Build it, and they will come… or will they?
Of course, there’s much more to building a thriving online community around your brand than simply using the first online community software you find.
A community is about people and creating meaningful interactions. And choosing the right online community software provides you with the ultimate opportunity to empower your team, and your community, with all the tools they need to drive engagement.
What is community software?
Community software comes in lots of different forms. The simplest are online forums, which are usually powered by open-source software. Then, we have branded social networks and mobile apps, which tend to be white-label platforms tailored to the unique needs of individual brands. That’s what sets community software apart from mainstream social media. Instead of major advertising machines like Facebook or Instagram having control over your data and your community, you get to be the one in the driver’s seat.
The benefits of community software
Online communities are used in many industries, including non-profit and government sectors. Almost every business can benefit from online community software, whether it’s a consumer- or business-facing organisation. Your community can address a wide range of business goals, all of which come together to build stronger relationships with a loyal audience. Launching your online community can lead to enormous returns of the sort you can rarely hope to achieve on mainstream social channels.
When researching online community software, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed with lists of options and features, so we want to save you some precious time (and stress) to ensure you make the right choice.
Here is everything you need to know about online community software, before you sign on that dotted line:
#1. Know your people and your vision
Let’s start with the obvious. Why do you want to build an online community in the first place?
Brand communities are set up to achieve a variety of different goals.
Here are some examples:
- Mental health communities want to provide members with a safe space for the vulnerable away from the trolling of mainstream social channels.
- Private communities want spaces where they can share sensitive information without the threat of lax privacy policies and data breaches.
- Service-based communities, like education and personal training, want to expand their reach by taking their services online.
Your goal for an online community may include more than one of the above factors, and that’s fine. But ultimately, you’ll want to make sure you’re creating a platform that’s easy to use and helps people fulfil their needs.
And, like any customer-centric business, the first source of inspiration should come from… you guessed it – your customers.
Now is the perfect time to survey your target audience and figure out exactly what sort of features and functions they’re most likely to use. Put yourself in your customers shoes and tailor your brand vision around them so you can determine what sort of community they’d like to be a part of.
Pleme is an online community for Croatians and people interested in Croatia. With a huge globally diverse community, members wanted an easy way to keep in touch with friends and relatives around the world. But the mainstream social channels weren’t helping, and content was getting lost in the noisy environment free of any real focus or sense of belonging. Now, they have their own dedicated community. The launch generated some great results, with 1,500 new members signing up within the first three weeks.
#2. Figure out what you’re capable of
We’ve explored some of the world’s most famous online brand communities before, as well as what makes them so successful. But while these may be great examples to follow, most of them are based on their own platforms created from scratch by the company. There’s nothing wrong with that… if you have the resources to invest the huge amount of time and money that’s required to develop online community software from the ground up that is.
Big global companies like Apple and PlayStation have that sort of money, but it’s different for smaller businesses and solopreneurs. If your brand fits into either of those categories, your options might be fewer, but that doesn’t have to mean compromising on user experience.
You already have your vision, and now’s the time to figure out how you’re going to bring it to life. Part of it will depend on your budget and the amount of support you have available to you.
For example, developing something from scratch requires loads of experience, expertise and months of testing and refinement. On the other hand, using a white-label platform, which you can customise and apply your own branding to, can be rolled out in much less time and at a fraction of the cost.
The best option for you depends on your own capabilities but, for smaller businesses, it makes sense to opt for a managed white-label solution that’s fully functional right out of the box.
#3. Start small, but prioritise scalability
Don’t try to be all things to all people.
One of the biggest problems with social media is that they’re trying to be everything to everyone. Yes, there may be plenty of niche communities on Facebook and Instagram, but they have a hard time getting noticed.
If you’re reading this article, chances are your priority is to build an audience of raving fans who regularly interact with your brand and with one another. If your community is successful, you’ll also want to achieve that at scale.
