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Building an Online Community – 5 Phases of Successful Growth


The conversation has shifted in recent years from should we have an online community to how effective is our online community. Almost every business is using online communities, whether to build rapport with customers or suppliers, drive self-service or internally to derive employee collaboration; many are doing all four.

However just putting an online community in place is a very small part of its success; you will need to educate users, educate stakeholders, identify influences, define your measurements to qualify success (whether these have to have an ROI against them is a conversation for another day) and understand the resources required to make that Community adopted then continually engaged with. You will also need to consider the software you use to meet your needs.

I manage Interact’s Customer Community, an online community allowing  customers to ask questions, share ideas, self-service through Knowledge Bases, forums, webinars, guidance and profile exchanges (we identified over 50% of our traditional support cases were solvable via self service). I also work closely with many customers as part of our consultancy team and have a strong track record of evolving online communities at both multi-national and SME level leading to many winning international recognition such as Wheatley Group, Business Environment, Superdrug and most recently Dollar Finance winning Ragan’s Best Social Intranet Award

Every business is unique but the phases your online community grows in will be very similar, I want to guide you through the journey of that evolution today, sharing:

  • what the phase looks like,
  • how to speed up progression
  • how to ensure success.

Those phases look like this:

online community one

Firstly it’s important to recognise that these five phases aren’t distinct, you are likely to have different users and groups evolving at different speeds but their status can easily be identified. Whilst your users and their activity evolve, you will need to constantly:

  • Measure and reassess user behaviour i.e. what do you want them to be doing?
  • What governance and leadership is in place. What do they need to input? How will you manage your Community
  • What technology will you use? Whilst Interact Intranet is scalable and allows you to simply activate new social tools as you need them, some other types of software will require you to buy additional functionality and tools. Do you have the budget for this? How do you identify which bolt-on to buy? How easy will it be to integrate?

Online Community Phase 1: APE (Analyse, Personalise, Enable)

online community two

In this phase you are looking for what collaborative actions are happening across your business and customer base; analyse:
- Where?
- How? Is it broadly captured or does each of these needs happen exclusively?
- Who uses it?
- Why?

You also need to understand why employees or customers would use this over the existing methods, talk to them in terms of their problems and tasks rather than features, in other words personalise your Online Community. For example if sharing ideas on forums means more people will be able to join in and learn from each other rather than emails, which are invisible to other people with the same problems in the business, you have a reason how your Online Community can help someone. If they can now solve a host of common tasks quicker, there is a real reason to keep coming back.

online community three

At this initial stage the majority of your users are likely to be coming to the Community to take something, be that to complete a task or solve a problem, enable them to do this. Encourage users who may be primed to give information and help straight away by making it easy, seeding your collaborative tools with existing conversations so these givers can join in rather than having to initiate something.

Online Community Phase 2: Connect Users with Similar Problems into Groups of Needs

online community four

Now you’ve established some of the key tasks you are enabling users to do, it is worth looking at which groups of users have similar needs, and this will enable you to connect users into communities of need, for example:

  • Expertise will allow people with a need to identify people with a likely solution to help them
  • Presence makes finding someone who can help immediately even easier to find
  • Teams will allow these users to quickly create their own work spaces
  • Forms, Idea Boards and Discussions will make it easy for people to pick a tool to meet their specific need and connect with other people with similar needs, skills and interests

To catalyse this phase, target project teams and other cross departmental functions which are less likely to have established tools and systems. Employee advocacy are a critical group to win over. What initiatives for employee engagement do they have planned? How do we move them from using the likes of Survey Monkey to an internal tool? At worst you could use an iFrame to embed these useful tools into your Online Community, keeping everything in one place.

Business Environment spoke to a range of employees to find out what common ground there was. It became clear that employee buy-in was high but conversations were driven by location. There were a number of trends through each of these pockets.  At most offices there were general interest in groups which met socially with key interests including book groups and film groups.

BE took the unorthodox route of focussing on this social element to encourage new networks to form. As these groups of need and interest arose it was interesting to watch business driven needs quickly took precedence. This is a huge show of trust and belief that the most common ground would lead to greater networking and forming of communities. This quickly became the assumed way of working.

Online Community Phase 3: Turn Those Groups into a Community

online community five

So you’ve got groups of need operating, helping each other and I expect the number of unique visitors is climbing consistently as those users go from adopting your community to engaging with it.

Now is the time to get some of these groups working together, either solving similar challenges which may look different or be named differently to each group. You will also be looking for key influencers to surface; the Influence Score widget is a great way to encourage this behaviour. Evolving your bloggers from team bloggers to community wide bloggers will also see an increase in the number of people connecting based on a need rather than because they’re in the same department or location.

You will begin to see enterprise wide features – employ surveys, PDRs etc. emerge. The project teams will have passed on the word if your tools advice has been helpful, it will start to infiltrate BAU activities at multiple levels.

The intranet is likely to be on the radar of the board, they start to question why we aren’t doing this via the intranet. It has shifted from a place to get work done to the tool which enables us to best achieve our business objectives.

However, it will also become seen as an enabler for management and users alike asking “How do I find a tool which everyone recognises to get what I want done as quickly and effectively as possible?”

Online Community Phase 4: Encouraging Late Adopters and New Joiners

online community six

With your Community now well established, there will still be some people who are reluctant to use it or join in. Their reasons are likely to be one of three things:

  • Emotional – They may be resistant to change,
  • Perceptual – They may feel it’s not for them, it’s too technical or they don’t think they’d use it every day
  • Technical – They may feel it is too difficult

You can encourage these users in by spending time with them in user workshops, communicating with these groups through traditional channels such as the company magazine and also during company events such as town hall days.

Their needs may be different and take more thinking but most likely their needs will already be conducted by other members of the Community, it is now a case of making these late adopters see the personalised benefit to them.

New starters can also be quickly integrated, both by the momentum of your Community’s success across your business and also catching them during the induction training with the message the Community is the assumed way of working in your business.

Online Community Phase 5: Engage Your Customers and Suppliers

online community seven

Now your employees recognise the benefits of collaborative working, open this culture up to your customers and suppliers. Whilst they’re unlikely to be accessing your internal online community, you may use the same platform to create a secure area  for conversations with customers or suppliers to happen or alternatively use a completely separate platform, such as an extranet like we use for our Customer Community.

You might even want your customers collaborating amongst themselves, safe in the knowledge that fostering conversation will cement you in the middle of it.

Business Environment used this technique to engage 3,000 customers. They have their own extranet to find information and collaborate.  The whole customer on-boarding process is delivered on this platform. It’s created as a way for customers to work from their first engagement with BE.


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