I am sometimes asked to help a company develop an online community for its users, employees, or developers. It is something I enjoy doing as I am a real believer in the benefits new social media tools. Well implemented these communities can enable a company to engage with its audience, listen and understand its concerns and needs, build a loyal and supportive following, extend its presence and brand and bring in a rich infusion of new ideas.
The problem is that I am always called in at the wrong time or rather without much thought as to the marketing objective behind the desire to have an online community. Most companies treat a new social media tool as an end in itself. But the decision to build an online community should be grounded in the marketing objective: to increase sales leads, customer loyalty etc. Not all tools, social media or more traditional, are equally suited to meet a specific objective. A press release can be very effective in announcing a new product to the greatest number of publications and end users, but a blog or online community maybe a more effective way to engage with customers and learn about their concerns.
Another common trap is to develop one community to satisfy all marketing, support and development objectives. Not only is that community apt to satisfy no one, but with three sets of separate and conflicting objectives, no one, least of all customers, is going to be very happy.
But perhaps the biggest pitfall is a misunderstanding of emphasis. Most companies invest almost no time in planning and listening to their customers before they decide to build an online community. I am asked to come in to "simply" put it up. It's a real recipe for failure. When a far more effective allocation of effort would be to spend 80% of the time planning and 20% it implementation.
The stand out companies, those that have the very best online communities, are those that have spent a great deal of time and effort listening and analyzing their market before selecting the specific social media tool.