jessica MalnikThis is a guest post by Jessica Malnik. Jessica is a community builder, content creator, and an avid blogger. She blogs regularly on her own blog, jessicamalnik.com, where she focuses on community management, social media, PR and a little bit of marketing. 

When implemented correctly, online community can be a great way to increase customer loyalty, drive customer satisfaction, and decrease overall volume to more traditional support channels, such as email and phone.

However, simply having a community isn’t enough. You have to implement a community playbook, such as this one from The Community Roundtable. Customers already have a million places they can be online. What makes your online community special? Why should they be there? There needs to be a value-add that drives contributions. Here’s six tips to drive more peer-to-peer support in your online community.

1. Make your online community easy to find on your website and support channels

This is probably the easiest, but most overlooked area to help build a thriving online community. If you are building an online support community, it’s in your best interest to have a prominent link with a strong call-to-action on your site’s homepage and Knowledgebase/FAQ section at the very least.

Moz does a great job at this with a link smack dab in the middle of their navigation menu on their homepage.

Another easy win is to include a link in your email signatures for all support tickets. Customers are naturally going to submit support tickets if they have an issue and don’t know where to ask. If you have a compelling trackable link, via UTM tracking (like Google’s) or bit.ly, in your signature for all support agents, it may encourage some to visit your community the next time they need help.

2. Be exclusive

It’s basic psychology that people want to be included in something that they feel is exclusive and special for only them. If you open up your community to anybody and everybody, you lose that magic. Instead set some limits around who you want in your community (ex: only paying clients).

Consider even going  a step further and require all new members to create a short application explaining why they want to be in your community. This may result in less members early on, but the quality of content and engagement will be way higher.

A great example of this is the EcommerceFuel community. Andrew Youderian created this community as a place where merchants can “talk shop” and get help. He wanted to make sure the caliber of responses was on point, so he devised pretty strict requirements for who can and cannot join.

This includes having to make $5,000 a month from their ecommerce business and answering a couple of questions about what they can offer the community, and what they hope to get out of it. While his community doesn’t have thousands of members, it has some of the most knowledgeable, engaged, and helpful members of any community that I’ve ever seen.

3. Encourage employee participation

The quickest way to turn your online community into a ghost town is if your customers are asking for help and no one is responding for days, weeks, or at all. People expect answers within 24 hours, if not a lot sooner. Guess what, if they aren’t getting it in your online community, they will go elsewhere likely to your support team to get help.

To combat this early on, invest resources — ideally one to two people full-time and some employees to participate in their spare time — to be hands on in the community, helping to respond to issues that aren’t being addressed by community members right away.

A company that does a great job with this is Prezi. Prezi has an extensive community team dedicated to moderating and responding in their forums.

4. Spend more time on new contributors, less time on lurkers

This may seem counterintuitive at first. However, all online communities have lurkers. They usually average 60-80% of all members! No matter what efforts you do, you will never get even half of these lurkers to be regular, active contributors.

If you invest all your time in optimizing the experience for lurkers (ex: optimizing search, etc), you are creating a library not a community. Libraries are boring and the antithesis of a community. It’s a waste of any community manager’s time to spend all day everyday trying to convert lurkers to active participants.

The quickest way to make an impact early on is to focus on new contributors. According to this post from Feverbee’s Founder, Rich Millington, if a new contributor gets a response to their first post within five hours, they are significantly more likely to stay active and engaged in the community. This number only goes up the faster a newbie gets a reply.

5. Reward your superusers

Once you see a few members contributing helpful replies often, reach out to them. Offer them incentives and rewards. Consider starting a VIP program to keep them engaged.

Rewards don’t have to be monetary — actually, it’s better if they’re not tied to money. Sometimes, the most impactful thing you can do is set up a meeting between a superuser and someone on your product team, so they can give feedback and feel heard. Or, get a free swag pack.

I would also caution against giving VIPs access to moderator privileges willy-nilly. If you find this is the route you want to go, make sure to vet out each VIP carefully and set really clear guidelines of what it is expected of them and what they can and cannot do. Without this, you can wind up with some very sticky situations. Remember, just because someone is a great community member doesn’t mean they will be a great moderator.

6. Give customers an outlet to share their feedback

Having an active, engaged customer community has obvious benefits for the company’s bottomline. These include more loyal customers, increased retention rates, and more word of mouth referrals.

However, if your online community is only all about the company with no perceived value for members, you are going to find yourself in big trouble. You need to be actively engaging and listening to your customers on the platform if you want to keep them participating.

One way to keep them engaged is to have a dedicated feedback channel. This should be someplace where customers can leave suggestions and ideas for how to make your company or product better. Even if you can’t use many of the suggestions right away, acknowledge them and thank the customer for leaving their feedback explaining what you plan on doing with it. This is something that Hootsuite does really well.

Closing thoughts

Creating a community isn’t something that will auto-magically materialize out of thin air. It’s going to take hard work on the company side to get it off the ground and maintain it. If you focus on these six tips, you will be well on your way to building a thriving community. Need some extra help? Download Jessica’s community building tips here.

What’s one tip that you have for encouraging more peer to peer collaboration? Share in the comment section below.[Tweet “6 tips for building peer-to-peer collaboration in your online community from @jessicamalnik]

Jessica Malnik is a community builder, content creator and an avid blogger. She blogs regularly on her own blog, jessicamalnik.com, where she focuses on community management, social media, PR and a little bit of marketing. Her work has been featured in a variety of online sites and publications, including Convince and Convert, PR Daily, Spin Sucks, SocialFresh, 12Most and CMXHub

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