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In my last post, 3 Questions to Ask Before Starting an Online Community, the first question I recommended asking yourself is "Should I be using social media?" I also mentioned that you should have a plan established well before you get started, but it can be difficult to figure out just where to start.

My 5 step guide makes it simple to create a plan for establishing your community! This guide covers everything from the basics, like understanding why you are using social media, to more complex topics like understanding which metrics you should track, how you'll keep your community interested in your content, and how you'll sustainably manage the huge time (and potentially financial) commitment that your online community will eventually become.


Step 1: Why Am I Using Social Media?

Before we do anything else, we need to first understand why we're using social media channels to establish an online community. Some get started with social media because their competitors are there. Others will start a community because they've heard that just like every business worth its salt has a website, it now also needs a Facebook Page at a minimum. These are all the wrong answer.

You should be creating an online community because you have clear business goals that you can accomplish using social media. If you're there for any other reason, then you're there for the wrong reasons, which means that your efforts won't be a priority for you or the organization you work for, that they won't be funded properly, and that in the long run (or possibly much sooner) your social media efforts are going to fizzle out or be shut down. Even worse, your efforts could go on for years providing no clear value for you or your organization.

So, obviously these goals are an essential place to start when planning to create our online community. Lets take a look at what these goals might look like in step 2.



Step 2: What Do I Want To Accomplish?

Once you have a clear business case for why you want to use social media, you need to understand exactly what results you want to accomplish for your business. These could be anything from increased sales to customer retention, but what's most important is that you can quantify the results. Avoid measuring things like "Share of Voice" that don't have any direct value for your business or goals that are difficult to quantify, like "increasing brand awareness." You could argue that a growing community that leads to more sales is increasing your brand awareness, but that's just icing on the cake, not your primary goal. Anything that's difficult to track and prove shouldn't be a key goal that you try to sell internally to support the value your community brings to the organization.

Here are a few more points to keep in mind:

  • Think of internal stakeholders: When you're looking for ways your efforts can contribute to your business' success, always consider the existing goals of your other internal stakeholders. Is there another team that could use help promoting their really cool project that doesn't have a ton of existing support from other teams? Maybe you could help them out by explaining the project to your community and getting their thoughts. Then you can provide feedback from customers that supports the project (assuming the majority of feedback is positive) and win a new friend. If the project leads to great results for your business, then you've also scored a win for your new friends and for your social team!


  • Be realistic: The first year or so of your community efforts will likely be getting your online community established and experimenting with content and tactics to understand what your community likes and how they want it positioned. During this time, while you can certainly get started with reaching your key business goals, you're going to experience a lot of trial and error, so be realistic about the results you hope to get. Start off small, establish a case for what you can accomplish, and then continue to focus your efforts in the future so you get better results year after year.


  • Be relevant: One of the biggest complaints that social media naysayers have is that social media doesn't help your business in relevant and measurable ways. You can avoid this pitfall by ensuring that your goals are relevant to the core goals of your organization. Generating sales, maintaining customer loyalty, or improving customer support all sound like good places to start. Just don't work on projects that no one else cares about if there's no clear and compelling win. You need to be able to report measurable results about things that decision makers care about. This will be what endears your community to your organization and wins you support to continue developing your community and honing your strategy and tactics for years to come.



Step 3: How Will I Know If I'm Reaching My Goals?

The short answer is pretty simple. You need to track metrics on a weekly, monthly, and quarterly basis at a minimum, and compare your progress against your goals. Are you moving along at a respectable pace, or does it look like that without some significant improvement you'll never reach your projected numbers? This is why it's important to track metrics so often. Many see metrics as valuable for reporting progress when they're asked for it, but the real value comes from being able to track your progress at any point, establish baselines from your past performance, and understand quickly when something isn't working so you can figure out why and fix it now, rather than wait and be forced to report the bad results later.

As part of this plan, we'll have 3 different sets of metrics:

  • Measuring Against Business Goals: Since we know exactly what we want to accomplish for our business and our goals are all quantifiable, we can track metrics that help us understand how well we're meeting the goals we have for our business' use of social media. These are usually pretty straightforward.

If your goal is to increase sales, then you need to track whether sales are increasing. It's even better if you have a method for identifying where your increased sales are coming from, such as sharing discount codes when announcing promotions that are unique to each social channel you use, so you know exactly where your sales are coming from. The more detailed you can get, the better you can adjust your strategy to improve your results in the future.


  • Measuring Community Health: While measuring our business goals are certainly important, we also want to establish baselines for the health of our community and measure against them as well. Your key performance indicators here will commonly be growth, engagement, and churn. There are different specific metrics and methods to measure each of these, some of which make more sense than others.

