ACM Pro member and Sydney based Community Manager for Higher Logic, Lisa Agic, walks you through how to get buy-in for a new online community, including aligning with your organisation’s priorities and overcoming common objectives.
It's easier to say than do, but we can't bring the benefits of community to life unless we nail it. Getting buy-in for a new online community is an essential skill set for a community professional, and these steps should help you master it. Already have an online community but you want to secure more funding or resources, or just more backing? These steps can work just as well.
1. Build your case: outlining the need for community
To get buy-in on building an online community for your organisation, your choice of community platform vendor and online community strategy, start with research. Coming across as informed and well-researched will help your case. Start by thinking through these two questions:
• How will building an online community help our organisation?
• How will building an online community help our users?
If you don’t have solid answers to these, it’s the first place to start.
The biggest thing to remember is this: Communities can solve a lot of different problems for your organisation. Sometimes, people think of communities as a siloed offering, relegated to one team, like marketing or support, rather than a benefit to the organisation as a whole.
Online communities are cross-functional, complex solutions for organisation-wide problems.
One organisation could tackle multiple use cases with their community – answering support questions, building a mentoring program, housing customer-facing resources, attracting potential customers or members, identifying advocates and more.
At the buy-in stage, their Swiss-army knife capabilities can be both a curse and a blessing.
Why? Because communities are so cross-functional, you’ll likely need buy-in and support from multiple departments to move it forward successfully.
But once you get key stakeholders involved, aware and convinced of community’s value for their department, it’s not just you by yourself, asking anymore – you’ve created a powerful, broad support base to help you make your case. You have advocates from across your company who can help you move it forward and into the budget.
2. Plan your approach: identifying goals and researching background
Before you get deep into the community planning process, begin with a soft launch of your idea. This should be an informal, research-gathering process where you float the idea of a community and locate where you can find support for your initiative.
Taking this phased approach will help you plan your approach to getting buy-in strategically and ensure you identify potential roadblocks in advance.
You’ll want background on these three areas: organisation and departmental goals, community history and budget.
Identify company-wide and departmental goals
Start by finding your organisation’s big picture goals. You may already know these goals or you may have to dig for them, but you want to identify company-wide goals, like 'increase in retention by X%.' This will help you understand where community needs to fit in, and how your online community can serve those goals.
Next, interview departments to understand goals and priorities. Hold a series of informal research meetings to talk to department leaders, where you discuss challenges they’re facing and goals they want to accomplish for the year and beyond.
Tell them you’re interested in building a branded community and you’re doing research to see how you can help meet their goals with the project. This is where you’ll get ideas about who to involve as a stakeholder and identify potential objections and barriers.
Tip: How to gain support during the interview process
Emily Doyle and Meghan Cornwell built buy-in for their online community strategy at Teachstone. They did this informal interview process and shared some tips for success:
• Move people from conceptual to concrete using tangible demos, realistic scenarios and everyday examples. Use 'Why, What, How' to tell your story and move your staff from concept to tactics.
• Tell some stories about how it would be beneficial in the day to day. Make it relevant and real for each department.
• Write hand-written thank you notes to the people who participated in the research and helped you.
• People need to hear things multiple times, so keep telling your story and building your case.
• Think through the unique value your colleagues can bring to the community.
Find out if your organisation has a history with community building
Has your company or organisation ever tried to build a community, or do you have one now? Knowing any issues or leftover good or bad feelings about past community efforts will inform the way you build your strategy. If everyone hated the platform, or nobody engaged in the community, or people felt ignored, you’ll have to strategise for how to overcome these barriers.
Can your organisation make room in the budget for an online community platform? This one might be hard to assess – you may not want to ask outright at the beginning, because you haven’t had a chance to build or prove your business case to earn the budget. But it will be helpful to know where your organisation stands financially and if there are any key deadlines you need to be aware of when suggesting the purchase of new software.
Ask questions to get a sense of where you stand. Your accounting or finance team might be able to help you understand where the budget for new technology comes from or how you could work across departments to fund the initiative.
3. Build allies: recruiting your stakeholders and team
Once you’ve done your initial research, it’s time to do your prep work, so that you’re ready to recruit your team from other departments. Take the findings you learnt from your research. Let’s say a department identified three big priorities: How can you match community’s value or solution to those pain points? What kind of benefit can community offer to this department?
