Shortness of breath during a routine walk. A chronic cough or continual wheezing. The need for supplemental oxygen. These are common symptoms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a condition that affects approximately 24 million Americans.

That number doesn’t count the friends and family members who help care for those affected. If walking to the corner store causes shortness of breath, then chances are that loved ones will need to accompany you to assist with routine tasks.

Learn from and Connect with Others

Founded in 2004 with offices in Washington DC and Miami, the COPD Foundation is a non-profit organization whose mission is “to prevent and cure chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and to improve the lives of all people affected by COPD.”

Since 2004, the foundation has provided information and resources to those affected by COPD through online and printed publications, a phone-based information line, a website, Facebook page, Twitter account and YouTube channel. In 2014 it decided to create a branded, online community where patients, caregivers and healthcare providers could learn from and connect with each other.

In other words, if you’re affected by COPD, you don’t have to go it alone.

According to Sara Latham, associate executive director, community and professional relations at the COPD Foundation, “We wanted to create something unique that would be of benefit to the greater COPD community and make it easier for individuals to communicate directly with each other.”

And thus was born COPD360social, a branded online community that resides within the website of the COPD Foundation. The online community launched Nov. 19, 2014, coinciding with World COPD Day. One month after launch, the COPD Foundation announced that the online community had already surpassed 1000 members.

What can we learn from this non-profit’s use of a branded online community? I spoke to the team at the COPD Foundation to find out.

Plan an Audience Recruitment Push Prior to Launch

If no one is in the forest and a tree falls, it doesn't make a sound. If your online community is a forest, you can guarantee people will hear it if you seed it with active users prior to launch. Don’t just pull anyone off the street and ask them to join your community. Map out the thought leaders and influencers in your space and encourage them to join (i.e. tall trees, with lots of leaves).

Consider that one new member may contribute useful content to your community. One influencer can do the same, but also attract 15 additional members to join her. COPD Foundation’s Latham noted that her team identified key influencers, then invited them in for early access to the community. In addition, Latham encouraged existing partners to help spread the word.

“We also conducted multiple webinars prior to launch to educate our external partners and ask for their help in telling their members about the site,” said Latham. The foundation’s partner enablement also included a social media toolkit, which provided resources, images and suggested social media posts to share.

The result: when new users discovered the online community in November 2014, it was already seeded with content, users and activity. If you didn’t know better, you’d think it had been around for years.

Have a Plan for Growth and Drive It Home During the First Month

Vinny Malanga, CIO at COPD Foundation, identified the number one priority for 2015 as growth. “Our focus is on growing and cultivating our community. This will involve not only marketing and communications, but also technology, as we introduce new and engaging features to provide an even better experience,” said Malanga.

For Latham, the growth plan was finalized prior to launch and has been the central focus of her team since launch. With 1,000 plus members in the first month alone, the plan appears to be working.

One tip from Latham is to encourage staff members to be proactive in the community, to demonstrate that it’s a community worth visiting. New or potential members need to see fresh and frequently updated content on each and every visit to the site. For Latham, the growth plan revolves around the following virtuous cycle:

  1. Provide useful content and an engaging experience
  2. Continually recruit new members to join
  3. Listen to member feedback about the site and implement changes based on feedback

You can see how this three-step process, when repeated, builds the community’s content, grows its members and most importantly, builds a larger and larger set of satisfied members (who will return often).

While the set of metrics to track will grow over time, Latham and team track the following:

  • Number of new users
  • Monthly active users
  • Cumulative time spent on the site
  • Number of questions posted
  • Number of answers posted to questions
  • Number of questions that don’t have answers within 24 hours

Community Features Drive Value to Your Existing Site

The COPD Foundation’s website existed for many years prior to its launch of COPD360social. The Foundation grew a loyal base of website visitors over the years, who came to check news, peruse event listings and download informational resources.

To launch community features, it made the most sense to house them on the website. By doing so, it would create a more seamless user experience to existing users. According to Latham, “By having the community on the same platform, users can easily jump to community features without venturing elsewhere. It also makes it simple for them to browse educational materials and then quickly jump back into community features.”

As CIO of COPD Foundation, Malanga is responsible for Search Engine Optimization (SEO). By hosting his online community on his website, Malanga enables his community’s user-generated content to help with search engine rankings, which benefits not just the online community content, but his entire website.

In addition, Malanga noted that online communities can drive SEO benefits in a Google Hummingbird world. According to Malanga,

Google Hummingbird has the concept of conversational search. The entire search query is now analyzed, rather than just the prominent keywords in the query. Some of the content we see in online communities, such as Q&A, is well-suited to ranking high with Google Hummingbird.”

On the Horizon

To aid in building and growing an engaged base of members, Latham and team plan to launch a series of webinars this quarter, to welcome new members, answer questions and help them navigate the site. COPD360social is open to the public. If you’re curious, pay the site a visit to get a look at how an active and engaged online community interacts.