Social interactions take up much of our time spent online, and the worldwide number of social media users continues to grow steadily. It’s expected to surpass three billion by 2021, or over 40% of the world’s population. At the same, time many younger people are leaving mainstream social media, often citing concerns around privacy and security. But that doesn’t mean they’re abandoning social platforms altogether – it just means there’s an online life to be had beyond the likes of Facebook and Twitter. That’s why many brands are deciding to build social media websites of their own; places where people with something in common can come together in a more close-knit and goal-driven community. Here are the why and how of building your own social media website:

Why create a brand social media website?

The earliest social media websites were nothing more than simple online bulletin boards and chat rooms. Then, in 2003, Myspace came along and grew to become the biggest social media network in the world until it was overtaken by Facebook in 2008. About that time, social media marketing rose from relative obscurity to one of the most popular ways to advertise brands on the web. Today, the world of SMM is changing yet again as companies find greater value in building their own customer communities held together by bespoke social networks driven by a stronger sense of purpose.

When most business leaders think of social media, they think of platforms like Facebook and Twitter and their hundreds of millions of users. But reaching those users and interacting with them on your own terms is much harder when a third party holds all the cards. For example, when Facebook introduced its timeline algorithm update in January last year, businesses saw a dramatic decrease in reach of their organic (i.e.: unpaid) posts. Although Facebook’s official reasoning was that they wanted to promote more meaningful social interactions by limiting the visibility of brand pages in people’s newsfeeds, the fact that this step encourages companies to invest more in paid advertising cannot be overlooked.

With a social media website of your own, you don’t have to worry about any such rules and limitations. You might not have the same following in terms of numbers alone, but what you will have is a space where people who have something in common can interact meaningfully. That’s not possible when you have thousands of people and organisations alike all vying for attention on the major social networks. Also, you get to preserve your branding, choose your own features and functions, and maintain complete control over your data.

Step 1: Define your value proposition

Every successful social platform exists to meet the needs of a specific demographic, such as a group of fans and customers of a particular brand. But before you can properly identify your target audience, you’ll need to have something concrete to offer. This first brainstorming stage is when you’ll be answering the question ‘why would anyone want to join my social network?’

Having a social media website of your own is a service in its own right and, like any service, it has to offer value to someone. Social networking sites may serve a variety of purposes, such as allowing members to support one another in their use of your products or giving them a space to share ideas and feedback.

Some brand social networks exist for the sole purpose of bringing people together according to a shared interest. For example, beauty brand Sephora provides a member-only community where people can share beauty tips and tricks. This offers members valuable information and social entertainment while keeping the brand at the forefront of people’s minds.

Step 2: Identify your target members

There’s more to building a branded online community than simply identifying your existing customers as your target members. In fact, they’re not necessarily the same thing. By building your own online community, there’s a good chance you’ll be able to attract an entirely new type of customer.

Conversely, some of your existing customers might have no interest in joining a branded social network. In other words, it’s not simply a matter of building a platform just for your existing customers – it’s about redefining your target audience and determining how your proposed platform can benefit them.

The identification process is something you should do in the initial brainstorming stage. Getting it wrong can lead to financial losses and a whole lot of wasted time, so you’ll want to do this before choosing a platform and deciding which features and functions you’ll need.

Step 3: Choose your features and functions for your social media website

Once you have a solid idea of the sort of people you want to target and what you want them to achieve using your social media website, you can build a list of necessary features and functions. It’s important that every feature assist in the journey members take to achieve the actions you desire.

If a feature doesn’t complement your value proposition, then you don’t want it. It’s as simple as that – feature bloat is a real problem in many online platforms, and the last thing you want to do is bombard users with unnecessary and confusing functions that they have no use for. You’ll want to start with the overall vision of your community platform, breaking it down into things like user functions and administrative functions.

There are some features that every social media website should have, such as a fully-fledged search function, friending, groups, newsfeeds, and chatting. Important administrative functions include the ability to track the metrics that help understand and monitor the community. Other features that will be invaluable in some communities include integrated social selling functions, support for rich media, complete mobile functionality, and support for paid subscriptions.

Step 4: Develop a community structure

The features and functions you choose for your social media website will determine the user experience, which should be instantly familiar to any social media user. After all, no one wants to find themselves facing a huge learning curve the moment they sign up. Customising your social platform with your own colours, icons, feature sets, logos, menus, and backgrounds will lend to a familiar experience while keeping your brand at the forefront of people’s minds.

The pillars of any successful online community are security, scalability, and customer service. Make sure your policies and guidelines align with the needs of your customers and use reliable systems for guaranteeing privacy and security in accordance with any compliance regulations your organisation faces. Scalability determines how quickly and easily your social network can grow with demand, so you’ll want an easily adaptable software infrastructure. Finally, customer service depends on having a reliable platform and hosting company and an accomplished team of community managers and moderators.

Step 5: Develop a growth strategy for your social media website

Build it, and they shall come. Or so the adage goes. Except, they won’t. In a market that’s full of competitors, it’s practically impossible to grow your community without a suitable strategy in place. You can and should advertise your new social network through every channel you’re already using to market your business, such as email newsletters, mainstream social media, and through any existing customer loyalty programmes.

As we’ve discussed, one of the great things about building an online community is that it can attract a new breed of customer. But this also means you need to look outside your existing network. It’s best to start small, relying largely on referrals from brand advocates before setting your sights on major industry influencers. So long as you have a rock-solid value proposition that’s realised by a strong community foundation and great support, it shouldn’t be too hard to spread the good word and turn your social media website into an integral part of your customer experience.

Disciple social spaces help brands enjoy all the benefits of having a community with an independent, valuable, and trusted platform in a safe space they own and control. Start building your brand community today by telling us about your goals.