Organizations have their own websites for lots of reasons.
Whether they’re a freelancer or a Fortune 500 company or a non-profit, they can use their website to promote what they do, share reviews, reduce questions for customer service, post updates and announcements, attract leads, and increase visibility.
A website can drive new business and keep existing customers up to date with the organization’s news.
Can an online community get the same benefits by having a website of its own?
The short answer is ‘it depends’.
Many communities live on asynchronous discussion platforms (like inSided, Vanilla, and Khoros) that are open and searchable. These communities don’t need a website. Visitors can find the community through the brand’s website or search engine results, and they can read discussions, learn about events, and find resources without signing up for an account.
Some brand and product communities on these platforms do have a website that serves as the ‘face’ of the community. It allows visitors who land on the website to see what the brand chooses to focus on, while also allowing open access to all community discussions.
Communities that aren’t hosted on these platforms might live on one of many other options, such as Slack, Discord, or WhatsApp. The closed nature of these platforms means conversations in these communities are private, and people can join by invite or application only. Communities on Facebook, too, can choose to be private and limit access to conversations.
For these communities, a community website is a must-have to share your value proposition with potential members.
Before you whip up copy for your website, take a step back and go through a discovery process. Some questions to ask yourself at this stage are:
From the exercise above, you’ll have a clearer idea of what specific information needs to go on the website to give potential members a clear idea of what your community can do for them.
If you have an active community, conduct a small focus group of members who are open to sharing feedback. Ask what some of the community’s biggest draws are and what they would have liked to know before they joined.
Remember, this website is not about your community — it’s about what your community can do for your members. Keep the focus on them throughout the planning and execution stages.
Once you’ve identified what information goes on your website, it’s time to decide where this information will live.
Every website has pages that share information through copy, photos or graphics, video, maps, links, etc. You need to break down what you want to share into categories or themes and decide what information should go on what page. Depending on your community’s offerings, some pages might include:
Not every community website will need multiple pages. If you’re building your Minimum Viable Community, you’re a small team trying to get things done, or if you have a community with a single, focused goal, you could have a community website that’s just one page.
If your website will have multiple pages, it’s time to create a visual sitemap. This looks like a family tree or organization chart and shows the relationship between the different pages. You don’t need fancy tools to draw this up — post-it notes and a whiteboard will do the job just fine!
Part of creating the visual sitemap is deciding what pages to place in the main navigation menu that you’ll find either on the website header or sidebar (depending on the design). It might be tempting to add every page there so visitors can access everything in one click, but this can make the navigation menu look very cluttered very quickly. Go back to your discovery process — what is the most important information visitors need to know to achieve their (and your) goals?
Visitors can leave your website in seconds if they don’t find what they’re looking for. Don’t waste precious screen real estate on fancy videos or photos that take up the whole screen when the homepage loads — start with a clear value proposition that tells visitors who the community is for and what they will gain from being a member.
As with all the copy on your website, choose language that’s clear over clever to grab a visitor’s attention. Don’t make them guess what you can do for them with copy that might get lost in translation.
Should you hire a copywriter? If you have a website budget and no in-house copywriter, working with a professional is a solid investment to make. They understand the nuances of user behavior, how to write for the web, and how to drive visitors to take action. Either way, it’s important that you’re clear about what you want to communicate so that you can create a clear brief for them or yourself and make the writing process easier.
You’ve got your visitor’s attention — now you want to keep it. When outlining what content goes on a page, make a list that goes from most important to least important. Your most important content — whether that’s information, event listings, or a call to action (CTA) — should be at the top of the page so visitors can find it without scrolling down the page.
Write the content with short sentences and paragraphs, use clear sub-headings or sections, and add icons or images where appropriate.
Should you hire a designer? Once again, if you have a website budget and no in-house UX designer, consider working with a professional. They’re trained to create a user experience that will help visitors navigate the page and the website and easily find what they’re looking for.
People are busy with jobs, families, and friends. Sometimes, they just want to be not busy. So why should they spend time in your community? Focus on the benefits for your members and how being part of your community can help them — whether it’s learning best practices, getting career advice, or making life-changing decisions.
It’s not just chatting in a forum or Slack workspace — from events to mentorship programs, your community might have many ways to engage members. Share the different initiatives members can be involved in so visitors can see (before they join) the variety of rich experiences available to them.
Your members are the ones who start conversations, answer questions, attend events, give feedback, and make the community a wonderful place to be in. Use your website to tell their stories so visitors can see the people that help make it a success.
You could share:
Congratulations, you’ve convinced your visitors to join the community! Now, make it easy for them to do so.
Place buttons with a clear CTA — ’Join Now’, ‘Become a Member’, ‘Log In’ — on different pages of your website and in the navigation menu. You can even embed a signup form right on your homepage. Your goal here is to make it as frictionless as possible for visitors to click that button and get one step closer to becoming a member.
Before you launch your community website to the world at large, test it internally to squash bugs and create a smooth experience for visitors. Ask team members to visit the website and flag things that don’t work as they should. These could be anything from broken links to missing content to images that don’t load.
The work isn’t over once you’ve launched your website. To get the most out of it, update your website regularly with upcoming events or new blog posts. You can even add your social media feed directly to the website so visitors can see the latest tweets, posts, or photos as you share them.
Behind-the-scenes, you’ll find many tools available to show you how visitors are using your website and what information they’re responding to.
Google Analytics, Fathom, and Matomo let you can track and measure website metrics such as:
With tools like Hotjar and Clarity you can use heat-maps to observe how users are interacting with your website and learn things such as:
You don’t need to analyze every single bit of data and change your website constantly. Keep the data on hand so you can make informed decisions on how to improve your website if it doesn’t help meet your goals.