How to build your own Social Networking site

building an online community

Create an online community where members feel comfortable sharing information about themselves with you. Understanding the needs of your customers will help you become a better and more profitable company.

I remember a time not too long ago when the cost to develop your own social networking site was upwards of half a million dollars in programming fees alone. Today, you can get a social networking site launched for as little as $19/month and you don’t have to know a thing about programming. Web sites like Ning.com allow you to set up a full social networking site with all the core community features such as forums, blogs, and various widgets.  You can even choose the colors and layout of your social network to match your company’s existing web site or marketing materials.

In fact, its so easy to use, that I set one up for my friend’s business, JudoMath.com last week. He opted to keep his community by invitation only. This way, it could be a private online community for middle school teachers discussing innovative teaching methods, using his new program, Judo Math.

Ning.com also provides an easy “single sign-on” option, which allows people to use their FaceBook, Google or other social networking site login to join your community. Allowing members to use existing social profiles to login makes the barrier to entry even easier.

Forums or message boards are perhaps the oldest form of social networking and remain a core function of most online communities. Internet users participated in forums long before FaceBook, MySpace or even blogs existed. And there is a reason they have survived. They are easy to use and they work.  Forums give members an easy way to ask questions and share ideas. They also provide lots of great keyword-friendly text and links that search engines love. The more activity your forums have around a particular topic or industry question, the more likely you’ll be to show up on the top of the search engines.

While there are several do-it-yourself forum options available, bigger firms hoping to grow a larger community may want to consider hiring a company such as Lithium Technologies. Lithium is a California based company that can help you customize a community forum that will also tie into popular social networks such as Twitter and FaceBook. An added benefit to hiring a full service company like Lithium (over a do-it-yourself service like Ning.com) is access to services like 24/7 moderation. Such a service can be an important time-saver if you don’t have extra staff on-hand to regularly check into a fast growing community.  I found that using a full service company like Lithium was critical while setting up Verizon’s online customer support community in 2009. Thousands of members and hundreds of posts were made within the online community on a daily basis. Outside moderators helped Verizon’s internal staff identify both potential problems as well as influential members who could keep the community running.

The Importance of Designating a Community Manager
In a perfect world, your community members would keep conversations buzzing and topics tasteful. However, in the real world, online communities don’t run themselves. And if you want to keep your online community on track with your company’s overall marketing and business business goals, you need to designate a community manager. That community manager can be your marketing director or an internet marketing consultant who specializes in community management. Whoever you designate, it must be someone who understands the reason you set up this community in the first place and will adhere to your company’s social media guidelines. (If you aren’t sure what social media guidelines are or would like more information, drop me an email, or check back for my next blog post on this topic)

Your designated community manger must also care about the growth of your community and its members. This person should help to facilitate dialogue and maintain a positive atmosphere in the community that encourages members to participate. Having a designated community manager responsible for monitoring the community at all times is an important piece of controlling the direction of your community’s voice.

The tools you use to build your community and how you choose to manage it are important considerations. However, even more vital to your community’s success will be the influence of its core members and if you’ve attracted the right targeted audience to help you reach your business goals.

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Holly Berkley, San Diego Online Marketing ConsultantHolly Berkley is a San Diego Internet Marketing Consultant and author of Marketing in the New Media and Low Budget Online Marketing for Small Business.  Her new book Social Media in Action… will be available in Fall 2011.  Learn more about Holly Berkley’s corporate social media consulting on her web site, www.new-media-consultant.com

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