Creating an online community that thrives is an extremely rewarding endeavor for any law firm looking to capture their target clients and demonstrate thought leadership in a particular practice area. A successful online community can help law firms and lawyers innovate and develop new relationships with influencers, customers and prospects. Creating a community is the easy part. Making it thrive is another matter. It takes a lot of hard work, resources and dedication to make an online community thrive. Once you decide what the right technology platform is for your online community, it is important to consider other factors that will have a significant effect on the success of your online community.
A fabulous source for effective community management is an organization called The Community Roundtable. They published a fabulous presentation on Slideshare entitled, Community Management Fundamentals that is a great resource for anyone thinking about starting an online community. Here is my list of ten tips that can help any law firm create a thriving community:
- Get to Know Your Audience
Who is your target audience? What are their likes, dislikes? Where do they spend time online? What do they value? What are their needs? All these questions will help you gain an understanding of the type of community you need to build and the type of content you will need to create or curate in order to create value for your members.
- Make sure you have one or more dedicated community managers
The single most important component to insure a thriving community is the community manager. This is the person(s) that will engage with your community members on a daily basis. A good community manager is part editor, part curator, part marketer and part connector. All of these roles are critical to the success of an online community. Community managers do not need to operate 24-7 in order to please your members. However, being proactive and responsive to comments and questions will go a long way toward gaining their trust and loyalty.
- Hospitality is Key
When a new member joins your community it is important to provide that member with guidance and a welcoming approach. A welcome email, a quick introduction to another member and guidance on how to get the most value out of the network are important in insuring that new members are properly introduced into the community. The community manager should not be the only person responsible for being hospitable and welcoming. Ideally, other members who are active and have developed a sense of trust within the community should be encouraged to be helpful and to make introductions to other members.
- Valuable Content
People join communities for two reasons. First is to collaborate and network with similar minded people. Second is to learn something of value. Having valuable content is of extreme importance to any community. Community managers must constantly feed the communities new and valuable content and encourage others to do the same. Content doesn’t necessarily need to be original. Sometimes curated content can be just as valuable as original content and may provide opportunities to gain new members. It is important to remember however that communities are about relationships, and relationships are not one way streets. So it is important to encourage all members to share something of value with their fellow members.
A recent trend in online communities and social networks is to introduce the concept of gamification. Gamification is the use of game thinking and game mechanics in a non-game context in order to engage users and solve problems. There are several gamification vendors in the market that will help organizations design and carry out game type concepts to enhance user engagement. This can take the form of a contest, a challenge, a leaderboard or honor badges. The idea behind this is to make things interesting and fun for your members.
- Have a clear user agreement
User agreements are a very important component of any online community. User agreements protect the organization that created the community as well as set the guidelines for all members on what the proper conduct should be. Sometimes in communities people don’t behave the way they should. So make sure you have a good and clear user agreement so that people know what to expect and how they should behave. Here is a good example from LinkedIn.
- Community Champions
Community managers can’t and shouldn’t do all the work. Its is important to establish a set of community champions and influencers that can help to keep the community alive and interesting. You may want to recruit these champions before launching your community and find a way to keep them incentivized. If you find that they are not engaged and not adding much value to the community don’t be afraid to look for replacements. Sometimes champions will grow organically and when they do, they become the community’s biggest advocates.
- Community Gardening
Plant the seeds and pull the weeds. It is important to constantly tend to your community and seed the community with valuable content and valuable people before you launch. No one wants to join a community where there is nothing going on. Set out to recruit your initial members and ask them to become champions. Then as your community grows, make sure you avoid redundancies and remove members who are self-serving or those that are not adding value. Nothing kills a community faster than a lack of trust. Members who do not add value and are only interested in selling should be warned and then if necessary removed.
- Be responsive but don’t overreact
In a thriving community people are going to ask questions and seek assistance. It is important to monitor the community and make sure that everyone’s questions get answered or at least attempt to get answered. A response need not be immediate, but it should occur within a 48 hour period. Also, know that people will have problems and will complain. Sometimes it’s best to let other members respond to those complaints and have them figure out a solution. The issue may work itself out. But if it doesn’t don’t ignore it. Remember the key to any community is trust and nothing kills trust quicker that unresolved complaints.
- Measure and adapt
Last but not least, it is important to constantly measure the success of your community. Measure reach and engagement over time. Figure out what topics and conversations work best and promote more of them. Identify who the key influencers are in your community and do everything you can to encourage their continued participation. Lastly, don’t be afraid to change things up if you see that something is not working or if you want to experiment with a new idea. Just like in real life, communities are constantly changing and evolving. Enjoy!
Updated and republished February 3, 2017.