I’ve heard a lot of discussion around creating formal online community strategies in the last 6 months. I’ve also heard of (and experienced) community efforts that are stalled or even abandoned because of lack of a formal, codified strategy. Personally, I think this is just silly. Think about it: What if you had to come up with a formal communication strategy, put it into powerpoint, and shop it around to all the VPs before answering the phone the next time it rings? Whether you host one or not, your organization has a community that is networking, forming opinions about you, and growing stronger every day.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to encourage everyone to pursue creating online communities with reckless abandon here. What I am saying is that there are factors in play that make it easier, more beneficial and more crucial for you to engage in community building activities for your organization, if you haven’t already.
As I mentioned in a previous post:
1. It’s cheaper to engage in community-building activities. We’ve gone from 7 figure portals to free independent communities to 5 figure deployments for customer, large-scale sites.
2. It’s faster to deploy. Days and weeks, not months or a year.
3. Community already exists. The fact is, your org or brand already has a community. If your customers aren’t talking about your products or services online, you might be in trouble
4. Passionate customers have an appetite for engagement online (and to varying degrees, the flavors of less passionate customers). Customers have an expectation that your company is available and “present” online.
5. The value is starting to be measurable (but still difficult)
The reality is, for most companies it’s close to impossible to create a buttoned up online community strategy at this point. Some reasons?
– In most companies, there is no ownership of community at the executive level
– Community responsibilities scattered over multiple organizations: support, marketing, online, product management, IT, to name a few.
– The expertise for creating this strategy typically isn’t in house. It needs to be grown, contracted, or hired.
– ROI is difficult to clearly quantify at this point.
– The community at large is not employed by the company, and does not necessarily function in the organization’s best interest. This tends to give execs, and particularly marketing and PR, fits.
What can you do?
Start with quick wins. Create a blog. Participate in other hosted discussion groups or online communities. Go to one of your user group meetings and get to know the attendees. Communities start with small networks and weak ties that grow larger and stronger over time. Even a single person in a large company can make a difference. Don’t use lack of “strategy” as an excuse to not start a basic community engagement effort To my earlier analogy mashup: pick up the phone.