In the Age of the Consumer, online communities have become a driving force behind business growth and smart decision-making. Now that business success is directly driven by customer success, it’s now an imperative that brands have a direct line of communication with the people they want to target. To make that happen, many companies turn to social media to carry out research and maximise their visibility. Unfortunately, becoming visible on major social media channels over which you have very limited control isn’t easy. This fact has led to a shift towards owned brand communities, the most successful of which incorporate elements of mainstream social media to maximise member engagement. Community forum software is evolving fast as a result, so choosing the right platform requires some careful research and planning.

Find out what your customers want

Brand communities are all about people and relationships. They go far beyond the one-way communication of strategies like email marketing to enable two-way conversation. More than ever, customers want to be empowered with a voice. The web already gives them a voice in the form of consumer review websites and social media, but these are no substitute for having a direct connection with the brands that interest them through a dedicated community. Today’s customers want to have a say in the direction of the products and services they love, and post-sales support is more important than ever for brand reputation-management and maximising customer retention.

Before you can choose the right community forum software, you’ll need to figure out precisely what your customers want. This will help you define your value proposition, driving customers to sign up and participate. Perhaps they want a convenient way to obtain self-service support by tapping into the wealth of information that community-driven knowledgebases can collect. Or, they might want a place where they can suggest new features, services or other areas in need of improvement and have a say in the future of their favourite brands. Customer research is the most important first step in community-building. To learn what they want, you can leverage your existing communication channels to launch polls and surveys.

Define the purpose of your community

Choosing the right solution is no longer a matter of just installing the first open-source forum software that comes to mind and then hoping people will come and get involved. There’s a lot more to building a successful community forum, which is why you need to start by defining its purpose. Online communities have evolved to become more than just forums – they’re driven by a sense of purpose, with the overarching goal being to increase customer satisfaction and retention. Breaking down these common business goals into more specific purposes will help you choose, customise and implement a brand community that will drive success.

Why do brands build their own communities?

  • Keep members up to date with company news and events
  • Provide a space for feedback, product ideas and testing
  • Enable knowledge-sharing to drive distributed customer support
  • Offer a sense of belonging to increase brand loyalty

Brand communities rarely have a singular purpose. For example, if your only goal is to keep customers informed about upcoming events, then you’ll probably do just fine relying on email newsletters. If you only want to provide a simple self-service customer support platform, then open-source community forum software like phpBB or MyBB will usually do the job. However, if you want to truly realise the power of online communities as a marketing asset and a way to maximise brand loyalty and retention, you might want something more sophisticated.  

Match customer needs to technical specifications

Once you’ve taken the preparational steps of defining customer needs and matching them to the purpose of your proposed brand community, it’s time to start thinking about the community forum software itself. This is when you match customer needs to technical specifications. For example, if your community forum primarily exists to provide customer support, then you might want a way for members to upvote the most useful answers to a support request or downvote those which don’t work. Similarly, if the community exists for providing feature requests, you’ll probably want to give people a way to vote on their favourite ideas. If members want a way to interact with one another on a more personal level, then integrated social media features like friending, following and messaging are a must.

Your community forum software must be tailored towards the needs and preferences of your target audience. User experience is of utmost importance for maximising engagement, rather than risk having your community become a digital ghost town. One of the most effective ways to put your customers in the spotlight is to create user stories. In software development and product management, a user story is a short and concise description of a feature told from the perspective of an end user. Here’s an example for a customer of a yoga instructor:

As a regular customer, I want a way to keep informed about upcoming trainings and connect with other trainees so that I can make new friends with whom I have shared interests.

Translating the above into technical specifications, you’ll need community forum software with the following features:

  • Push notifications to alert members to upcoming sessions
  • Instant messaging to connect directly with other members
  • Friending to keep track of contacts and follow profiles

Once you’ve matched your user needs to technical specifications, you can immediately build a shortlist of suitable community forum software. It’s also worth noting that the above example practically makes mobile functionality a prerequisite too.

Determine your customisation requirements

Human psychology is such that people are just as likely to remember aesthetics as features. If a key goal of your online community is to promote your brand and increase retention rates, you’ll need a way to customise the user experience to align with your brand codes. This is one of the major advantages of building an owned brand community, since you’re not constrained by the limitations of regular social media. There are many more opportunities to differentiate, instead of being restricted by a limited set of features that primarily serve to benefit the owners of the platform, be that Facebook, Twitter or any other. Even if your brand community primarily exists to offer self-service support, the ability to customise your forums still helps people remember you and offers a greater sense of belonging and exclusivity. By contrast, many support requests on the major social channels end up getting buried by other posts so that no one even has a chance to see them.

Brand codes, such as logos, typefaces, colour schemes, backgrounds and menu structures tap into basic human psychology to create that close-knit community environment. They help convey value through exclusivity and a stronger sense of purpose while also helping members identify and remember you. Since you’re not constrained by the algorithms of Facebook et al, you also have complete control over which content you give visibility to. For example, if you want to give greater visibility to specific events, livestreaming, newsfeeds or user-generated content, you have the power to do so if you have your own community platform. Ultimately, it’s all about highlighting your own value proposition, and not that of a third-party platform.

Final words

Choosing the right community forum software can help your brand better realise its visions to improve customer satisfaction, inspire advocacy and continuously enhance your unique value proposition. An owned community can do all these jobs far better than regular social media, and it doesn’t require developing an expensive, bespoke solution either. To summarise, let’s review the key points when selecting a platform that puts your brand first:

  • Determine your customer needs and develop user stories around them
  • Match your user stories to technical specification
  • Decide how and to what extent you want to customise your brand community

Disciple community forum software helps brands build independent, valuable and trusted communities in a safe space that they own and control. Start building your community forum today with our fully customisable mobile app.