Building a highly engaged brand community is hard work. There’s much more to it than simply installing the latest discussion forum software on your website and hoping that your customers will sign up and create a thriving social experience. Although online discussion forums long predate social media, and even the web itself, they’ve now morphed into sophisticated online communities with built-in analytics, full mobile functionality, notifications, event management, and audience segmentation. But, despite these rich and impressive-sounding feature sets, it’s how you use them that really counts. Let’s explore some of the ways you can transform your discussion forum software into a thriving online community that fosters a sense of belonging far greater than any social media profile ever could:

People at a concert

Make your members part of the team

Profit and customer counts alone are no longer what define a successful business in many of today’s industries. Customers have become far more than just buyers in an age when they’re empowered by the ability to share their opinions and experiences with the masses. Everyone likes to feel like they’re a part of the team. More than ever, customers want to have a real and meaningful influence on the direction of the products and services they like. They want brands to listen to them and act upon their feedback, and they want to be rewarded for their efforts. With mainstream social media, it’s often difficult to get heard among all the noise. Discussion forums that go unmonitored and uncared for quickly end up becoming a liability. Your job is to build a community powered by two-way conversation.

Empowering your customers with a voice by giving them a space to leave feedback and share their experiences is one thing. The next step is to make them feel like valued members of your team. For example, you might reward regular participants with recognition by highlighting their content, perhaps even displaying it on the front page of your community forums. You can also let members like, share and upvote content they like to automate the process in a way that doesn’t blatantly give preference to the brand itself. More often than not, people will appreciate the transparency. Another way to be more inclusive is to celebrate major brand milestones by using your discussion forum software to host virtual events, offer special discounts and coupons and highlight top user-generated content from the past year.

Encourage emotional connections

Being a nameless, faceless corporation without a distinct personality and a strong community will do nothing to help customers remember you. Even those who do buy from you will forget about you as soon as they’ve made a transaction. Mainstream social media and major online discussion forums haven’t helped that either, since customers often end up feeling like they’re being ignored, or that they’re voices are going unheard among the crowds. Regardless of how good your product is, it’s the community around it where emotional connections are forged. If you want to make that happen, and increase loyalty in the process, you need to show a human side. Prove to your members that they’re dealing with actual people. No one wants to see the only participation from the brand behind the community represented by automated scripts.

To inspire emotional connections, every profile should have a face. While you should always respect the privacy of members who’d rather retain a degree of anonymity, it’s important that your brand representatives be prepared to show themselves. Doing so will encourage others to do the same as well. Be sure that your company representatives complete their profiles by adding pictures and short bios. If members see a person, and not just a corporate logo, they’ll be better able to relate to the individual and start building a relationship. If they share, like, and create content on a regular basis too, members won’t just see profiles anymore – they’ll see real personalities. That’s not likely to happen if all your community representatives are sharing the same account and hiding behind a generic branded username and logo for a profile image.

Hold contests, events and surveys

I don’t like games – said no one ever. There’s a reason why things like contests, surveys and sweepstakes have transformed the world of marketing and customer retention. Everyone likes getting free stuff, and that’s doubly true if you add some fun into the mix. Contests provide a quick and easy way to boost engagement, particularly when your brand community is young and you’re wanting to up its membership counts. Surveys can be useful for gathering feedback that you can relay to your customer support and product development departments. Exclusive content can drive more people towards your community and increase engagement among the existing members. While none of these are a substitute for building meaningful relationships, they’re great for giving your community a more concrete sense of purpose and enjoyment.

There are countless examples of brands that have become famous for their various contests and events, often even more so than for their products themselves. One of best-known is Red Bull, which has become a multimedia mogul in its own right by leveraging the power of its online community to sponsor and organize high-octane sporting events. Starbucks is another example of a brand with a highly engaged community thanks largely to the My Starbucks Idea platform, which gives members a space to leave their suggestions and vote on others. Another example is PlayStation, which uses discussion forum software where gamers can share tips and strategies and show off their latest accomplishments. All these examples have one thing in common – they’re driven by competitive engagement.

Two girls on the sunset with their thumbs up

Stay relevant and user-centric

One of the biggest challenges of building a successful brand community is knowing who to target. It often seems to make sense to widen the demographic as much as possible to boost membership counts and, in turn, customers. This is an especially common problem with social media, where the major platforms give brands the opportunity to tap into built-in audiences in the millions. Unfortunately, all this approach achieves is impressive-looking numbers that don’t align with engagement rates in the slightest. Such communities rarely have any obvious sense of direction. To stay relevant and foster a stronger sense of belonging, it’s important to focus on a core demographic. Put vanity metrics like membership counts aside, for they don’t mean anything if they’re not backed up by equally impressive engagement rates.

As an online community builder, an important part of your job is to instantly give new members the feeling that that’s where they belong. When someone signs up for the first time, they want to see content that’s relevant to them and other members with whom they have something in common. Think of at as being invited to a party by a friend, rather than being dragged along as an unwilling plus-one. Determine what your members want to get out of your community, and make sure the entire user experience aligns with that goal. Creating member personas is a highly effective way to define your target audience and garner a better understanding of their pain points. Once you’re able to put yourself in the shoes of your members, you’ll be able to create and share content with your discussion forum software that means something to them.

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