Launching an online community or discussion forum: First you need a plan.

Before you launch an online community or discussion forum for your organization, you need a strategy. Sure, you’ve already got web and social media strategies in place, your webpages get millions of hits, and you trend on Twitter every other week. But traditional web strategies often don’t take into account the nuances of building an online community.

Find your purpose. Find your people.

First and foremost, ask yourself why you are building this community. The answer to this question will determine the structure and function of the community and inform just about every decision you make from here on out.

One of the best ways to determine your community’s role in your organization is with the CMX SPACE model. Figure out which of the SPACE functions you want your community to accomplish and go from there. CMX also provides an excellent primer on community strategy with its Fundamentals of Community Strategy course. [Full disclosure: I volunteer as a course advisor for CMX].

Make one department (and hopefully one person) the lead on the project—since all departments will at some point be involved in the community, you definitely want an “owner.” But this person shouldn’t be the CMO or the marketing, PR, or communications directors. Community needs a personal touch, so put a dedicated engagement specialist at the head of the line. Maybe that’s you.

Again, since all departments will at some point be involved in the community, you will need buy-in from others in your organization. Develop an elevator speech and be able to show the ROI of community from multiple perspectives. Interview your colleagues about ways an online community could be helpful to their departments and help them envision a path forward. Building a community within your organization that supports your endeavor is critical to starting an online community for your members.

I will pause here to tell you, though, that don’t want to give your community too much too quickly. Start small and work from there. You need to build a stable foundation for your community, then, when you’re ready, you can integrate just about any of your company’s existing programs or initiatives into the community. Some organizations use the online community as a basis for their entire website to bring content, conversation and collaboration together into one place. Others also incorporate learning modules with online discussion groups and seminars.

Further, if you have branch offices, local chapters or industry sections, you can create separate spaces in your community. Sub-communities could enable local networking, global project planning, or industry-wide educational communities. Your community might also become a place to organize your board and committee functions. It could also serve as an internal communications platform for your office.

Remember though that you can’t just build a community and expect members or even employees to use it. For each forum you create, you also have to build the requisite foundation with a core group of dedicated participants and volunteers to help you drive engagement.

In addition to developing forums around regional affiliation and work groups, at some point you’ll wonder whether or not to create a forum for every other topic your members will want to discuss. This usually isn’t a good idea unless you are migrating an existing community with well-defined interest groups.

If your organization is new to online communities, take a chance and start with one primary forum. If it proves to be too little for your members’ needs, you can launch more groups–and you’ll have a convenient excuse for a launch party!

Lay down the law.

Will you require that all posts are moderated (this is a heavy workload), self-moderated by other users, or not moderated at all? Depending on how strict your community rules and regulations will be, you may or may not want to regulate posts on your community. And

While most community guidelines are determined by the organization’s expectations and by members’ behavior, some rules are determined by external governing bodies. For example, trade association communities are bound by federal anti-trust regulations. This means members cannot discuss prices, wages, and other specifics of their industry on the community. Don’t let this scare you or your managers, though. If a member posts something they shouldn’t, the organization should not be held liable as long as posts are removed in a timely manner.

Apart from laws, there are other reasons to keep an eye on your members’ posts, though. To ensure your private community maintains its intended tone, you may need to moderate posts about issues that are controversial among your members, or you may need to selectively moderate posts by members who’ve side-stepped your terms of use in the past.

One thing in particular to consider in your community is whether or not to allow your advertisers to share information about their companies on your community. Without checks in place on this sort of behavior, it can lead to overuse by corporate members and discourage substantive conversation. If your members are sensitive to this kind of content, consider allowing advertisements only in designated locations on your community and restricting marketing posts by associate members.

Don’t completely discourage associates from participating in the community, though. Often members will seek out business and feedback about companies on your community. Encourage associates to respond to these requests with specific, constructive advice—and discourage direct marketing except via private messages or email—and your community may become a hub for business networking.

Find the IT crowd.

On top of the legal and structural decisions you’ll have to make about your community, you’ll need to take care of the technology as well. And this is where having a plan really comes in handy. When you’re evaluating online community platforms, having a concrete strategy and a plan for your community’s future will make it that much easier to choose a community platform that will meet your needs as your community matures.

