Unless you’re a natural social butterfly, building your own online community may sound a little daunting. However, if you plan correctly, you can set up a little section of the internet that you and yours can call home for years to come. In this post we’ll walk you though a few stages you’ll need to navigate in order to see your idea of a community become a reality.
You cannot just jump head-first into building a community. Sometimes they just kind of organically emerge, but if you’re looking to start a purposeful group, you need a plan. Otherwise, things can get out of hand quickly. Not necessarily in a bad way — you might become the place to be and grow exponentially faster than you expected to. Whatever the case, approaching building your community purposefully is your best bet for success.
1. Why Do You Want to Build a Community?
To start off with, you need to know specifically why you’re building this community. It is very easy to get in over your head and let a project go sideways without a clear vision of why you’re doing it and where it’s going. So think on it, and ask yourself the hard question: how will this community benefit its members?
That’s a hard question to answer. Especially because there are a lot of communities out there already. The internet is a big place. Just look at Reddit with the massive amount of users and categories and subreddits that people participate in. So if you’re going to build a community from the ground up, what will it bring to the table?
As an example, when I started my first podcast, I talked with my partner a lot about this. What even made us start talking about the podcast to begin with was wanting a place to talk with people. We missed the old days of blogging where conversations happened in the comments sections instead of on social media. It didn’t feel as personal or as social to us.
We wanted to talk to people and make friends. It was as simple as that. We wanted to produce content that would bring people together and have a conversation.
So that was our why.
Determine Your ROI:
Just a quick note about running a community. Sometimes you might not make a profit on it. You may be spending money or time on building this up. It can be a lot of work, so you should ask yourself what return you want out of this. This return should be entirely separate from the community goals above.
You may want an increase in emails to blast mail in return for providing a space for folks to congregate. You may be looking to create a route for customer support and brand loyalty to increase. Your company might even be looking to use it as a recruitment tool, finding new talent from people passionate about your brand or project.
Basically, you want to make sure that you aren’t expending resources without getting anything in return. If taken seriously and done right, a community can be a lot of work, so you want to make sure that even if your motives are altruistic and for the good of your audience and users, there is still a return in some way for you.
2. Find a Concept (or Stay on Brand)
Once you know why you’re going to build your community, the next step is making sure you appeal to the right people. As one of my old bosses used to tell me, “you gotta find your schtick.” Basically, what I’m saying is that you need a brand identity. I really liked how this article from Brandisty put it: “Let me be clear: a brand is the relationship between an organization and an audience.”
With that in mind, I am not saying you need a logo or a 4-color palette for your media kit. I’m saying that you need to know what your community is going to represent to its members. At Elegant Themes, for instance, we work to represent style and empowerment for our users. We want people to see or hear the words Divi or Elegant Themes and think to themselves “Oh yeah, their stuff lets me do my job so much easier than before” or “Man, the photos in that latest layout pack are perfect for [Insert Big Client’s Name]’s site.”
Sure, we have beautiful logos and pretty colors, but those are secondary to what is really important: making your life better through excellent design.
Now, if you have a brand already (and you probably do), think about who your users are and what you want to be to them. What purpose will this community serve to them? For you, it will (hopefully) lead to increased revenue, higher brand awareness and reach, and improvements in your products or service. But what good does it do your users to be members?
As an example of that, with my podcast, my partner and I wanted the relationship between our listeners and our show to be that of a matchmaker. We wanted to facilitate people meeting new friends. So if they listened to our podcast, they would have ample opportunity to talk with like-minded people through our community that we worked on building. Same for Elegant Themes — we have a very active comments section here on the blog, a Meetup network of Divi Nation groups, and so on. We strive to make sure that you participating means you get some value that doesn’t come directly from the software itself.
That’s our brand. Now find yours.
3. Craft a Mission Statement
Yes, those dreaded words. Mission Statement. The only two words that can make a committee meeting even more dreadful. But you need one. It doesn’t have to be anything complex (it’s better if it’s not), but you need to get that concept behind your brand identity into writing. That’s all. Mission statements serve the purpose of giving you a cornerstone to look back on and make sure that you’re on track. And if not, you can easily course correct.
4. Where Will Your Community Gather?
Today, there are a ton of options to choose from, and depending on your type of brand or project, some may work better than others. There are really two things you have to keep in mind about this:
- Do you want a completely free forum, or do you want to own and control your own platform?
