Building a thriving business-to-business (B2B) community has never been easier.
Only a few years ago, creating a discussion space for your audience would have involved purchasing costly forum software and employing an in-house team for ongoing maintenance and development tasks.
Fortunately, however, things have changed. Software providers have made the process of setting up and managing a forum or discussion board as easy as sending an email. Well, perhaps not quite as straightforward as that, but pretty close.
Modern, subscription-based, software-as-a-service (SaaS) solutions allow businesses of all shapes and sizes to quickly and inexpensively launch online communities. Even better, no technical expertise is required. Because all software runs on third-party servers, maintenance and updates are also taken care of.
A dedicated B2B community can provide your business with an array of benefits, enabling you to build engagement with your existing customers, develop relationships with new leads, gather important feedback about your brand and products, glean practical insights about your market, and more.
In this post, you’ll learn ten practical tips that will help you launch and run a thriving, engaged, and profitable online community.
Sound good? Let’s dive in.
What Are the Benefits of Running a B2B Community?
So why bother starting a community in the first place? As an entrepreneur, marketer, or small business owner, your time is limited. And you might be wondering if committing resources to a forum is a good business decision.
From one-person companies to multinational enterprises, a wide range of businesses have seen tangible benefits as a result of their online communities. And familiarizing yourself with the most common advantages will help you decide whether creating an online space for your customers and potential customers is the right choice for you.
Here are the main benefits of running an online B2B community:
- Build engagement with your customer base – If customers repeatedly return to your forum to participate in discussions, they will naturally feel more involved and engaged with your brand.
- Attract new leads and convert them to customers – Forums can attract large quantities of organic traffic. People interested in topics related to your industry, or that are searching for solutions, will join your community and become potential customers.
- Acts as a valuable marketing channel – With a forum, a large section of your customer base exists in one place. As such, you can promote your products and services with unobtrusive, well-designed marketing campaigns.
- Provide you with a deeper understanding of your audience – Most forum software comes with analytics tools for tracking user behavior. This data will give you a clearer picture of your customers’ preferences, needs, pain points, and so on.
- Gather feedback about products and services – Your forum acts as a space for customers to share advice about your products. This information gives you valuable insights into what can be improved.
- It’s fun – At the end of the day, running a forum is just plain enjoyable.
Now you know about some of the practical benefits that online communities can deliver for your business, let’s take a look at how to ensure your community’s lasting success.
10 Ways to Ensure the Success of Your B2B Community
No two communities are alike. As your membership grows, it’s imperative to develop a unique strategy tailored to your users. The tips below are meant as general guidelines. Following them will help you maintain engagement and interest among your members over time.
1. Understand Why Your Community Matters
What is your community’s overall value proposition? Answering this question is vital because it gives you a solid foundation for everything from marketing and branding to your choice of categories and subtopics.
Identifying what makes your community attractive to members also enables you to provide ongoing value. Your value proposition is the unique package of benefits you offer. It acts as a tool by which you can measure your forum’s features, member incentives, and initiatives. It helps you answer the question, “Am I providing the benefits that I have promised?”
What’s more, having a detailed, well-defined value proposition helps you to pinpoint areas that you have overlooked, particularly in regards to competition. Are you including up-to-date content about trending topics, for example? Have you set up a place for members to discuss product-related issues? Do you run virtual events and short-term group activities?
2. Pick the Right Platform
If you haven’t already, you’ll need to build the technical infrastructure required to run an online community. There are many options to choose from when it comes to hosting a forum, from third-party platforms like Facebook groups to fully managed forum applications.
Generally speaking, it’s better to purchase software that gives you complete control over all the particulars of your online community. That said, third-party platforms do have lots of potential for organic growth.
Keep in mind that not all platforms are the same. Feature sets, pricing, and support options can vary significantly between providers. Be sure to do your research and take advantage of free trials and demos.
If your company lacks the relevant in-house technical expertise, a hosted software-as-a-service (SaaS) solution with a good support package is likely the best option.
3. Brainstorm and Test Community Topics
What will your community be about?
This answer to this question might seem obvious. Your immediate response is probably something along the lines of “I’m in the construction space, so my community will be about construction,” or, “We’re a marketing agency, so a marketing forum is a no-brainer.”
But before you dive in with all guns blazing, it’s worth pausing for a second. In particular, you should remember two things. First, you’ve got competition. And in all likelihood, there are better, more established communities covering generic topics like “construction” and “marketing.” Second, it’s easy to fall into the trap of starting a community that’s too vague to meet the needs of your customers and potential customers.
Your aim should be to find a topic for which there are few or no existing forums and that fits with the needs and desires of your target market. You shouldn’t “niche down” too tightly. But going overly broad is a big mistake.
Testing can be of immense benefit at this stage. If possible, ask your existing customers about the topics they’re most interested in. And don’t be afraid to shift direction even after you’ve launched, especially if the response is lukewarm.
