You Can Build It, But Will They Come? How to Create an Online Community

Updated: April 30, 2009

The right online community can strengthen a company's brand, bolster customer loyalty and win over a whole new league of fans. But according to a Deloitte Development LLC study, many of these heavily bankrolled sites fail to attract visitors. In fact, 35 percent of the 100 businesses with online communities surveyed by Deloitte claim fewer than 100 members, less than 25 percent have more than 1,000 members and 6 percent of these businesses spent over $1 million on their community projects.

But creating an online presence doesn't have to spell disaster. While the old adage, "Build it and they will come" may no longer apply to Web-based communities, there are ways to minimize the risks and optimize the chances of luring visitors, said Ed Moran, Deloitte's director of product innovation who conducted the firm's recent study. Here are five steps for building a successful online community:

1. Don't blow your budget on technology. Bells and whistles are more likely to frustrate visitors than convince them it's worth coming back. And besides, there's no shortage of reasonably priced software packages promising to help companies easily launch a Web-based community. "Technology is not the big challenge," said Moran. "The real challenge revolves around business, organizational and internal funding issues — even finding the right people to moderate and facilitate these communities can be difficult."

2. Establish value. According to Moran, "companies have to think about what value they're trying to create for the user. But companies often don't think that way. Instead, they ask, ‘What am I going to get out of my community?' If you start down that path though, you immediately go awry — there's no value there for the user." That's why it's crucial that companies create a purpose for the site — a clear mandate that sets out how an online community will improve a customer's overall experience with a product, service or brand.

3. Consider your content. Determine what content and features are going to compel an end user to visit the site and keep coming back for more. For example, will company-issued instruction manuals draw visitors? Or is user-generated content, such as product reviews and blogs, more likely to turn occasional visitors into full-fledged community members?

4. Appoint a community leader. According to Moran's findings, 30 percent of the businesses Deloitte studied have only one part-time worker in charge of their communities. For this reason, Moran recommended that a company place a professional with experience running an online community in charge of the project. That might be a CIO — a great idea "if that IT person is a gifted community moderator," said Moran. Or it may very well be a marketing or HR executive . The whole point is to select a moderator with expertise in overseeing an online community's daily ins and outs.

5. Select the right metrics for success. Desperate to prove that an online community is worthy of a financial investment, Moran said that many companies turn to page views or unique visitors to measure a site's success. That's a huge mistake, he said, that fails to take into account a site's intended purpose. "You'd be surprised how many companies just look at page views," said Moran. Instead, he advised companies to consider a range of factors, from the number of interesting product improvements community members post online to how often a member visits the site as a source of reliable customer support.

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