Custom Corporate Communities: Planning and Getting Started

Corporate communities refer to any custom community created by an organization for the purpose of engaging with customers or other people who may be interested in the organization’s products and services. For the purpose of this post, custom corporate communities include communities created by corporations, non-profit organizations, educational institutions and similar organizations. These corporate communities can take many different forms: support communities, developer communities to help developers work with your products, customer and enthusiast communities, and many others.

Before jumping in to create a new community, you should think carefully about the purpose of this new community including your goals and objectives, fitting your community efforts into your organization’s overall strategy, measuring success, and committing the resources required to make your community flourish.

Here are a few questions that can help you think through the process of planning for your new community:

What is your overall strategy and how does the community fit with it?

If your custom corporate community does not support the overall strategies of the organization, I give it about a 5% chance of being successful. Creating a new community can be a very large project with quite a bit of upfront work to create the community along with a large effort over the life of the community to manage and maintain it. If this time and effort is spent in support of the overall corporate strategy, then it will be much easier to justify keeping the community during the next planning cycle for your organization. On the other hand, when a community is built to support goals that are not clearly aligned with the overall strategy, people will look at it as a big expense that can be cut, and your community will die a quick death if you are lucky or a horrible slow death by neglect if you aren’t quite as fortunate.

Spend the time now to make sure that you can find a way to structure your community plans to support the overall strategy of your organization. If you can’t find a good way to align your plans with the strategy, you should think twice about whether a corporate community is an appropriate solution for you right now.

What do you hope to accomplish and what are your goals for the community?

Think very carefully about why you are creating a new community for your organization. Spend plenty of time upfront to clearly define the reasons for creating it and what you will accomplish by having the community. You might want to go back and read my earlier post on the benefits of having a community. You might want to consider some or all of those benefits when you think about the goals for your community:

  • People: gives people a place to engage with your company
  • Product Innovation: get product feedback and ideas
  • Evangelism: help you grow evangelists for your products from outside of your company
  • Brand Loyalty: engagement can drive a tremendous amount of loyalty for your products

After you have a good grasp on what you hope to accomplish, you need to set some specific goals for the project. When you get into the platform selection process and design phase later in the project, having clear goals will help ensure that you build the right kind of community to achieve these goals.

What are your plans for achieving your goals and how will you measure success?

Now that you have some goals for what you want to accomplish with your community, you need to figure out some specific steps required to achieve your goals along with the metrics you will use to measure whether or not you have been successful. The metrics that you select will depend on your specific goals, but common community metrics include page views or visits, new member sign ups, and participation (new posts or replies). It is easy to go overboard and measure everything; however, I recommend that you pick a couple (no more than 4 or 5) of the most important measurements to use to report to management on your success. You should have an analytics package or reporting tools that allow you to drill down for more details that you can use to help troubleshoot issues and understand the data, but use these as background materials for your team.

Do you need to build new or can you join an existing community?

This is the reality check portion of the process. If you can join an existing community and get the same or similar benefits for your organization without investing all of the resources to create something new, you should seriously consider joining rather than building. You should also look around your organization to see if you have any existing communities or other infrastructure that you can reuse instead of installing yet another piece of community software.

Do you have the resources (people and financing) to maintain it long-term?

As I mentioned earlier, building a new community is a big effort. It is not one of those projects that you complete and move onto the next one. Building the community and installing the software is the first step, and the real work comes in after the launch of the community. You will need to have people on board and ready to manage the day to day responsibilities from a community perspective and to administer and maintain the software. For a small community this could be a single person, but for a large corporate community, it usually takes a team of people.

You should also plan for frequent upgrades and adjustments to the community, especially right after the launch. You will find bugs in the software, areas of the community that the users find difficult to use for whatever reason, and other things that you will need to adjust once you have people actually using the community. Your organization should be ready to handle these ongoing costs and resource commitments over the life of the community. Nothing is worse than wasting time and money on something that won’t be maintained long enough to achieve your goals.

While this certainly isn’t everything that you need to consider when planning for your new community, hopefully, it will get you started on the right path. For more information, you might also want to read some of Jeremiah Owyang’s posts about community platforms or some of the online community research that Bill Johnston is doing at ForumOne.

I’d love to see you post comments with other things that you consider when planning for a new corporate community.

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6 thoughts on “Custom Corporate Communities: Planning and Getting Started”

  1. Good post. This codifies what I tell my clients as we discuss getting into social media. Currently, the discussion of community is only the basis for a much broader discussion of marketing requirements, but I can see the trend will eventually move into using social media (I mostly work in older and more established industries, so the social media transition is slower).

    I look forward to the day I can bring you into a client planning discussion.

  2. Mike,

    Thanks! I’m also working on a post about how you should (and should not) promote your products in communities and through social media that you might find interesting. It’s still in the half-baked stage, but I hope to have it done in the next week or so.

  3. Dawn,
    Another interesting post. You are just full of good ideas. One thing I’m wondering is about the usefullness of an on line community or communities revolving around evangelism, spreading an idea or set of ideas to folks to create passionate users of a new idea or product. In my work both as an upstart entrepreneur and in a more traditional newspaper industry job, I’ve experimented with using on line groups not only as simple communication tools but also as a way of disseminating ideas about how to do something. In journalism, it has largely revolved around disseminating passionate core values and approaches among a team of very green journalists who may not always have gained the experience and knowledge coming out of journalism school that some may expect. In the case of my new interactive blog network, I’m thinking of how I might be able to use some kind of social network to disseminate ideas about how a totally new kind of network can be used.

  4. I’d certainly hope that in addition to the commercial white-label platforms, companies should look seriously at Free and Open Source platforms like Drupal and Joomla, or at building a custom community on an open source portal framework like Liferay.

    Nothing against the “out of the box” white label folks – they can setup and manage great communities – but you miss a chance for deeper customization and you buy into a long term commercial relationship with a built-in success tax (more users, more cost, generally).

  5. John,

    Excellent point. I’m a big fan (as you know) of using open source solutions wherever possible, and there are some really strong open source community platforms right now (like the ones you mentioned.)

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