Is An Online Community Right For Your Startup?

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Online communities can be powerful tools for businesses. Finding people passionate about your company’s product and service provides a core group of users through which to scale your company. However, fostering an online community can be difficult and your company’s funds may be better spent elsewhere. In this article we’ll look at how an online community can benefit your startup company and whether it’s a viable strategy.

The Benefits of Community

Online communities are powerful tools for companies that have them. A strong community acts like a group of brand ambassadors sharing your brand with the world. Famously AirBnB cultivated a culture of millennials traveling on a budget offering them an alternative to the traditional hotel model at a reduced price. As the community grew many who used the platform as guests began to also offer their own residence as hosts. This virtuous cycle increased available supply on the platform and in turn attracted new members to their growing community.

Active online communities are also an excellent source of inspiration for startup companies. Startup founders and team members should participate in the community, it’s an excellent way to understand their users wants and needs. Think of your startup’s online community as a free source of inspiration and reviews for the business. While you likely won’t be able to act on every wish of your users, user feedback should help guide your growth.

The Challenges of Building a Community

While the benefits of an online community are easy to see, there’s a reason every business with an online presence doesn’t have a robust online community as well: they’re not easy to create. From a technical perspective, developing a platform for your company’s online community is relatively easy and can be as simple as a Facebook group. BoatEasy, an online platform that connects boat owners with marine professionals offering boat repair services, started through a Facebook group of boat owners. In addition to Facebook groups, online forums, Pinterest boards, and other online messaging sites all offer a relatively simple technical solution.

However, technical challenges are only one problem facing startups cultivating a community. The core problem most startups face is attracting new users. New users are often wary of yet another online platform or service trying to attract them, the transition from a new user to an enthusiastic lover of the platform takes time. Your users have to love the company you’re building and think about it often for a community to make sense.

Even if you manage to accomplish that task, congratulations by the way, asking new users to dive into a community of active, passionate, existing users may be a bit intimidating. This itself is one of the challenges as an online community centered around your startup may come to define it. Be sure that the image your community is presenting to new potential users is how you want your startup to be seen by the world.

When a Community Makes Sense

Active online communities that present an appealing image of your startup’s brand are the envy of founders and CEOs everywhere. However, they take time and usually scarce resources for your startup to foster. As a business owner you have to look at cultivating an online community around your brand as a question of return on investment, is it worth it? If your users use your platform often then a community might be a great option. However, if you’re selling a product or service that is used infrequently, then there may be better options for customer acquisition and branding. Ultimately, online communities can be a low cost option to create a passionate base of users from which your company and its brand can expand. However, they present challenges and risks that must be evaluated against other, relatively easier, alternatives for customer acquisition.