- Where does your audience already hang out?
The pros of going for a free forum is that most of the leg-work is done for you. Choosing an option like a Facebook Group is great because so many people already use it (so you show up where they already are), and you can get started in just a few clicks. It takes mere minutes to get Groups up and running on Facebook.
The cons of using an externally hosted platform is that you don’t have any control over it. Not really. You and your community are subject to their ToS and business model and lifespan and so on. However,
Controlling your own platform gives you freedom to do whatever you want, whenever you want, however you want. But it comes at the cost of being yet another account your users have to sign up for. With forums and various membership site plugins for WordPress, you can absolutely go this route. But if you make the process too much of a chore, your community may never get off the ground.
Some Platform Options:
I want to list some of the more popular platforms to grow an online community, and in many cases, creators and brands choose multiples to reach different segments of their audience. For example, some people may spend the majority of their time online with Discord open in the background, but never log into Facebook. Or some people might be hardcore Redditors and Twitter influencers, but avoid group chat platforms altogether.
- Discord – A group chat that is aimed at gamers, but robust enough to work for a variety of community types. Very handy if your user base is already using it, as your server could just be added to their list.
- Slack – A group chat that many companies use for work, so people very likely already have this one installed. Setting up your own Slack server is free, and communities here thrive during the day since people can participate while looking like they’re hard at work.
- Reddit – The largest community on the internet. Basically one giant forum, anyone can set up a subreddit (subforum), which anyone can subscribe to and participate in.
- Facebook Groups – You’re probably already a member of a few Facebook groups. These groups can easily go viral, have lots of admin options, and take advantage of a place your people are already likely to be.
- Twitter hashtags – Twitter hashtags can also be a community. Often taking the form of a chat (such as #bibchat or #codenewbies), these tend to be regular, moderated discussions that eventually grow into a tag folks use all the time to keep everyone connected.
- YouTube comments – Despite their reputation, if you foster a healthy discussion in the comments of your videos, you can build a very active and thriving community there. People’s channels will follow and interact with one another, share playlists, and just generally grow together.
- Live streams – If you regularly live stream, you will get a cadre of viewers who tune in. Those people then fill up the chats as you go, talking with you and each other, and then those comments continue after the stream is over. This is generally not the primary location for your community, but it’s a fantastic way to get people to interact and hang out together.
- Forums and Message Boards – While on the decline in popularity, forums and message boards are the old standby for internet communities. Totally asynchronous messaging threads are incredibly useful for long, detailed discussions. However, because they are generally entirely separate from other accounts and platforms, people have to make an effort to check the boards to see new updates. If you decide to go this route, there are plenty of WordPress plugins available including bbPress.
- Social Media Pages and Profiles – Simply having a Facebook page or a Twitter profile that interacts with other users in and of itself. Look at the Wendy’s Twitter account. Or Zappos. They keep their social media managers interacting with customers constantly, and their responses stay on brand. So people get involved. Again, this won’t be the primary platform, but it can be very important.
5. Lay Down The Law
You have to write down whatever rules and guidelines you want your members to follow. Communities go downhill fast if you have no rules to govern them. Even if they’re as simple as “no self-promotion, hate speech, or personal attacks will be tolerated.”
As the community manager, it’s your job to determine the bounds within which the members stay. They can be as rigid or as lenient as you want, but the important thing is that they exist and are posted for people to see. Well, and that they’re enforced, but we’ll get to that next.
A lot of the planning for a community is academic. You’re thinking and envisioning and trying to make sure all your ducks are in a row. After that, you get to put you feet to the pavement (or maybe fingers to the keyboard) and start dealing with people.
1. Start It Up
Okay, so take steps 1-5 under the planning stages and do them. It’s time to implement your plan. It’s time to start that Facebook Group or launch that Discord server. Take everything that you’ve been thinking about and make it real. It doesn’t matter that your users aren’t aware of it yet. That’s okay. You want to lay claim to your spot.
If you have been planning it for a while, you might have even told them that you were working on this. So long before you start inviting people, plant your flag and get it to waving. The important thing is that no one gets an Under Construction page or a broken URL. Once you start pointing people at where you want them to be, you want them to stay there. So get the forums up and running. Set the permissions and channels in Discord. Upload your emoji to Slack.