What's most important for this discussion is that you track these in the same interval as you track your business goals, and try to identify the reasons behind any significant change. Is churn suddenly increasing while growth decreases? This means your community is hemorrhaging members while growth is slowing down, leading to a net loss in the size of your community. This could be because your content isn't keeping your community interested, because you've been pushing on sales and campaigns too hard, or it could even be external factors affecting your business, such as a scandal. Once you identify that there's a problem and understand what's causing it, you can fix the problem and stop the damage to your community so you can continue moving forward with reaching your business goals!


  • Measuring Content Performance: Part of maintaining a healthy community that can help you achieve your business goals is keeping that community interested in what you have to say and share. As part of this, you should always be experimenting with your content to understand what works best for your community so you can include more of what they like, cut out what they don't like, and hopefully find some things that they really like that you never knew about before!

Most social media platforms make this very easy. On Facebook, you'll want to track the likes, comments, and shares on a post to understand how well it was received. On Twitter, retweets are an obvious indicator of whether anyone cares about what you're sharing. If you're linking to articles in your posts you should also be tracking how often people click the links. It's easy to click a like button, and your community is communicating that your content has plenty of value if they're willing to share it, but the ultimate test is to see how many people actually bothered to go the extra mile and click the link! If your clicks are low, maybe there's something you could change, like where you place the links in your posts or whether you're using a call to action to click them, that could improve the way your community is interacting with your content.



Step 4: How Do I Keep My Community Interested?

Now that you've established how you'll track your progress, it's time to figure out how you'll influence people to want to be a part of your community. It's great that you have a plan for how it will help your business, but you also need a plan for how your community helps your customers, otherwise they won't have much incentive to be active members. If no one cares about your community, then obviously it will be very difficult to reach your goals and provide value from your business' use of social media.

There are a huge wealth of options available here, but a few that spring to mind are:

  • Consumer Education: You can share tips and tricks relevant to your industry that would help your customers make better purchasing decisions, save money, or otherwise improve their lives. This is a great way to go, because it's useful information that your customers will want to share. They'll appreciate your efforts, and you're positioning yourself as an expert. If they find what you're giving away for free helpful, they'll also wonder how much more helpful you could be if they retained your services or purchased your product.


  • Community Generated Content: Try asking your community to share their best tips, then creating an infographic to share them back with your community. Share guest blog posts from members of your community who are subject matter experts or just really satisfied customers with a great story to tell. Sharing content that you create with your community shows that you care what they have to say and that this is more than just a place that you broadcast marketing copy at them. The more you can get community members involved, the more interested in your community they will become.


  • Pop-Culture and Breaking News: If you have a way to genuinely tie your message in with pop-culture or current events then this will resonate with almost any online community. Of course, you have to actually have a way to relevantly tie your message into the event. If you make a hamfisted attempt at this the only part of it that will interest your community is making fun of you to their friends. Oreo does a great job of tying their brand in with holidays and current events.


These are only a couple of the seemingly infinite ways to create content that will appeal to your community. Rather than using one, you will likely use a mix of methods and this is something you'll always want to experiment with to better understand what your community likes and does not like.



Step 5: How Will I Manage My Community?

Now that you have a focus for what your content will revolve around, it's time to figure out who is going to manage creating or finding quality content, sharing it with your community, the conversations around that content, responding to questions and support issues, keeping the spam at bay, and making sure everyone adheres to your community's rules. You have a few different options here:

1. You can manage it yourself.

  • Pros: You don't have to pay a professional or add it to the duties of an existing staff member.
  • Cons: This doesn't scale well. As the community grows, it will become more time consuming to manage. You also miss out on professional guidance early on in the life of your community. This could make growth difficult.


2. Add it to the responsibilities of existing staff.

  • Pros: This could scale better depending on the size of your team, by dividing up responsibilities between multiple staff members or adding social media responsibilities for more members of your team as the community grows.
  • Cons: You're paying someone else who most likely isn't a professional to manage your community for you. If staff isn't properly trained regarding social media, they could put your brand at risk if they make a very public misstep either through content they post or the way they handle a customer online.


3. Partner with an agency.

  • Pros: You have access to the knowledge and experience of professionals that can help you avoid spinning your wheels or making embarrassing and costly mistakes.
  • Cons: Probably the most expensive option upfront. If you partner with the wrong agency you could find yourself disappointed in the quality of their work.


Your unique situation, your reason for having an online community, and your goals will be the deciding factors that help you figure out which decision is right for you. If you just want to provide an easy way for customers to reach out with questions and interact with your team regularly, then you'll probably want to manage that in house, while if you plan to use social media to increase your annual sales by 25% over a 2 year period, you should probably partner with professionals to hammer out the details and make sure you stay on track with meeting your goals.


Once you've worked out all of these details, you're ready to establish your online community! You can move forward with clear goals for how your activities will benefit your business and your community, along with an understanding of how to track your progress and manage your community sustainably without burning out or giving up too quickly!

Post by Zachary Chastain
Jun 10, 2013