Anyone running an online community for business purposes should take the time to put together a formal business plan for the community.
Even if you never share it with anyone else, it will help you figure out (in advance, hopefully) how the community will be successful.
Keep in mind that all business plans are meant to be fluid documents; they need to be revised and revisited periodically. Set up a reminder to do a quarterly or semi-annual plan review.
This post will give you some tips for adapting the standard business plan format to an online community.
Elements of an Online Community Business Plan
This is your “elevator pitch” for the community. In other words, what’s your response when the C-suite says “why do we need to do this?” If you plan to share this business plan with others in order to get buy-in or budget, include a clear statement of what you need (resources, funding, staffing).
Show how much work you’ve done to find out about the landscape for your community.
- Are there competing community sites?
- Are they monetized (and how)?
- Who is your target community member?
- How many people fit your profile, and how active are they in communities and other social networks?
Online Community Description
This should be a brief description of how the community will work, and how it fits into your larger business operation. What components of your community plan will make it successful?
Organization and Management
Describe who will be managing and moderating the community. Do you need internal staffing? Will you incorporate volunteers? What are the skills and experience of your designated community team? How will the community management team interact with the larger organizational structure of the business?
Marketing and Sales Strategies
Summarize how you plan to bring in community members, beginning with the early founding members and proceeding through to the maturity phase. Put in place an ongoing mechanism for attracting and retaining members. How will you promote the community?
Service and/or Product
Do you plan to monetize the community directly? If so, what are the proposed revenue streams and how much do you forecast you will earn for each? What are the benefits from the community for the larger organization? What is your unique selling proposition for this community? Why would your target audience join your community rather than a competing one?
How much budget do you need to get the community up and running? How much do you need to maintain it into the future? Are there recurring costs? Consider time requirements from any departments that may need to be involved (do you need graphics from the marketing department? help with single sign-on from the IT department?)
Unlike a business plan for a startup, you probably can’t include true financial statements for your community, but if you have access to any key financial metrics, you can include them here. Perhaps your community is geared toward support, and you have determined that the community has prevented a certain specific number of phone calls (a cost savings). If you have directly monetized the community (with ads, premium memberships, or premium content), you could include those numbers in this section.
This type of formal plan may seem like overkill, but even if you run through the structure and ask yourself some of these questions, it will benefit your community in the long run.
Knowing the road ahead, and planning for results, will lead to a more coherent community strategy. And if you’re trying to build support from C-level executives, this type of planning will present the community in terms they prefer.