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Online community building strategies


Want to build an online community?

When you understand the power of the online community, you’re bound to answer in the affirmative.

Vanessa DiMauro, CEO of Leader Networks, will tell you the online community is the most powerful way to connect with prospects today. Well-run online communities advance trust building.

16 key attributes to building trust

In a recent webinar, Vanessa DiMaura pointed to numerous spots on the Edelman Trust Barometer and pointed out how online communities can address the issues.

What do you say we check in with Vanessa DiMauro, a top-shelf community building strategist who’s been at it for about as long as we’ve had online communities?

I’ve read Vanessa’s work for a few years now and when she created “56 Lessons from 20 Years of Online Community Building,” a virtual rule book of community building strategies for the social age, I had questions. Vanessa agreed to answer them.

Vanessa DiMauro

First, I wanted to know what’s in the coffee cup she’s clinging to in the photo. She said scotch. I knew the rest of the interview would be fun.

Focus on a vision for your community

High on the list, Vanessa wrote community builders must create a clear, aspirational vision statement and share it with members. She told me the vision statement shapes what the community will ultimately be about and how community members interact.

“It sets the tone for the culture of the community,” she said. “Each community has its own set of normative behaviors that reflects the peer-to-peer and peer-to-company relationship style. As we all know, culture happens whether we design it or not.”

So, writing one’s a cakewalk, right? Guess not…

“Writing a vision statement can be a painful experience, fraught with group-think,” Vanessa said. “The end result tends to be some watered-down, hyperbolic declaration of nothing in particular. This serves no one’s interest.”

She offers a fix for the problem. “I often play a community ‘mad-lib’ game with my clients to help them articulate their intentions and keep the spirit alive. It goes a little something like this:

Our community is the place for __________.
Members will benefit from __________ and _____________
and will be most excited when they can ____________ online.”

Vanessa admits it’s not often perfect, but makes for a good start.

customer service statistics

Vanessa cites a survey by Get Satisfaction revealing statistics about what customers want and how brands are approaching their needs.

And then comes an operational plan

Another commandment of Vanessa’s is to create a 90-day operational plan for the community and revise it every each quarter. Why?

“Priorities often change for an organization quarter by quarter, while the overall business strategy generally stays intact. By reviewing the plan every quarter with input from product line leaders, sales, marketing and the merry band, the community can be more responsive to customer and organizational needs.”

She went on to say the plan helps different departments work together. For example, according to Vanessa, if marketing is holding an event, community needs the run time to shepherd members into securing seats. If product development is launching a new product, there needs to be time to tell the members and the early feedback will help support the release.

Creating user generated content

Rule #10: Start with an emphasis on institutional content then plan to shift to organic (user generated) content.

I asked Vanessa to explain how a B2B company could pull it off, that is, generate highly coveted user-generated content. It struck me as a tough trick.

She told me, with online communities, members come for the content and stay for community.

“Each piece of content or interaction needs to be present for a reason. Even user generated content is well served by putting it through a voluntary (user option) editing process to help make the member’s writing be as powerful as possible.”

“It could either be long tail content such as informational articles or how-to guides, or disposable topical content designed to engage in the moment,” she said.

“There’s no need to be afraid of ‘riding meme waves’ and tapping into what’s hot in the moment.”

“Successful on-site content is usually SEO-friendly guides written by the community, or articles written by the community manager focusing on community interests or topics in need of new community participants.”

She explained some online communities will focus on lifestyle discussions or topics not directly related to a brand’s products, but for which the brand stands to benefit from the exposure.

B2B and B2C communities differ

In rule #23 of her list post, Vanessa wrote you need to understand B2B and B2C communities have very different best practices.

“B2B online communities are professional networks that contain a blend of content and collaboration opportunities around a shared business-based experience. They are commonly established between a business and customers, professional associations or like-minded professionals.”

Vanessa said many examples of B2B communities are not visible to the general public. They serve a specific audience with a “gated experience” for their members. B2B communities tend to be smaller than their B2C counterparts, anywhere from a hundred members upward.

On the B2C side, communities can be very large and tend to focus on a specific activity related to the use of a brand’s products.

“B2C online communities are brand-to-consumer and consumer-to-consumer focused networks. They provide a platform for engagement with the brand, or support customers using the brand’s products.”

According to Vanessa, the vast majority of online communities fall under this banner, whether the online community is a Twitter account for interacting with customers or a customer service forum to support discussion around the use of products.

communities provide better customer services

Source: “Get it Together: Why You Need an Online Community” by

Finding an inner circle

I learned from Vanessa every successful online community relies on a solid core group that keeps it growing. I asked Vanessa how you go about finding and developing the ever-important “inner circle” or core.

Her answer: “Form a beta group, baby.”

She suggested the beta group could be made up of the first 50 – 250 members who are friends of the firm, clients, or partners who have an interest in being “community pioneers.”

“Be sure they are formally invited to participate in the beta program with a defined start and a clear value proposition (for them),” she said.

She pointed out that, pre-launch, it’s important to get the beta group to model the behavior the rest of the community will follow when the group officially goes live.

“They fill out their profile, participate in a few discussions with each other, submit content, sit for an interview or three and fill the community with activity, so others know what to do and how to interact online. This goes a very long way with senior level communities, but is important to them all.”