Take your idea and make it real.
2. Soft Launch
A soft launch will be your best bet for introducing people to your community. And by soft launch, I mean, not promoting it to the world at large. Just let people organically trickle in. Maybe you invite a handful of people or casually drop a note about it in your podcast or at the end of an email. Maybe even a Join our Community button on your website. But not putting effort into telling people about it.
Because of bugs and snags and all the thousands of things that could go wrong. You want to be able to work out the kinks before bringing in a boatload of people. If the first impression that people get of your community is that it’s shoddy, you probably won’t get a second one.
Especially if there’s any kind of premium price tag attached. If that’s the case, give a few free memberships or trials to some people to try out and get things rolling. They’ll feel special, it’ll be a soft launch, and you’ll hopefully get some free advertisement for when you do launch officially.
3. Recruit Staff and Assign Roles
Now this is a kind of iffy stage, to be honest. Some people don’t need this step at this point. Everyone will eventually, though. You can handle going solo, trying to build an online community all on your own (I’m thinking of Saron from CodeNewbie, who did it all by her lonesome at first). Some of you already have a staff or group of volunteers. Heck, some of you already have an audience who are clamoring to be more involved with you.
But if you don’t, it’s time to grease some palms. Figuratively, and maybe even literally.
You won’t need much. Just a few people to make sure things run smoothly. You will want people to moderate discussion, generally, and make sure the rules you set up are followed. Even if you start out doing it all by your lonesome, there will be people stepping up to enforce them for you. Even without you asking. These are perfect recruits. Additionally, you can see the people who engage the most and care about the community’s growth and health and ask them if they want to be involved in a greater capacity.
In the end, it’s the caring about the community’s growth and health that matters.
4. Really Launch and Promote Your Tail Off
This is the big moment. Once most of the outstanding bugs are taken care of, you are ready to get this show on the road. You can shout it from the rooftops and let the entire world know that your doors are open and welcoming to anyone who wants to be a part of something special.
And this is where you have to do most of the work. Because you need to get people interested and invested and actually participating in your community. All of your marketing energy will likely be spent going toward your community for a while, and that’s okay. It’ll pay off. (Remember earlier when we talked about your ROI?)
It depends entirely on your project and brand on what channels you promote through, but in general, you want to go overboard. Just to the point where you don’t annoy people.
Running Facebook ads or AdWords campaigns is a popular way to recruit. If you are a community of artists, Instagram ads would be perfect. Send out an email to all your lists. Then a few days later, segment it to those who didn’t open it. Schedule a lot of Tweets and Facebook posts using Hootsuite or Buffer. CoSchedule is another good option.
For the initial launch period, you may want to do a combination of live streams and interact with your audience or customers that way. Promote those personally. Even do giveaways if it’s a premium community. And use Facebook events, even if you’re not on Facebook. It’s hard to believe how much Virtual Launch Parties can help a project’s reach. Or really any virtual event, for that matter.
So you’ve launched. You’re up and running. You have people visiting your community every day, and everything is going even better than you expected. So what now? Well, you maintain it. You keep on doing what works, and maybe throwing some new ideas in the mix to keep things fresh for your customers and audience.
Basically, to maintain a community, you go through most of the steps you did to launch it, just to a lesser degree.
- Periodically look at the mission statement and purpose of your community to evaluate whether you are on track with your goals.
- Make sure your ROI is on track. Check if you’re putting in enough effort or too much into keeping things going.
- Always monitor the users and keep an eye on MVPs. You can never have too many people in your corner. Harvest the talent there for everyone’s gains.
- You should also monitor your monitors. Make sure the rules you laid out are still being followed and that the community is still what you meant for it to be.
- Continue marketing. You don’t want to go all-out like you did to launch it. To build an online community requires people hearing about it. Maintaining one is about retention and interactivity. But you will still need to keep it in your marketing rotation so it doesn’t become stagnant or insular.
That’s All There Is To It.
And isn’t that enough? If you are going to build an online community, it takes time, effort, and a lot of planning. But when it’s done right, there is really no better element you can add to your brand or company. Positive interaction with your target audience is more valuable than pretty much anything else these days, and there’s not really anything more positive than inviting them to your own space that you made especially for them.
What have your experiences been with building an online community? Let’s talk about it in the comments!
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