Online communities are great for businesses. In fact, I spend most of my day writing about, talking about, and reading about how successful and profitable these sites can be for online marketers. So when a recent SEO webinar participant asked us to explain the downsides of online communities, I was a bit taken aback. Immediately , I thought “Ridiculous. There aren’t any downsides. Online communities are the greatest things ever……” until I realized, there might actually be something to consider, here.  Most companies are jumping into social media and online community-building head-first, but perhaps not considering some of the serious risks and consequences of doing so incorrectly, or before they’re ready.

And so, although it pains me to write this, here are some of the dark sides of online community-building:

A.      Building an Online Community Before You’re Ready
Doing anything before you’re ready, or fully equipped, is generally a discouraged practice. The opposite of “analysis paralysis” this “rush to act because everyone has an online community” can actually be detrimental to companies looking to build their site. Without a carefully-contrive strategy that’s been vetted by leadership and all relevant internal parties, your community won’t have the foundation or nutrients to grow. Does your leadership love social media? Are they focused on your content marketing efforts? Is it all about the leads? And most importantly, who is going to support this community on an ongoing basis? Without getting these questions answered, a community might be dead in the water before it’s even live, causing you to lose credibility and stalling your progress in the online marketing space (also making you fall behind competitors).

To get ready, a company must be very honest with what its goals are for the community, and what its internal appetite is to invest time and money into the site. There’s a big different between a pilot community effort and full-blown launch, so don’t waste a lot of time or resources if you don’t need to. A “quick win” (i.e. quick rise in rankings, or certain number of leads) might be all you need for your company to determine how and why they should proceed with further online community developments.

B.      “Set-it-and-Forget-it”
Communities don’t build themselves, and they don’t manage themselves. If you build an amazing site and do nothing with it, you could potentially do serious damage to your brand. People will visit the site, see stale content (or no content) or an outdated design, and come to their own conclusions about the validity of your offerings. This ties back into Point A, in that you should know what your goals for the community are (and get alignment on them) before taking time to develop the site. When developing your site, be realistic about how much time and effort you’re going to spend on the site. Do you have an internal design team to keep your site looking fresh and SEO-friendly? Do you have enough content on your community to keep readers engaged? Are you active enough in social media to integrate those capabilities in your site? For these and many additional reasons, many companies choose to outsource their online community building and management activities to an outside firm, or certain elements of them. It’s a lot of work, and it needs to be done right in order to get the desired impact.

C.      Information Overload – and Inconsistency
You spend a lot of time building your company brand and reputation, but what many companies don’t realize is that in a short amount of time, a poorly-built or managed online community can take it all away. For one, your site shouldn’t duplicate your company website (see Point D for reasons why) or a place to just store all your content marketing pieces haphazardly. This is where strategy comes in, and where you need to determine what kinds of content will be best for your community audience and then test which pieces have the highest impact. Giving them what they crave (perhaps a “how-to-manual” or video) rather than your own marketing pieces will build the credibility of your site – and your company – positing you as an industry leader rather than overbearing salesperson.  Although many companies use a community for lead generation, be careful to balance what you “gate” (i.e. require people to sign-up for viewing) with what you offer in good will to your audience. The more valuable information they absorb on their own, first, the more likely they’ll be to trust giving you their information in the future.

It’s also important that your branding and messages be consistent across all your marketing campaigns, including your online community. If your corporate website is serious and stuffy, but online community uses a wildly different color-scheme, tone of voice or style, you might confuse your audience about what your company really is. Be thoughtful in what you want your online community to look like, and include, and follow through with it week in and week out. This extra attention to detail will make a huge difference in how credible and trustworthy your community is perceived to be.

D.      All About You
It’s so tempting to talk about yourself (isn’t’ that what I’ve been doing this entire blog post?) But an online community can’t be all about your company. This is one of the things most companies struggle with when managing their sites. You want it to be a well-branded, promotional site but you know that it needs to be educational, and encourage collaboration. So how do you achieve that?

For one, take a step back and listen to your audience. Visit other sites they’re going to, and join their LinkedIn groups. You’ll see the information that they post and like to share- so focus on that on your online community.

Think of your online community as just one pillar in your online marketing strategy, supplemented by your social media sites and corporate website. Combined, the three create a powerful marketing engine, driving your profitability and brand awareness. But, each piece of the strategy must have different goals and objectives, and when it comes down to it, your corporate website should be the place that’s “all about you.” Other sites, like your Facebook account or online community, should host a healthy balance of company and consumer voices, with more weight on the latter. Again, this is why many companies build a site through a third party or media site- because thought leadership and objectivity is key in getting an audience to trust you – and it takes time.

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