To start, take a look at what data your community should have access to from your database. Do you want your community to use member information from your existing database? Do you want to integrate your online community into your event, newsletter, website or social media functionalities? If you said yes at any point, then you want to find a community that will integrate with your existing IT infrastructure, foremost your association management software or customer relationship manager.

Try to find an online community provider that has integrated its product with the AMS or CRM you use. If you don’t already have an AMS or CRM in place, you’ll want to speak to a consultant to begin the search for the right kind of platform for your organization. While you can easily search for a software solution yourself, consider that your AMS or CRM is the bedrock of your data infrastructure. To make sure you have a good foundation, speak to colleagues in your industry for recommendations then find an unbiased software consultant to help you integrate the new platform.

Once your AMS/CRM is squared away, you can begin the search for a community software. And no matter your budget or goals for the community, the two most important things to look for in a forum software are a robust user community (yes, your community software should have its own user community run on the company’s platform–if the forum provider uses a software other than its own for its user community, that’s a big red flag) and an excellent support team.

As with an AMS/CRM, I would seek out the advice of a consultant when choosing a forum software, especially if you don’t have someone dedicated to community strategy at your organization. In addition, for both community and AMS/CRM integrations, make sure you have an IT specialist on standby at your organization.

After you’ve signed on with a software that meets your needs, you will (hopefully) be in the hands of your software’s community integration specialist who will help you make sure your new forums are properly connected to your existing infrastructure. They will likely also help you with the best part of the process: Designing your community. Building out all of the features on your community website finally gives you something tangible to show the board of directors. But remember that it’s best to start out simple. Just because your provider offers a hundred widgets doesn’t mean you need to add all of them to the homepage.

When building your community’s website infrastructure, consider again your organization’s intentions for the community. For example, if it’s a private discussion community, then you probably don’t want to add links to your public social media channels on the home page—doing this might drive conversation to channels other than your community. On the other hand, if your community is open to everyone, then you want to include features that allow your members to share their content and comments in other channels.

As much as function, design is also important. Make sure you test your community website with members (more on beta testing next) to make sure that the structure and flow is understandable and easy to use. This is another time when you may want to consult an IT specialist to help you with card sorting exercises and other research that will help you keep the site simple and easy to use.

Finally, you’ll want the input of your organization’s marketing department to ensure that the site’s design fits within the overall style standards of your organization. This is important for establishing the community as part of your brand and helps to make the community feel familiar and inviting for new users.

Testing. Testing.

Sometime before or during the design process, invite a small sub-set of highly active members to participate in a beta test. You can’t just turn your members loose in your new community and expect them to know what to do. Create a roadmap for your new users to follow—and maybe throw in a contest and prizes—with a set of defined tasks and ask them to provide feedback on each function in the community. If you can, leave all of the beta test groups’ discussions and work on the community–you can make use of it during your community launch.

If you get minimal or negative feedback from your testers, take it in stride and do what you can to correct any issues. If you find you’re overwhelmed with tools and features, start small. Create a minimum viable product that addresses your organization’s top two or three goals for the community and start there. As your community progresses and your members ask for more tools and resources, you can repeat the beta testing process to introduce additional features. Keep in touch with your beta testers and keep them happy so they’ll help you out with tasks like launching, moderating, and managing your community.

Make it so.

When you’re ready to launch the community, you’ll need a plan in place to make sure the message gets out about this new online space and what members can do with it. Market the community on all of your existing channels and enroll all of your current members in a general discussion forum on your community.

Unless you have rules in place that require you to opt members into emails, you’ll also want to make sure all of your members are subscribed to email notifications from your community. Once you’ve got their attention, make sure your beta testers are regularly seeding content and questions on the community. If they’re open to it, send them kits with post ideas, forum games, and other resources they can use to stimulate discussion among new users.

Pro tip: If your organization has a regular in-person meeting, you can coordinate your community launch to tie in with this meeting, whether it’s a quarterly all-staff meeting or an annual member symposium. Remember that your online community is a also your analogue community, and bringing them together can increase interest in both.

Once your community has launched, the work has just begun. Your strategy will not address every day-to-day issue your community encounters, but it will give you a strong foundation from which to base your decisions. Remember to re-evaluate your community strategy every couple of years to make sure it still accurately reflects your members’ needs and your organization’s goals.

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