How to Develop a Community Strategy

This post is targeted at folks just getting started with online community activities at their respective organizations. It is written with the brand or product-specific corporate communities in mind, but is somewhat applicable to independent communities and non profit organizations.A few key points to begin with:

First, the working assumption here is that most of you reading are engaged in some sort of initial community building activity, but do not have a comprehensive community strategy guiding your efforts.

Second, keep in mind one of the key decisions you will need to make is the mix of attention, energy and dollars you spend hosting a community, vs participating in external community sites like Facebook and MySpace.

Third, (particularly for marketers) engaging and building relationships with your community is a bit of a mind-shift from thinking “quarterly-driven campaigns”. We have heard this as a recurring theme in our research and the conference we host on Marketing & Online communities. You won’t have the same criteria for success with community building efforts as you do with a print campaign. You won’t retain control of messaging. You have to be willing to invest the time to build relationships with members (yes, even one on one). This isn’t a quick in and out.

So, how does one start to evaluate the opportunity with online communities? Research! The following 4 step framework describes my typical community strategy development exercise we use for our clients:

Step 1. Define Business Goals and Objectives

This first step establishes a baseline definition of the organization’s goals and potential objectives for engaging in community building activities. These goals and objectives will serve as guidance throughout the project to ensure that the final strategy reflects a direction that creates value back to the organization. This process varies by organization type, the number and role of stakeholders, and the maturity (or existence) of the community team. The research in this step includes identification of the stakeholders for community within an organization, interviews with the stakeholders, and an initial brainstorm with members of the stakeholder’s team to discuss objectives for community. Themes and business goals for a community strategy will emerge.

Step 2. Community Ecosystem Review
During this second phase the goal is to do an audit of the current community ecosystem, including customer, prospect, partner and competitor touch points. This information will help establish a baseline of market-oriented sites and activity, which will be important to understand the opportunities for new community activity by your (or your client’s) brand.

Using tools like BlogPulse, Technorati, Delicious, and Google Blog search, conduct searches for brand mentions in the blogosphere and on smaller niche communities. You will quickly come up a list of the communities hosting conversations about your organization, products or brand, and the members (often time bloggers) engaging in those conversations.

It’s also important to research activity on the “walled garden” communities, and larger social media sites that some times don’t surface in search results. Sites like Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, Ning, Flickr, Satisfaction, etc. In particular, look for ad-hoc groups that have sprung up around your brand, or content tagged with your brand and/or products.

Step 3. Member Needs Analysis
This phase will establish a baseline for potential community member’s needs, as well as their expectations of your organization. This critical phase will also guide decision-making on the types of activities to engage in, and the approach (offline / online, hosted / independent).

This research is ideally done in person, or on the phone, but in a pinch you can also use a web-based survey tool like surveymonkey. Recruit research candidates from the list that you made during the Ecosystem Review. Develop an interview script that really probes their needs and expectations of your brand. Ask what types of marketing and advertising the members would find acceptable, and which types they won’t. Ask if they would be willing to help shape programs and advertisements (if you choose to go that route), Themes of member need, expectation of conduct from your organization, and tolerance of advertising / marketing messages should emerge from this research.

Step 4. Community Strategy Development
This final phase will combine the inputs of business goals, user needs and the existing community audit to form a community strategy. Evaluating member need and business goals side by side should provide you with direction on the types of community opportunities to engage in. The ecosystem audit will provide direction on where to participate, and if there is an opportunity for your organization to host part of that conversation by building a destination site, hosting discussion groups, etc. Based on the content of the previous phases, the team should be able to pull together the following key areas of strategy:

  • Business goals: 3-5 points of value or reasons the organization is engaging in community-building activities
  • Member needs summary: 3-5 key needs community members have of your organization that can be fulfilled or supported via online community
  • Community ecosystem map: A list (or diagram) of the key communities and community members that are currently discussing your organization and/ or brand
  • Recommended community tactics: A list of key tactics that meet the business goals as well as member needs
  • Metrics / ROI strategy: Specific metrics to evaluate community-building efforts by, and an ROI model that articulates dimensions of value (loyalty, affinity, time engaged, etc)
  • Engagement plan / calendar: Key tactics mapped to specific dates

As with anything, your mileage may vary -)

I’ve also seen the “Gnome” model used by companies, with much less success.

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