the dynamic between brands and their customers has shifted. Customers want brands to talk with and not just at them. According to Heather Taylor, founder of online community, RiotRemedy, today’s brands need to talk with and not at their customers. We asked Heather for the inside scoop on considerations to take before creating an online community; along with her top tips for making that community thrive.

1) What are the top 3 things organisations should consider before setting up an online community?

Firstly, know the purpose behind the community; it might seem that everybody else is already on Twitter or Facebook, but it’s important to remember that what’s right for one brand might be completely wrong for another. Also, make sure you have the resource to manage a community; do you have more than one person who can take the reins? A good online community manager is enthusiastic and completely immersed in their job. They need to be a part of that community all the time and that can get exhausting so do make sure they can have down time or they will burn out. When I worked for PayPal we had three people on shifts managing the @AskPaypal Twitter community and that worked really well. Finally, be clear on who your audience is and decide from the beginning whether you want that audience to be niche or broad. It will define your tone of voice and the way you engage.

2) Which online communities have you taken your inspiration from?

The first community I ever joined was Lonely Planet’s forum, Thorn Tree, and that was 11 years ago. At the time I wanted to move to the UK so I was asking lots of questions about travel. Thorn Tree was so well managed and had a real community spirit. I felt welcome from the beginning, it wasn’t cliquey or closed off, and I never felt overly criticised by my questions or that I was being spammed. The best online communities don’t actually work on a One-To-Many principal; they work on a One-To-One-To-Many. When you have a community of people who are really involved and care for that community, they become moderators themselves, they become super users.

3) What are your top tips for boosting engagement in an online community?

It may sound odd, but don’t be too involved once your community gets going. Allow members to engage and ask questions and don’t always ‘jump’ in to answer, let them be a community and help each other. And if you find pick up is slow, send a direct message to your more engaged community members and ask them if they could respond to it. If it’s a direct question on a platform such as Twitter, then naturally you respond, but if it’s an open question on a forum or Facebook, you’ll find the community wants to do the talking and engage with each other. Ask the right questions at the right time and don’t resort to cheap tactics like ‘retweet to win prizes’. By all means encourage people to use hashtags in their tweets, but give them a good reason; ask them an engaging question and you’ll get engaging answers. And then, most of all, act on those answers.

4) What advice do you have for online community managers?

Be interactive and be helpful. But also – and this important – allow downtime, time to disengage and switch off from the community. You’ll find community managers are checking their smart phones from the moment they wake up until the second they go to sleep and as I said, it can get exhausting. And be smart, you need to build your super users inside your company as much as outside; your brand managers, product developers, customer service teams are the ones who will have the answers to your community’s questions and you’ll need to coordinate a workflow system for getting those answers responded to quickly. You may be met with resistance, especially if your co-workers are busy and unengaged with social media, so incentivise them, explain how their involvement will benefit them, help them get feedback and ideas for product development; you need their buy in.

5) What do you think are the measures for success in terms of online communities?

To measure your community’s success, you really need to know why it’s being set up in the first place – are you trying to get feedback, improve customer service? Yes look at numbers i.e. how many people have joined the community, but ultimately the number of people isn’t as important as the number of engaged people; using dirty tactics like ‘retweets for prizes’ or ‘Likes for prizes’ might see a dramatic upturn in fan and follower numbers, but if they don’t stay and interact, what was the point? If it’s a forum or a blog, then look at traffic and bounce rates, if people are coming, staying, reading and finding their questions well answered by the community, then it’s a success.

6) What do you think is the future of online communities?

More integration and customer ownership of the brand. Mozilla works hand in hand with its customers and it’s a great example for other communities. Ultimately an online community should be a space for conversations and not just broadcasting news at people, which means there always needs to be somewhere within that community where people can engage.

About RiotRemedy

RiotRemedy channels charity donations through a partnership with JustGiving.com, while promoting and coordinating volunteering for cleanup projects across the country through Twitter and Facebook. For more information, see www.riotremedy.org

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