I've been a member of several online communities (restaurants, product manufacturers, etc.) over the past couple of years, and from my experiences, I offer the following tips.
1. Have a designated owner/moderator for the board.
- This person should have their name and picture on the home page. Just knowing that there's a real person at corporate headquarters who cares about what the community is saying makes members feel this effort is legitimate and worth their time.
- S/he should be doing the following types of tasks: make sure there are appropriate sections within the forum / message board to cover the key topics you want people to talk about, and add new sections as appropriate, check the board daily, answer questions (researching to find answers if necessary), post links to relevant information, contribute "thank you" and "we're sorry" comments on the board (which should also promise that you'll pass the information onto the store manager, brand manager, whoever can act on the feedback), start new threads by posing a question and explaining why the community's answers will help the company serve the customers better, and solicit subject matter experts in the company to answer questions that come up on the board.
- This person should also regularly summarize activity on the board and present it to the rest of the company, ensuring that the community's opinions and suggestions are being heard and acted upon.
2. The website should include the following elements to make the community members feel engaged and stay active:
- A forum / message board – of course! – where members post comments.
- A way to give members points for their activity, such as starting discussion threads and contributing their opinions when the moderator poses a question.
- A "leader board" to show community members how many points each member has racked up, and help a member see what "level" they're at. Moving up a level or ranking high on the leader board is positive reinforcement for competitive personalities.
- A page that shows members what rewards or benefits they have received in the past or can receive in the future. Some community members will expect rewards just for showing up once in awhile, other members will want the chance to earn more rewards for contributing more, some community members won't expect anything. But somehow, you have to make the members feel like they're being heard and that their effort is appreciated. One low-cost reward that benefits all: a Suggestion Box or Scoreboard graphic displaying a running total of how many suggestions have been offered by the community and how many the company has implemented.
- Occasional comments from top decision makers at the company, whose decisions are being impacted by the community's feedback. For a restaurant, bring on the head development chef; for a manufacturer, the head of new product development or at least a brand manager.
- Pictures! Of new products, new stores, your charitable works, what's new in the broader industry that your fans might be interested in. Just make sure that whatever non-brand-specific stuff you post – including ads that appear on your site -- are in keeping with the overall brand image. If you have a hip bar/restaurant, you don't only have to talk about for food and drinks, you can branch into things like the latest music you're playing – but don't post about or allow ads for the latest in vacuum cleaners!