I’ve been working in devrel for while and one of the key components is community–you want to support the developer community around your product or the larger ecosystem. I witnessed this same focus work outside of the developer community and still feel an online curated community is an under appreciated asset. Like all assets, you have to work to attain it, but then after you have it, it pays dividends.
The setting: a little startup in a decidedly nontechnical niche. I’m not going to be too specific because of agreements I made with the company after I left. They did the following:
- Built up deep expertise in the field before they even started the community. This can’t be rushed, but if you spend a year or two focusing, that’s a a good start. (They’d spent 5 or 10, which is of course better.) This is a critical step that can’t be short cut. If you don’t have this, you’ll have a more difficult time with everything, because you won’t have foundational knowledge about the community for which you are trying to build an online presence.
- Started an invite only Facebook group. The actual group software matters less than going to where people are. In this case, the target market already hung out on Facebook.
- Invited people to the group. Not just clients, but anyone who was affiliated with the community.
- Had a clear code of conduct, especially in relation to commercial activities (aka spam). Discussion of business related issues was encouraged, but unrelated commercial links were removed.
- Seeded discussions with questions heard elsewhere. Answers were highlighted in blog posts and newsletters as well as shared with the group.
- Spent time encouraging group members to share their experiences.
- Promoted the online community to other offline communities with similar interests.
In time (years!, not months), this Facebook group became extremely valuable to the company, in a number of ways:
- The questions people were asking in the forum could be turned into blog posts, which were helpful for SEO. That is, the company learned from the forum what kinds of questions people the company wanted to target were asking. (Ask if you can do this before you publish what community members may consider to be private! Just ask, sometimes people want their wisdom shared.)
- The company could see if members were looking for the solution the company was selling. They could then reach out outside of the group and do a gentle ask. Member demand for services could be monitored over time, as group members shifted employers and/or situations.
- When talking to prospective customers who were not in the group, a membership was an easy, free offer of value. The answers in the group provided insight and many prospects were happy to join, even if they didn’t want to purchase anything from the company.
- People found the online community and then learned about the company supporting the community. A definite halo effect.
- If the company has a new offering, they can do market research easily. They know where to find their target customer.
This onlinecommunity definitely isn’t free, even if you use a solution like Facebook groups with no hosting costs. (Facebook groups is not the best option, in my opinion, in terms of long term flexibility, because Facebook owns the user and you don’t have access to information like their email. But at the same time you have to go where the prospective members of your online community are, and anything you can do to reduce friction is crucial.) Moderation and content seeding are also crucial to getting the online community going.
But now that the community is up and running, it is a sustainable moat.
If you run an non-technical business, do you have an online community that you participate in? Do you know of one? If you don’t and can’t find one with a little bit of googling, think about setting one up. It can be a long term sustainable advantage for your business. Like any other assets, you have to invest, but it’ll pay dividends.