Growing Your Online Community – 6 Starting Points

One of the best things about starting a forum is experiencing the impressive reach and quality of content that a forum community can create.  One of the most difficult things about starting a forum, though, is growing that community.  It can be a daunting task, and there’s certainly no single correct way to do it.

Based on our knowledge as a forum software provider and considering many of our customers’ experiences, here are 6 tips on how to nurture and build online communities:

1. Recruiting and Seeding Content

Your forum is ready to go, and you’re excited to begin sharing your brand and message with an online community; all you need now are users.  Where do you begin?  How do you attract that very first user?  How do you encourage your first user(s) to seed the initial discussions and remain active when your community is still relatively quiet?

Recruit your friends.  Reach out to your colleagues and family members.  All it takes are a few users posting a few discussions and comments, and suddenly your forum is no longer empty.  Talk about your new forum on your personal Facebook page, and tweet about it!  Promote your new forum on your blog or website, if you have one.  Respond to your users’ discussions and comments quickly and in a manner that encourages dialogue.  Comment on other forums or blogs that are relevant to your brand and include a signature with your community’s URL, if possible.

2. Lower the Barriers to Entry

Registration methods are, quite literally, the ‘gateway’ to your online community.  While it’s important to cultivate appropriate community members and to consider security, avoid adding unnecessary barriers to the registration process.   In an age where social connect options like Facebook Connect give users one-click membership into new sites, new users can get easily annoyed or discouraged by endless registration hoop jumping, so keep your community’s ‘gateway’ as simple and as welcoming as possible.

3. Follow-through

Persistence and follow-through are essential when attempting to grow an online community.  It’s thrilling when new users sign up, however this isn’t the time to congratulate yourself and call it a day.  A new sign-up is when your work begins.

Unfortunately, you can’t depend on your new users to guide themselves or remain active on their own.  It’s up to you to follow-through, nurture and encourage their activity. Send personal, private messages from within your forum to new members (we have tools to automate this!). Ask them if they have questions, or if there’s something they’d like to see that’s not currently available on your community. Schedule and devise a strategy for sending out a community newsletter or “check in” emails as your community begins to grow. Manually compile your list of contacts and schedule your sending times based on your users’ status/history within the community. Stay in touch with your users and ask for their feedback constantly.

4. Delegate and Manage Responsibility

Hopefully your community will grow quickly!  Don’t be afraid to delegate responsibility to others when that time comes.  One person simply cannot successfully manage a large community on their own.

Consider your most active and quality community member(s) as you begin the recruiting process because they already know your community’s personality and message (Vanilla can help identify your most valued contributors). Take great care to educate the community manager(s) you select, on what your forum’s personality and messages are (if they don’t already know.)  Check up on your community managers frequently and thoroughly to ensure they’re fostering your community and your message with as much as care as you yourself would.

5. Keep Tabs

By now you may have noticed a theme: When growing a community, keep in close touch with your users.  Make a habit of reading each discussion and comment every day.  This can quickly become a rather hefty task as your community gets bigger and bigger, but it’s the best way to remain aware and engaged with your users.  Consider it your “daily community digest.” This digest will dictate how to best evolve as a community and how to react to your users. After your community grows beyond the point where it is realistic to read every comment, rely on your platform to provide you with a roll-up digest of the best (and worst) content being generated by your users.

6. Gamify for Increased Positive Engagement

Users respond to positive reinforcement and gaming techniques.  Entice and reward your users by incorporating a reputation system in your community.  This can range from the very basic to the more complex.  For example, can you pinpoint certain users that frequently post and comment with insightful and productive content?  Reward them by considering them for a Moderator position.  Vanilla’s new Reactions, Badges & Rewards is another great way to gamify the community experience and to reward active, loyal users.  Custom ranking systems, complete with custom requirements, levels/titles and styling, are also possible and worth considering, once you’re ready.