If building a customer community for an organization were like planning a wedding and inviting guests, customer communities often are the second cousin who’s invited only when slots open up on the attendee list. But take it from me (I’m in the middle of planning my own wedding), they really should be a guest of honor.

The Importance of Building a Customer Community

Many companies see communities as a ‘nice-to-have’ and not as critical to the organization as sales and marketing, but the reality is that a customer community is a critical direct line to your customers and has the power to build your brand with your most powerful advocates. 2016 is the age of the customer, as the market moves at a speed not yet seen before, driven by customers’ high expectations for personalization of their journey. Businesses will need to realign and reorient their strategy specifically around the customer or risk losing out on developing and fostering a valuable channel as customers form communities of their own.

During the last few months, I’ve researched and planned for the 2016 execution of an online community for Invoca. At the same time, I’ve also been planning a wedding and actively applying the lessons I’ve learned along the way to help lay a successful foundation upon which I’ll build Invoca’s community.

Below, I share my advice on the three most important things I’ve learned from wedding planning that’s helped me assemble an online community proposal:

1. Get Executive Buy-In Early On

While the tradition of asking the bride’s father’s permission before proposing is somewhat outdated and not as frequently used anymore, asking permission and getting buy-in is still a vital part of a community-building process. Getting internal buy-in and support is a rule of thumb within organizations as they build large initiatives.

But, like a nervous fiancé about to ask permission, I bet you’re wondering: what’s the best way to set yourself up for success when you ask? Start by doing your research. Then create a project plan and define methods to measure your results—think about what success looks like for this initiative and ask yourself the hard questions you’ll likely get. Then present your plan to an executive sponsor. Their buy-in as you build an online community will help support your goals and guide you with your project plan, ensuring you stay in alignment with the overall business objectives. It will also assist with defining exactly what is being built and the importance of the initiative to the rest of the organization.

2. Customer Experience Matters

Just like you have to understand your wedding guests and gauge their interest in the different elements of your wedding (did someone say photobooth?), you’ve got to gauge the level of interest your current customers would have in an online community. This may not be the main channel they are interested in actively participating on–perhaps they interact more with your brand on your blog or want instant support via chat or a Twitter account. But can you incorporate these elements into your community so they can get everything in one place? Getting consensus on what your customers want before throwing money into developing an online community should be part of your research. You want to establish a channel that supports development of the customer and helps them get value out of their current investment, while also ensuring you see a return from your investment. Establishing this type of customer experience broadcasts that you are listening to what they want and creates a strong foundation for your first interactions with them. So set up a primary channel to communicate with them and nail it.

3. You Need a Team to Bring It to Life

When you’re planning a wedding, you’re either one of two brides: a bride that thinks in siloes or a bride that thinks all-encompassing. Those that think in siloes are the equivalent of marketers who have “tool bloat”, needing a decorator for wedding decor, florist for floral arrangements, and caterer for wedding menu. However, in my experience, I’ve found if you bind everything together, it’s a great way to indirectly support the main initiative.

For instance, find a venue that incorporates catering, décor, lighting, floral, all in one complete package, and you’ll have an entire team working toward one main goal instead of trying to coordinate between all of them. The same goes for building an online community. Many think online communities are strictly for customer marketing, upsells and advocacy, and as such, marketing-owned. But it is much more than that–they allow for instant, unlimited communication and unparalleled networking, giving customers a chance to build stronger relationships with each other and the business.

If your community is going to be a success, it needs to be rebranded internally, adopted widely and owned company-wide. Sales, marketing, customer success, product development and even finance need to work together in order for the business to have a successful community. By putting together a cross-functional team of champions, each person will be able to promote and indirectly support the online community. Aligning the goals of the community with the goals of all your organizational stakeholders is vital. When companies align the community goal across all departments, employees know to make decisions that put the customer first and are more likely to contribute to the world-class customer experience you are trying to build.

Ready, Set, Plan

The online customer community is often a neglected opportunity. Businesses that incorporate the launch of customer communities in their plans and immediately hire customer community managers know community is a strong driver of business value and revenue. When community is seen as an actual product of the business, organizations will invest in it because they understand that building engaged communities will keep their customers happy, which results in lower churn. Businesses that don’t incorporate communities into their plan will need to play catch up quickly in order to remain competitive in a customer dominated world. In 2016, my prediction will be that organizations will begin to reinvent themselves to focus on the value of loyal relationships and critical real-time customer engagement over resolutions and transactions.

I want to invite you to join me as I traverse through the world of the online customer community (sorry, unfortunately, my wedding guest list is already at full capacity!) If you haven’t already, consider building one out yourself. It’s a great time to be a community manager! And if you’re already on top of it, leave me some feedback below on how you have built out your own community, what tips and tricks you can offer, or any other comments you may have!