Customers. They’re the lifeblood of any business, and today, they’re calling the shots in their brand relationships like never before. Sometimes it seems that the whole internet is one big customer community, where opinions about products or experiences can make or break your brand in a nanosecond. That’s one heck of a community management remit.

But wait. Far from having lost all control in the customer/brand relationship, you can redress the power balance… And community management is exactly the way to go.

Of course, we’re not suggesting you attempt to manage the internet (however much Trump seems to be trying). What we’re suggesting is that you build and manage your own online community of customers, brand advocates, fans or followers.

What connects your followers?

If you’ve been listening to your audience, being present where they hang out online and researching not just who they are but what motivates, influences and interests them, then you’ll already know what they care most about and in what circumstances they are most vocal.

If you haven’t been listening and don’t know these things, then find out. Fast. This insight is the basis you should be using for every communication, brand interaction and product development plan you put in place. From this, you’ll discover what connects them – what makes them a community.

And from here, building a formalised online community is just a short step – and community management is all about giving members a place to interact and share opinion, experiences, passions…

Why community management?

Online communities work because people share the basic human need to be social and to belong. Communities come together as a result of a shared interest, be it hobbies, food, travel, music, a common cause, the reasons are many and varied. They stay together because of the connection (emotional and rational) that they find there.

Communities give satisfaction.

Rock legends, the Rolling Stones wanted to grow their community and create a better experience for their biggest fans. Their app-based community means they can communicate with 100% of their superfans, with no more complex algorithms deciding which of their content reaches their fans’ news feeds – and the fans have a place to interact and get exclusive content. The result? Sixteen times more engagement than via social media, and tour tickets bought by 1 in 6 app users.

Politician Matt Hancock uses his community app both to tell constituents about the work he’s doing and to discover the issues that really matter to them. His community members think it’s so effective that 80% of them think other politicians should adopt the same strategy.

Madeleine Shaw’s Health and Wellness community meant she could bring her social followers together to support each other on their journey to a healthier lifestyle. The community management programme also enabled her business to discover and develop new revenue opportunities.

If you can build a community that taps into the interests and passions of your audience, gives them the opportunity to connect, express themselves and receive specific benefits, then your brand experience will be positive. Plus, the likelihood of your community members becoming advocates will increase and the insights you gain will be invaluable as you form your ongoing business strategies.

Community management meeting

The 7 essentials for successful community management.

To help you on your way to a successful community management programme, we’ve put together seven considerations we think are absolutely essential. So here goes:

1. Define your community’s goal/purpose.

As above, your community needs to be a place where your audience wants to gather, so you’ll need to be clear what the value proposition is. What’s in it for them? Is it a place where they’ll get exclusive content, offers and experiences? Is it somewhere where they can learn more about a specific activity or topic? Or is it simply a safe place to share experiences and opinion?

What you know about your audience’s interests and passions will define the kind of community you shape. But you also need to be clear on the specific business drivers for your community management initiative. Is it to grow your base of loyal customers and advocates? Or is it for research? Is it because you’re looking for ways to monetise a fan base, or maximise cross-sell and upsell opportunities for your products?

Determine your objectives from the outset, along with your success criteria, and get buy-in from your stakeholders – you might need their support as the project develops.

2. Be clear what the community stands for.

Have a community policy. In every community management programme, it’s in the interest of the host to shape its culture. It’s how you’ll make your community inclusive, safe, and always useful. Set the tone early and get opt-in from members to your community rules and acceptable behaviours. The vast majority of people will be mindful of your policies and will follow the tone you set. But when you encounter a few who don’t, at least you’ll have the policies in place to deal with them.

3. Find the right meeting place for your community.

There are many brands, individuals and celebrities who have built huge followings on social media. Nike has 29 million followers on Facebook. Google has 20.1 million followers on Twitter. Selena Gomez has a following of 134 million on Instagram, and the term “YouTuber” was coined for the scores of international vloggers whose videos routinely get millions of views and whose channels amass tens of millions of subscribers.

But is a Facebook following a community? Maybe in the old days (and by old days, we mean 5 years ago!). But Facebook wised up to the fact that they could monetise these huge followings and made some big changes.

The result? If you’re not paying them large sums of advertising money, Facebook’s algorithms will deprioritise your brand’s content and you’d be lucky to reach just 2% of your followers. And even then, you’re competing with every other brand and post in their ever-changing newsfeed.

Community management on Facebook becomes even more difficult when you consider that even Groups give the “owners” very little control. You don’t own the environment so you’re restricted to the platform’s own functionality and design. You don’t own the experience and you’ll often find other brands advertising on your community page. And you certainly don’t own the data – your stats are displayed in specific formats that stop you from interrogating the data and using it for your own purposes.

Community management within your own branded app on the other hand, is a whole other experience that puts you in complete control.

4. Make it easy to participate.

Firstly, give your community members great content to interact with. Fans love exclusivity. Reward them with behind-the-scenes content they wouldn’t normally see, offers and rewards that aren’t available elsewhere, or opportunities to meet in the offline world. Then steal the very best from the social media giants and make it childishly simple for people to like, comment, post, upload and interact.

Here at Disciple, as a result of making it easy to interact, we’ve found that over time, as much as 98% of content comes from community members, leaving the host to find just the 2% that makes up the rest. Who said community management was hard work?

5. Work hard, keep it fresh, help it grow.

Of course, we would never recommend sitting back on your laurels and letting the community run itself (even though, in many cases, it almost does). The number one reason that community management programmes fail is lack of support and resources. So never forget that this is a two-way relationship.

You need to be sure that the member benefits you outline at the start always remain – and preferably develop into new and improved ones. Keep ideas and content fresh, including finding new and simple ways to encourage participants to introduce new members. And resist the temptation to use your community as just another broadcast channel.

6. Listen.

When your members participate, pay attention. You don’t always need to respond – if your community management strategy is going well, the other community members will do the responding for you. But your audience’s actions and reactions will give you valuable feedback on what’s most relevant and what motivates them. It will help keep your programme fresh, help shape the community going forward, and even help you develop future products, experiences and revenue-generating initiatives.

7. Track your community’s success.

Stick to the success criteria you determined at the start – whether that’s engagement levels, new members, new revenues or other metrics will depend on your individual objectives, but track and measure them accordingly on an ongoing basis. And since you own your community, it means you’ll have access to the critical data you need and can use the insights to help you deliver long-term business growth.

An example of a community management website

Much as the above are 7 steps to great community management, there’s a much bigger picture here. Customers, fans, followers – call them what you will – really are the lifeblood of your success, and that means their needs and considerations have to be at the heart of everything you do.

Building a community that they want to be a part of is a way for brands to keep your strongest advocates close, and take back some of the control that’s been lost in our uber-connected and hyper-vocal world. Just make sure you keep that control within your own, owned environment. Mark Zuckerberg has enough cash in his pockets already.