Next, lay it out in a digestible and understandable way. What’s in it for the key stakeholders? How will it save their department money, or grow loyalty?
What is the value of community for different departments at your company? You can use the Higher Logic guide, 4 Ways Community Engagement Strengthens CX, to learn how a community can benefit support, success, marketing and product.
Your goal should be to demonstrate how the community aligns with and leads to achieving each department’s goals. This is how you can prove your new community will be a valuable technology investment.
DEPARTMENTAL PAIN POINT: Sales and Marketing: We need more references to convince potential new members or buyers.
COMMUNITY SOLUTION: With a community, we can create a network of our users in one place. Through their activity on the community, we can identify the most active members and the ones who are likely candidates for references.
You’re ready to go back to the stakeholders you identified and walk each of them individually through how community might be a potential solution. This is a great time to seek their feedback and ask if they have any concerns. Invite them to be a part of your core team and buying committee, where they would help strategise for the community, join community product demos and present to leadership with you.
4. Collaborate on strategy: documenting vision and goals
Once you have your core team, collaborate on creating a community vision and goals. For example, maybe you want it to support customers, but you also want to build advocates. You want to give members a place to find resources, but you also want to encourage more volunteering. Working together with your stakeholders to establish top goals and priorities will help you find the right community vendor and present a unified pitch.
Create community goals
To establish your community goals, look back to your research in the planning phase. Specific challenges and solutions brought you to the table, so re-examine those and codify them. Do some prep work to compile the ideas before the meeting so everyone has something to react to. You should be able to answer these questions:
• What pain points have we discovered?
• How will community solve them?
TIP: Involve legal and IT early. Should anyone from either of these department be involved in the buying process? Do they have a checklist of key questions to ask or requirements the software needs to meet?
Draft a 'vision statement' for your community
A vision statement or a goal statement is a good way to anchor your community initiative in your research. Make it specific and keep it succinct (this will probably take a couple of drafts).
Example community vision statements:
• 'A destination for customers to find support and prospects to discover our company.'
• 'A secure, online space where members feel safe connecting and sharing about challenges they face.'
Create a feature checklist for vendor research
Decide on the features, resources or integrations needed in your community platform, and then categorise them by must-have and nice-to-have.
• Discussion threads/forum capability
• Automation to encourage engagement
• Integration to Salesforce
• Ability to connect users with mentors
• Product ideation feature
Build a list of vendors to evaluate
Look to review sites, like G2, word-of-mouth recommendations, online research or communities you’ve participated in for ideas on which vendors to add to your list.
During the demos, consider providing your team of stakeholders with a scoring sheet or template so they can share feedback based on your goals and feature checklist.
As you get closer to choosing your community platform, rely on the vendor for support. They’ve helped many organisations move through the buying process and likely will have documentation and resources to help you build your case.
TIP: Don’t have everyone sit through every demo.
Try to cull down your list so you have the top 2-3 vendors. You can either go from the website information to eliminate any that seem like a bad fit based on your checklist, or have an initial demo where it’s just you, and bring the team on if it seems like a viable option.
5. Make your argument: presenting your research
You’ve done the groundwork, you’ve built your case. You’ve researched your vendors, you've prepared a strategy. Chances are, you have to get final approval from someone, whether it’s your CEO, department head, board, legal or IT team. These tips will help you put together a convincing presentation.
Your presentation should summarise the process you just went through:
1. Share the pain points that you’ve gleaned from your research.
2. Share how community is a compelling solution for those pain points.
3. Share your vision statement for the community, along with any supporting points.
4. Share your preferred vendor.
a. Why do you recommend them?
b. How did you come to that decision?
5. Share how the features and advantages of your preferred vendor map to the pain points.
6. End with the benefits to your organisation as a whole.
Go get that buy-in
If the process seems overwhelming, remind yourself of the value of community. With a branded online community that encourages engagement at every stage of your user’s journey, you will reap valuable rewards for your organization, like increased customer loyalty, retention, and growth. And with some preparation and support from other departments, you’ll be in a good place to prove this to your organisation and executives.