Building a strong, engaged community is an important step to engaging your audience and promoting your brand. However, designing and implementing a dedicated platform can be both time consuming and costly.
What comes first?
According to Feverbee.com who literally wrote the book on building successful online communities, it’s important to have an audience in place before you move forward with the construction of the platform. Few successful online communities began with a bang. Rather, they grew into what they are today.
There must be certain level of interest and a high possibility of adoption for your community to be successful. For these reasons, you have to have the followers necessary to begin your community or things will stall before they even get started.
Utilize a platform that is both familiar to you as well as your early adopters. This can be a simple forum setup or an existing social media platform. To your early audience it’s more important that your community be user-friendly rather than fancy. This will increase the likelihood that your community will begin to grow.
Doesn’t The Platform Enhance the Community?
A well-known and popular online community is Reddit. This community-driven news, article, and discussion site boasts nearly a quarter million unique members and is almost entirely user-managed. To look at Reddit however, you won’t be awed by the beauty of the design or the complexity of its interface. Reddit is simple, easy to adopt, and driven almost exclusively by its members.
The Reddit example helps drive home the fact that your community is largely popularized by its members rather than the platform. The platform helps the community grow simply by being available, familiar, and easy to use for your audience, however the interest still needs to exist in the first place.
Even with a fully customized, dedicated platform in place there still has to be a level of interest in the community for one to exist. Your job is to provide an environment for that interest to flourish, but you cannot create the interest from nothing.
What’s the Easiest Path?
Starting an online community is not an overnight success story, but rather part of a long-range strategy of growing and maintaining a following of like-minded individuals. In short, it takes time. However, there are a few ways to get started:
1. Select your platform
Whether you wish to build your own community or begin with an existing platform, making this choice is the obvious first step. Your platform will dictate much of what you are able to do with your community and growth strategies.
2. Identify Your Purpose
This may be the most important decision you make. Like a company mission statement, what is your purpose? Remember, a community cannot exist without the engaged interest of the people who support it. If you’re a business, their interests are not necessarily aligned with your commercial intent.
Think of any community you belong to. Your neighborhood for example. Would you enjoy being a member if someone stood on your lawn every day and yelled “buy more houses on this block! Upgrade your property and raise its value!”
To your users, your community is a gathering of individuals who enjoy being part of a like-minded group. They are interested in a sense of belonging, guidance, and support. Not being sold to.
For your business, your community is an opportunity to gather advocates of your brand for the purposes of gathering valuable feedback, increasing sales margins, and generally improve the way you do business.
You can certainly use your community to bounce ideas, create focus groups, and source ideas for future products or improvements, however overt selling is a no-no.
Identify Key Persons of Influence (KPIs)
Once you know your purpose, it is important to identify the target audience and the key members who will be your early adopters. Your early members can come from many places, including:
- Existing customers
- Social Media Influencers
Install a Community Manager and Launch
You can’t build a community until you have one in place. Launch your community on whatever platform you’ve chosen and install a community manager to oversee growth and operations. It is now the job of the community manager to:
- Invite key persons to join your community.
- Engage members directly
- Publicly acknowledge early adopters and top contributors
- Promote community-generated content
- Build personal relationships with users
- Recruit new members
- Moderate discussion
A community manager is an often overlooked aspect of the community building process, however they may be the most important person involved. In order for your community to be successful there needs to be someone who wakes up thinking of ways to make your community better today.
Your community will likely not thrive overnight. It will take time. Be sure to listen to feedback from your early adopters and prepare to make changes as you go forward. Regardless of what platform you start building your community on, it is important to nurture growth, make changes as needed, and allow your community to take shape.