Have you ever considered building an online community for your business? There are many ways to do this- from building and hosting your own using open source software to using an online community builder or building one with tools on the existing social networks – Facebook and Linkedin, for example, both have offerings in this area.
One of the newest, and potentially most significant players in this market is Google. First launched in December of 2012 Google Communities provided an easy set-up, but a minimal feature set. It had the advantage, however, of a large audience of potentially interested members, having been built as an integral part of Google+. I have built several communities on Google+ – including one with over 20,000 members, so I know some of the ins and outs of this technology and would like to help save you some time and do what I can to help your community be a success should you decide to build one.
First, it is important to understand the difference between what Google calls “communities” – but goes by many names in the industry (“Groups” on Facebook other services, “online forums” with some other technologies) and a “page”. A page is a way of promoting your business that is offered by Google, Facebook and Linkedin. A page is like a simple website with an administrator can post information and users can comment. Users cannot, however, initiate a post. With a community users can both comment, as they can on a page, but they can also initiate posts. Communities can also be either public or private while most pages are public since they are used for promotional purposes.
This can make the moderation of these communities a little more complex than just the standard customer relations function of addressing and managing comments as you would have on a page. Let’s take a hard look at Google Communities – both its strengths and weaknesses to see if it could be to the advantage of your business. I’ll also try to give you a few tips on building your one community on Google+ should you decide to go that route. First its strengths:
Advantages to Google Communities
1. It is a snap to set up. It is so easy to setup a Google community it will probably take me longer to write this post. The is a bit of an exaggeration, but you can get the basic setup finished in five minutes or so, and improve it from there. The setup is just not a big deal.
2. It is good for relationship building. Since users can initiate posts, there is less of a “pearls before swine” quality to the engagement. While you will want some moderation guidelines, basically your members can say whatever they want whenever they want. This will have the effect of having the relationship be more “authentic” – you are basically putting yourself out there.
3. It can enhance your stature in a subject area. Since you will be managing a community where people can freely express themselves, you will have to be fair and allow a different views to be expressed – in some cases possibly from competitors. . Depending on the subject area, this may help you to be seen as an expert in this area.
4. You will learn from it. Since a well managed community will have a variety of views being expressed you may learn some new things and get new ideas. With a “page” setup you might just be hearing what you want to hear. Sometimes when a discussion gets lively on a community some great ideas can be generated, and new ways of looking at things can be revealed.
5. There may be some SEO Benefit. Google indexes posts in its search engine your business might get a bit more exposure through it. In addition, with Google Communities you are allowed to display up to 10 links on the Community home page and these can be links to your business or other resources for your members.
7. Hangouts and Hangouts on Air. While the technology for communities themselves may be more or less traditional – and even have less functionality than most systems, there is an important exception. Hangouts – Google’s name for video conferencing, is integrated with communities and is an amazing technology. These hangouts let you meet in a live videoconference with up to 10 people which can take your community to a whole new level. There is also a “Hangouts on Air” – currently not as well integrated but still possible, that lets you “broadcast” these hangouts and record the to Youtube. This alone may be reason for you to select Google communities if you have a subject area and population of potential members you feel could benefit from this kind of video presentation.
Disadvantages to Google Communities
1. It is hard to get new members. Don’t expect an immediate flood of member requests once you setup your community. Since they are so easy to set up there are tens of thousands of them – maybe more. You may have to build your community one member at a time at first. It is also possible that your best potential members aren’t active on Google+ at all, and even if you persuade them to join they won’t participate much.
2. Moderation can be a challenge. It would be nice if these things “ran themselves” but they don’t. Posts that are low quality or off topic are frequent, and you may have to use your best diplomacy skills – or your hammer – to address these. It is not uncommon for “drama situations” to break out and it is even possible for whole communities to “melt down”. As community owner, you will be responsible for this.
3. It’s Time Consuming. Managing your community – including approving new members, participating in discussions, moderating disagreements, encouraging quality and posting your own content can be a major time sink. This must be weighed against the advantages of having a community.
4. Communities compete with each other. Google set up communities so that anyone could start one on any topic – and they can even have identical names as other communities. This means that there are many overlapping and competing topics all competing for the same audience. The is particularly true of the larger communities with broader topic areas – it is probably best to not compete with those communities unless you are willing to invest substantial effort.
5. Spam is a major issue. Google communities are absolutely plagued with spam. They have a spam filter that is pretty good at weeding most of it out, but you will still see it. There is also a problem with “near spam” – posts that are just bad for whatever reason. While this is mostly an issue on the public communities, it is not unheard of on the private communities either.
So should you do it?
The answer is, of course, “it depends”. Don’t do it “just because you can” however, anyone can set these up and an empty community won’t do you any good nor will one you work on extensively that never gets “traction”. Think first about precisely what you want to accomplish with your community and then carefully weigh the advantages and disadvantages listed above. At this point in the development of communities it is unlikely that a broad topic will work unless you are already a recognized authority in that area and have a ready population of followers. That is not to say private communities won’t work, however, or even public communities in niche topic areas.
Going for it? Here are a few tips.
So if you have weighed the advantages and disadvantages carefully, and you think it can help your business or practice area, here are a few tips to help you get started:
1. Set up the community completely before you invite anyone. As we discussed here, the initial community setup can be done in just a few minutes, but doing it right can take considerably longer. Get everything ready. Have some good web copy for your descriptions, set up your posting categories and write some moderation guidelines. – you will need them later.
2. Have content ready. Consider “seeding” your community before you even invite anyone with a few interesting posts that set the “tone” of the kind of posts you want in your community. The last thing you want is for new members to to join an empty community. It might even be a good idea to have several posts pre-written for future postings.
3. Identify Prospective Members. If you are already active on Google+ identify everyone in your circles who you think might be interested in your community. Make a special circle for these prospects. If you aren’t active on Google+ it may be a tougher slog, but do some searches on your topic area and build a circle based on this interest.
4. Invite your best prospects. Try to get a commitment from as many of the people you know who might be interested. Write them and tell them what you want to accomplish and enlist their support. After you have done this, send an invitation to these prospects.
5. Start engaging. Try to get a conversation going with these initial members. Use your best content if necessary. Do whatever you can to “make it interesting”.
6. Invite a “second wave” of prospects. Now take the rest of that circle you have built and invite those potential members. Write a good introduction about why you think will be a good community. Continue promoting your community however you can as an ongoing effort.
7. Select a Moderator. Ask one of your members to help with moderating the community. This will not only reduce your workload a bit, but will have the added benefit of making your community look a bit more “established”.
That’s about the best advice I can give you. The rest is up to you. Wishing you the best!