There are many things online communities do very well. They help retain customers, increase sales margins, develop a competitive advantage, generate great feedback, recruit future staff, cut advertising spend, crowdsource work and improve the way your company does business.
But most businesses that want an online community, don’t want any of these. They want an online community for one of the following:
- Attracting new customers. An online community is a bad platform to attract new customers. It's not impossible, you can always encourage your existing members to invite newcomers for example and you might get some stragglers join. People might even hear about the community before they do the products, but, generally, an online community deepens your relationship with existing customers rather than attracting new ones.
- Generating sales. You can (and at times should) sell things through your online community, but it’s not going to replace your physical stores just yet. There are ways to generate sales via an online community, but there are also much better ways through much better tools.
- Building anticipation for the launch of a new product. Unless you’re Apple (or someone really special), you’re not going to have thousands of members talking about a product you haven’t launched. Don’t imagine thousands of people want to spend their free time in an online community for a product that doesn’t exist.
- Boosting search engine results. Creating an online community might improve your search engine standing, but it’s not a good reason to create one. There are far cheaper, quicker and more effective ways to improve your SEO.
- Anything short-term. I haven’t seen a successful online community for a short-term project. If the community is part of a fixed-term campaign, you’re going to be disappointed (as are our members when you quit on them).
I get it, all of the above have visible results. You can show them to your boss. Only you wont, because you wont achieve any of them.
You should want an online community to build an engaged audience that can offer you long-term benefits. It takes time, but in the long run it’s worth it.