If you don’t already have an online community for your customers, you could be missing out on many opportunities for marketing, research and development and customer support. While it takes time to build a brand community, many companies have come to realise the enormous value they can bring ranging from distributed customer service to product innovation to brand advocacy and customer retention. Defining your goals is the obvious first step, but you’ll also need to choose the right customer community software to make it all happen.

Customer community software comes in many different forms ranging from open-source forum software to far more sophisticated platforms with built-in social networking features and mobile functionality. Since a strong online community is squarely at the forefront of customer success, it’s essential to put user experience first. The greater value you can deliver to your customers, the greater value you’ll add to your brand. Make the wrong choice, however, and your brand-new community will be dead on arrival.

Test your community concept

Before you choose customer community software, you should define your community concept and establish a way to test it. There’s no point in building a brand community until you have a solid reason to do so. Firstly, you’ll want to determine whether or not there’s an interesting in a community. If you don’t currently have that interest, you’ll need to define a value proposition that gives your customers a real incentive to sign up. After all, customer community software doesn’t create a community – it simply gives you the means to realise your vision.

The best way to test your community concept is to see what your existing community is already doing. Yes, even if you don’t have your own community, your customers might have formed one of their own already. Many brands already use social media, and if you’re among them, you already have access to insights that can help you define your value proposition. Observe how customers are behaving on social media and consumer review websites to get an idea of how people are likely to interact with your own platform and what they might get out of it.

Prioritise behaviour-centric design over feature lists

Now that you’ve done the ground work through a little preparational research, you’ll be able to start selecting the features you need for your own community platform. You’ve discovered how your customers interact with your brand through mainstream social media and other platforms. The next step is to determine how these behaviours might change when those customers start using your own platform. One of the main purposes of having your own brand community is to encourage certain behaviours, so you’ll need to align existing habits with desired behaviours.

This is why it’s important not to be seduced by feature lists, but to choose a solution which will accommodate the needs of your customers and the behaviours you desire from them. To give an example, a personal trainer might have clients who want access to online training sessions while also being able to interact with other members to share their own tips and experiences. Others might find mobile push notifications useful for reminding them of upcoming sessions. You can then easily translate these behaviours and goals into technical requirements.

Implement security and privacy by design to boost trust

With trust in mainstream social media at an all-time low, information security and privacy are non-negotiable. In fact, no matter your industry or the purpose of your community, the degree of trust that comes with greater control over security and privacy is a major value proposition in itself. When choosing customer community software, you should always select a platform that’s secure by design, not to mention compliant with regulations like GDPR. Not only is this a matter of keeping on the right side of the law – it’s also a matter of putting safety first.

An owned community platform should be yours and yours alone, and that includes all the data collected through it. By contrast, major public platforms like Facebook and their subsidiaries make their fortunes by selling user data on to third parties. An increasing number of consumers don’t want to surrender their online privacy just to become members of brand communities on Facebook and other mainstream platforms. Choose a solution that gives you the opportunity to put the power in the hands of your customers.

Choose mobile functionality to enhance accessibility

No, mobile is not the be-all and end-all, and the desktop isn’t about to go the way of the dodo any time soon. However, that’s the platform most consumers are using, and the number only continues to rise, particularly in consumer-facing organisations. A community that isn’t easily accessible on the small screen will likely never get much attention, unless it so happens that your particular customer base relies a great deal on text-heavy content-creation. In this case, community forum software might be a better choice.

Chances are, one of the key priorities of your brand community is to increase accessibility and visibility. Since people tend to keep their phones on them at all times, a mobile-first community is usually the obvious choice. Add push notifications into the mix, and your members will have the option to stay informed about updates, new messages and anything else they’re interested in. Most customer community platforms, particularly conventional forum software, don’t think mobile-first, which makes them a non-starter for many brands.

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Align your community platform with your branding

One of the overarching problems of every mainstream social network or other public platform is that you have minimal opportunity to preserve your branding. This is a major drawback, as brand codes are how companies tap into the psychology of their customers and provide them a means to remember and identify them. Even though public social networks let you add your own profile and header images, it’s still extremely difficult to get heard among all the noise when your community portal is still dominated by the brand codes of the platform itself.

Your community platform should serve as an extension of your brand, which means it should be immediately recognisable as such. If it looks like every other brand community, it won’t be nearly as powerful a marketing asset as it could be. Choose customer community software that offers extensive customisation capabilities ranging from colour schemes to feature sets to menu structures, application icons and other visual and interface elements. Give members a unique experience to keep them coming back for more.

Integrate social media functions for greater engagement

Community software is often confused with community forums. But, while there’s a crossover between the two, forums are not nearly as sophisticated as full-blown community software. In fact, forums largely belong to a bygone era in all but a few specialised niches. Even the forums that do still have large and engaged following have modernised in recent years thanks to the integration of gamification and social networking features. Chances are, your customers want a similarly modern and accessible experience.

Now that almost everyone’s used to social networking, it’s a good idea to choose a community platform that provides a familiar user experience. After all, no one’s going to be interested in trying to learn something new from scratch. By providing members the functionality they’re already accustomed to, such as content feeds, direct messaging, likes, friending and following, they’ll be able to step right into your community. In the end, what you’ve achieved is the perfect convergence between public social media and a private brand community.

Final words

Once you’ve determined what you want to achieve with your brand community, choosing the right community software will help you realise your vision in minimal time, and it’s a whole lot cheaper than trying to develop a bespoke solution from scratch. Just be sure to remember the key considerations:

  • Create use cases to determine desired member behaviours
  • Match these behaviours to technical requirements
  • Choose a platform that’s as accessible as possible
  • Decide how you want to customise your community
  • Make social networking a part of the experience

Disciple customer community software helps people build independent, valuable and trusted communities in a safe space that they own and control. See how our customer community software works. Book a demo with one of our community specialists.