Why a private online community is a must for you today
When subscribing to an automobile website, little did Anuj Gupta, 22, know that he would find a mine of information under a section called “Forums”. He clicked on it and never looked back again.
A two-wheeler enthusiast, Anuj found that the section had several interesting discussion threads. The topics included long-distance rides, electric scooters, innovations in ABS, AR helmets, and so on. He realized that he had hit upon a community of two-wheeler enthusiasts–just like him. Here, the members could ask questions, brainstorm ideas, and get input and support from forum moderators as well as from other members. That community forum has now become a daily staple for Anuj. This is the power of private online communities!
Growth of online communities
Forming a community is a natural process for us, humans. We formed physical local groups or communities in the past. Today, we form them online. Online communities are everywhere. They can be classified into two broad categories. These are Public Social Network and Private Online Community. (See box: public social network versus private online community). Almost everyone is familiar with and part of public social networks today. Some of the popular social networks are Reddit, Quora, Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. There also exist independent forums or groups, such as those established by industry bodies or housing societies.
Need for a private online community
A user may spend time on social media without having any specific goal in mind. But the members of online communities invest a great deal of time and effort with a purposeful mindset. Their community participation is usually due to special personal interests or professional development. The public social networks such as trade bodies, geography-specific forums, etc. show a high level of engagement. But they rarely help small businesses with significant opportunities to build community relationships.
As a result, businesses are increasingly turning to create private online communities today. These platforms are fully owned by them and are usually hosted as subdomains on their corporate websites. They may also be hosted as separate domains that are owned and managed by the businesses.
Public social networks and private online communities have the common primary goal. That is, of connecting people. But the two differ when it comes to targeting the audience strategically. With your private online community, you can customize your communication. You need not worry about data privacy or security breaches. Legal compliance also becomes a non-issue as the platform is under your supervision and tight control.
Public social network versus private online community
While public social networks are seen as more open they may not always be. Many a time, a few members complain that their voices are gagged by other members. A large number of members can be seen ganging up against a few members. Deplatforming of individual members by manipulating the network policies is another serious issue. This may be done through a majority vote or by filing fraudulent mass complaints. The differences leading to such events may be in race, nationality, ideology, religion, etc.
The change of algorithms by the social media platforms can be another major issue that public social networks are beset with. Community members may experience that their comments or posts are not getting published. Members also see some of their old comments getting deleted automatically. These events may occur due to a change in the algorithm (by social platforms) that may block valid, legal, and innocuous comments.
A private online community is owned, managed, and controlled by business stakeholders. The moderators of a private online community share the same or similar special interest with the community members. For example, a professional percussionist starts a community related to music. The community members may comprise amateurs and hobbyists. The topics of interest may be vocal or instrumental music, latest trends, or even celebrity gossip. Like public social networks, even a private online community allows its members to share ideas, tips, and experiences with one another.
The members of a private online community can communicate and interact with each other freely. The communication modes can be chat rooms, online events, or online discussion threads. Being strictly moderated, the instances of individual voices being gagged are minimal. The manipulation of private online community policies by a few members or frivolous complaints can be avoided too.
Your eight-step private online community success formula
Community engagement requires a high degree of comfort with members. Members should feel free to ask questions, share views, and connect with other members. The members should also be able to exchange ideas freely with moderators and vice versa.
A private online community allows you to do these without compromising on members' privacy concerns. A private online community also offers a few other advantages to members. These are flexibility, security, accessibility via web or mobile apps, and so on. These make a private online community more appealing than a public social network to members and businesses.
A private online community can present many opportunities for your business. It helps you build strong relationships with the community members. It provides you with a deeper understanding of what your community wants and prefers. You learn more about their preferences, needs, and expectations better. These insights may help you improve your own business.
Although a private online community offers such real business advantages, it is not a cakewalk to manage it. It demands a combined investment of time, effort, and strategic planning. Let's explore some of the good practices to follow to get the most out of your private online community.
• Create a free culture
Although privately owned, your private online community must operate like a public social network. Try and maintain a free and fair atmosphere in the community. This can be achieved through the right policies and actions. Encourage members to have active interactions with one another on different topics. The members should feel comfortable asking questions or voicing their contrarian viewpoints.
• Use metrics to track performance
Data-driven community engagement is the cornerstone of a successful private online community. Caveat: it's not enough to have metrics; make sure you measure the right things. Further, you can improve member traction by linking metrics to a rewards system. For example, you may reward members posting intelligent questions every month. Similar monthly rewards may be given to the members who provide informative answers.
• Deliver value
As a business stakeholder, you want your private online community to prove useful to your business too. But this can happen only when it proves beneficial to members first. Your community must try to understand and solve the most important problems of your audience. Find and foster the behaviors that are most decisive for the long-term value and success of the community. For example, a herbal cosmetics maker may host Q&A with a renowned Cosmetic Dermatologist. The private online community members may be invited to ask their most pertinent questions to the expert.
• Avoid using your private online community for sales promotions
Winning the trust of your target audience may call for leaving your sales hat at the door. Being the site owner or moderator, refrain from using your private online community to push your products or services. Keep the platform as independent as possible. But whenever any aggrieved member reaches out to you, greet them with an open heart. Help them to get their issues addressed as fast as you can. Happy users will spread good news within the community faster.
• Publish relevant content
A private online community can survive only so long as its members find value in staying there. As the private online community moderator, your role is to support community members in various ways. Publish information that the members will find relevant. The content you publish should be interesting, usable, in good taste, and compliant with the laws of the land. Lastly, the more engaging your content, the greater will be the traction that members will show in community activities.
• Learn from crowd wisdom
You do not have to be the first or the only one to provide content to the community on every topic. Your private online community can be a goldmine for your business to learn from. Allow adequate room for the community members to freely contribute. Encourage them to take part in ongoing discussions or even start new threads at will. Provide them with incentives to ask questions, give answers, and share their experiences. Run industry surveys inviting active participation from all members.
Such activities will not only keep your private online community fresh and lively, but will also feed you back with knowledge. You will get insights into the minds of the users, market trends, and regulatory changes, if any. Incorporate these insights into the next activities you run. Your private online community will be successful further.
• Ensure high engagement
As the business stakeholder, try to make your activities highly engaging. Different online community targeted actions present different benefits. Select the ones that best suit the community’s key interest areas. For example, a private online community owned by a Yoga coach may host a 'fitness regime challenge'. The business may reward the community members who complete the given tasks. An example can be a 30-Day Daily Jogging Challenge. The participating members can post videos and photos of their daily fitness activities. The stories of the winners can be published on the platform to inspire other members.
• Maintain transparency and decorum
As the private online community moderators, your role is to strike a balance between freedom and restraint. While members should feel free to express themselves, rancid comments or attacks on other members must be discouraged. A well-moderated community will have relevant contributions, robust engagement, and appropriate member behaviors.
Your private online community has the potential to help you grow your circle of influence, and, in turn, business. Yet, the core goal of a private online community is not profit. Rather, it’s all about helping you build community bonding, trust, and even a strong personal brand image.
So, it’s best advised to start with your target community in mind rather than specific business goals. Build your private online community from the users’ perspective. Otherwise, no matter how modern your platform’s technical features are, it runs the risk of turning into a ghost town.