4. Regularly Invite New Members
One of the best ways to build your community, particularly in its early stages, is by inviting your existing customers and followers to join.
Over time your community will likely start to grow organically, especially as you rank in search engines and your reputation grows through word of mouth. But even with organic growth, you should still invite new members as an ongoing practice.
Build invitation mechanisms into your business infrastructure. Send emails to new customers, create incentives for existing ones, post content inviting your followers on social media, advertise on your website, and so on.
5. Maintain a Personal Presence
If you don’t think your forum is valuable enough to use, why should anybody else?
Maintaining a presence in your community has several benefits. Along with building credibility, it gives your members the opportunity to form a personal relationship with you as a real person behind your brand. If you are actively starting and replying to posts, members are also more likely to participate.
If you can’t commit to engaging in discussions, consider hiring a virtual assistant who can post and reply on your behalf. The return on investment usually justifies hiring a dedicated person to take care of these kinds of tasks.
6. Encourage and Reward Your Most Active Members
As your community grows and develops, you will find that a small handful of “pillar members” are responsible for contributing to and driving a large number of discussions. They form a core part of your community, and you should encourage long-term participation by rewarding these members.
Financial incentives like discounts and product freebies always work a treat. In addition, it’s good practice to reach out to highly active members and extend your gratitude and thanks. You may even wish to offer an invitation for them to become part-time moderators.
A “karma” system, through which members are rewarded for activity, can also encourage participation.
7. Gather Qualitative Feedback
Want to know a surefire way of determining what your community members want? Ask them!
Regularly gather feedback in the form of polls, questionnaires, and open discussions. Many members will be more than willing to give their thoughts. And you can use this strategy for both your company’s products along with the discussion board itself.
Your members will let you know, for example, about categories they would like you to create, forum features that are lacking, and issues that they may be experiencing.
By looking at your community as a dynamic, evolving entity, you can incrementally optimize and improve it based on input from your users.
8. Drive Traffic With User-Generated Content
User-generated content can drive substantial amounts of new traffic. And as your community grows, forum posts will begin to appear in search engine results.
Search engine optimization (SEO) should be a priority for most community builders right from the get-go.
Many platforms have built-in SEO tools. When evaluating different providers, look for features like search-friendly URLs, metadata (tags and descriptions), and auto-updating XML sitemaps. You can even target keywords by beginning discussions focused on specific topics.
Even if you intend to run a private community, you can still have areas that are public and, as a result, will be indexed in search engines.
9. Reward Members With Exclusive Benefits
Individuals join communities to discuss and learn more about topics they care about. And this will always be the primary draw. Additional benefits, however, add an extra layer of attraction for members, further boosting engagement.
Rewarding members with community-only benefits like discounts, giveaways, freebies, and question-and-answer sessions with well-known influencers boosts your overall value proposition.
You might also consider running time-sensitive discussions and virtual events. Many writers’ forums, for example, have specific threads for National Novel Writing Month. As a business-to-business community builder, you may wish to launch similar initiatives to coincide with major events in the industry.
10. Be Strategic When Pitching Your Products and Services
This is a simple but essential point.
It’s OK to pitch your products. But don’t overdo it.
Less is more when it comes to marketing to your community members. Don’t sacrifice short-term revenue for long-term engagement.
Many community-builders create specific categories for product-related posts and announcements, thus ensuring that members who aren’t currently customers don’t feel like they’re being spammed.
The Moz Q&A Forum is one of the web’s biggest search engine optimization (SEO) communities. It’s frequented by both beginning and experienced search engine marketers and. Categories encompass everything from basic SEO processes to trends and research. One category is dedicated solely to MOZ products, while the others center on more generic search topics.
Upwork is the world’s largest English-language freelancer marketplace. Discussions mainly relate to Upwork-related topics, but there are also areas for more general freelancing subjects.
The Harvard Business Review Discussion group is a LinkedIn group that has over two million members. The streamlined interface and posting format allows members to discuss business topics. Members can opt to receive notifications to stay up to date with new announcements and replies.
Online Geniuses is the largest open Slack community for marketers. It has both free and paid membership options and provides users with access to many of the industry’s top experts.
Snowball is a PeerBoard-hosted community for people interested in personal finance (budget management, investments, side projects, etc.), with both private and free member options. The founder, Yoann, wanted to share his passion for personal finance, economics and entrepreneurship. Members receive newsletters with financial tips, and Yoann also promotes his financial consultancy services.
Building a community takes time. But it’s more than worth it over the long term. Few business tools can be used to cultivate the same amount of customer loyalty and ongoing engagement with your brand.
What’s more, community-building needn’t be a time and resource-intensive task. Leveraging a modern, fully-hosted solution will cut the amount of maintenance and development time substantially. And automation features streamline tasks that otherwise would demand a high time investment.
If you’ve been thinking about launching your community, there’s no better time than the present.