Thinking big from the get go is great, but it’s also really important to start small and get your online community software up and running without losing your focus first. For that, you’ll need something which can support your current and future needs. After all, the last thing you want is to run into limitations on user profiles or run out of storage space, later down the road.
While it’s important to avoid feature bloat, which results in members being overloaded with features and functions they’re never going to use, you should always choose a flexible solution that can evolve with your needs over time.
For example, a platform which comes with an open application programming interface (API) lets you adapt your community software in many different ways. With an API, you can make your community work with your other software, such as customer relationship management (CRM), mailing lists, and other social accounts.
If your brand has a very niche audience, whose needs aren’t likely to change significantly in the foreseeable future, you might not need this much flexibility. But, if you’re targeting a wider demographic, or your industry is particularly broad in its scope, adaptability is very important. For this, a solution where you can pick and choose features will go a long way towards supporting your current and future goals.
Example: Got 1’s 6
Got 1’s 6 is a US-based sportswear store focusing on the world of softball. As their community grew, so did the challenge of keeping everyone connected. But they also ended up needing more than just a space for members to connect – their customers also wanted a space to register for tournaments and view live streams of sporting events. With the help of Disciple, Got 1’s 6 launched Softball Connect, a social networking app which saw over 5,000 new members within 24 hours of launch. Now their fans can even buy their products without having to leave the community app.
#4. Translate user behaviours into features
Whenever you’re choosing software, what’s the first thing that comes to mind?
Chances are, it’s lists of features. People spend hours looking at feature comparisons. While features are important, that’s not where your focus should be. After all, you probably have a particular feature (or features) that you may think are essential, but have you really thought about why they’re essential?
When choosing software, and this applies to any type of software, you should think about the kinds of user behaviours that matter to you. If your vision is a healthy community that’s driven by its members, then you’ll need a platform that lets them moderate each other’s posts and gives visibility to the most popular and valuable content. Features which might support this include likes, shares, upvotes or even gamification.
Before you start shortlisting your feature wish list, you should map out the behaviours you want from your users. For this, we can take a cue from software development and product management – user stories.
These are short descriptions of the who, what, and the why. Here are some examples:
- As a wellness instructor, I want to livestream fitness tutorials so my customers can train from home.
- As a publisher, I want to drive discussions around my content by sharing it with my community so I can gain insights into the biggest trends in my niche.
- As the owner of a members-only club, I want a mobile-friendly social network so I can plan and promote events.
As you can see from these very different scenarios, the behaviours you want to establish help you to decide which features you need.
For example, it won’t be worthwhile for a wellness instructor to choose a community-building software that doesn’t offer livestreaming functionality, just as a publisher won’t be able to efficiently get relevant insights from their community without discussion forums.
Now you’ve got your user behaviour checklist in order, it’s time to map out a feature list to help you narrow down your options.
Example: Rod Stryker
World-renowned yoga instructor Rod Stryker wanted to make his teachings more accessible, especially to those who were scattered around the world. The obvious way to do that was to offer training sessions online. For that, he needed a platform which supported livestreaming, combined with the freedom and flexibility of being mobile-ready. With the help of Disciple Media’s white-label community software, he launched the Sanctuary app and monetised his valuable content while reaching a huge global audience.
#5. Give your best options a test run
This one comes last for a reason.
Testing software takes time and patience. Without enough prep work, you can end up wasting hours of your precious time testing solutions that end up being a complete waste of time. The last thing you want to do is to spend weeks giving a platform a test drive only to realise it’s missing a critical function that you really need.
As with any new software rollout, it’s important to test in phases.
At Disciple, we’re always happy to offer a free consultation call and go through a demo to help you determine whether we’re a good fit for your business.
So, there you have it – the essential steps needed to choose the right software for your new online community.
But remember, every thriving community is a living and breathing entity that will adapt with your business needs and those of your members. Engaging and evaluating how it’s performing on a regular basis will help you to make sure you’re getting the best value out of it.