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How to Build an Online Community

Any entrepreneur will tell you that fostering customer relationships is key to building a business. In today’s Internet age, creating and participating in an online community is one way surefire way to build your business relationships.

Creating an online community around your brand can not only help strengthen your brand, it will also give you a direct path of communication between you and your current and potential customers. For those of you without an existing online community, it can be daunting to figure out where to start. This guide takes the mystery out of how to create your own branded community online.

The What’s and Why’s of Online Communities

An online community is a gathering of like-minded individuals that has an outlet on the Internet. As with a physical community, members get together to share common interests. These communities are terrific places to connect one-on-one while building relationships with a larger audience and industry influencers.

New connections are the most obvious benefit, but a strong online community can also attract customers and keep your business competitive.

To Build or Not to Build

The first question to consider is whether you should code and create a community platform on your own, or whether you should leverage existing systems that support online community conversations. If you’re thinking about building your own community, beware of the pitfalls. You could spend a ton of time and money, and your visitors aren’t necessarily going to flock to your creation.

We aren’t saying it can’t be done, and in fact, throughout this article, you’ll see examples of communities and forums that have been built and are housed at specific branded web addresses. But if you’re just starting out, or you don’t have the resources to build your own community platform, there are ways to get started with nothing but a few keystrokes.

For example, if you leverage an existing social media platform by creating your own private Facebook group, you’ll spend zero money on your infrastructure, plus you get to house your community in a space that already contains a reported 1.49 billion monthly users.

Feeling skeptical about such an easy solution? Let’s see what the pros are saying about using social media channels to build a branded community.

In Forrester’s recent lineup of 2015 predictions for the technology landscape, “branded communities” are making a comeback, and they imply that social media is the right place to go. Forrester states, “People will grow more willing to interact with brands through social channels in 2015.”

AdAge agreessaying, “Groups may not be the sexiest thing that Facebook ever created, but they clearly offer a potential powerhouse of engagement that many brands are not adequately leveraging.”

And in case you’re not yet convinced of using social media to create your own community, Harvard Business Review says: “A brand community is a business strategy…Online social networks can serve valuable community functions. They help people find rich solutions to ambiguous problems and serendipitous connections to people and ideas.”

Whether you go the social media route, or you choose another avenue for your online community, there are a few steps you’ll have to take in order to get your online community buzzing.

Step One: Appeal to Your Audience’s Interests and Passions

Share Your Passion

Passion is crucial. Interest and passion about your subject matter is going to draw community members and boost active participation. If no one’s interested in your topic, then you’re fighting an uphill battle. Consider the example of the Harley Owners Group (HOG) community – HOG boasts more than one million active members bonded by their passion for the Harley Davidson motorcycle culture.

Fill a Need

The second thing to keep in mind is whether your community is filling a need. Lugnet community saw a need and stepped up to fill in the void. This group shares design ideas and feedback on elaborate Lego creations. Sharing ideas back-and-forth helps other members with their own Lego projects.

Be Specific

It’s ok to build your community around a super-specific niche. Look at the success of Figment, a branded community with 300,000 + highly-engaged members, all young writers of fan fiction.

To find out if your specific interest is widely shared, you can look at the Google AdWords Keyword Planner to discover the monthly average number of searches that are being performed around search terms that relate to your niche. Try out different keywords to figure out what your audience might be searching for so you can be sure to center your community around topics that are highly searched.

You Don’t Need To Start From Scratch

Sometimes there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Use those who have gone before you as models for your own success and seek out flourishing communities as inspiration for your own goals. According to Momentology, each successful brand community shares the the three pillars of feedback, advocacy, and support.

Here are some examples of brands that have built powerful online communities:

  • The SAP Community Network (SCN) is a powerhouse reporting 2.5 million engaged members and has been hailed as the most extensive use of social media by a corporation.
  • MyStarbucksIdea community has led to over 277 innovations and 150,000 new ideas from customers.
  •  Reddit is one of the largest, most popular online communities with approximately 7,500 subcategories moderated by its own users.
  • Quora is a massive Q-and-A site with about 500,000 topics and hundreds of millions of views per month.
  • StackExchange is another popular Q-and-A site with over 4,000,000 registered users.

Step Two: Provide Value-Add Content

Don’t underestimate the importance of content strategy when building a vibrant community. Successful communities focus on the needs and wants of their members—thus, so should your content.

According to online community expert Venessa Paech, here are some ways to create valuable community content:

  • Examine community debates to come up with ideas for content creation.
  • Highlight popular topics and build content around that.
  • Ask your influential members for input.
  • Interview community members and share their stories to boost connection.
  • Mark milestones—birthdays, promotions, and meet-ups.

Step Three: Don’t Go it Alone

Your business has a limited reach; so don’t overlook the importance of founding members—especially in the early stage of community building. Your charter members can nurture your grass-roots community efforts and then support your community as you grow.

Founding Members Attract Others

According to Rich Millington of Feverbee, recruiting founding members adds credibility to the group and allows you to cast a wider net with member recruitment.

Identify influencers, thought leaders, and individuals with credibility in the space. Recruit them as founding members. And have them share your community with their networks. Now you have created a grass-roots level effect. Someone with credibility and a reputation in the space is much more likely to get participatory members than you would with a random Tweet or Facebook post.

Don’t Overlook “Real Life” MeetUps

It might seem counterintuitive, but in-person efforts go a long way to building your online community. Conferences and meet-ups allow others to put a face with a name.

In the past three years, AddThis has hosted 38 MeetUps in the form of NoVa UX, which has since grown to nearly 1,700 members. At these events, we get to connect with new contacts and share ideas.

A bonus besides new contacts is the knowledge you gain from industry events. Even the most seasoned pro can learn something from other pros, so make it a commitment to put yourself out there and shake some hands.

Step Four: Curate Conversation to Encourage Participation

One-way communication is over. Today’s online audience wants to communicate and know they are being heard. To keep the lines of communication open, you need to find creative ways to interact with members of your community.

Get Creative

You can use quizzes or surveys to ask your community about topics they feel strongly about and to get some guidance for conversation starters. The questions you ask are going to depend heavily on what kind of community you’re running, but one example could be to ask members to introduce themselves and to share what they hope to gain by being in the community.

Another way to interact with your community is the member-generated model—a model that’s worked well for brands like Oracle and Playstation. Oracle’s Community brings members together to solve problems. And Playstation’s Community lets users upload in-game clips.

Each of these brands has found creative ways to engage with their community in a unique way that appeals to their members.

Encourage Competition

It’s human nature to compete, so capitalize on that by offering incentives for participation. For example, Moz offers a points system to encourage participation. Similarly, Reddit recognizes those with popular posts by boosting a person’s standing in the community. Offer badges for users to showcase being a poweruser, or an expert. People like to brag — let them!

Empower your employees to participate. You want your community to be vibrant and diversified, which can only happen when you have a group of active members, not one person constantly contributing.

Building an online community will take some legwork, but your efforts will pay off in the long run. Remember that people want their opinions and input heard, so keep your audience in mind when you’re building your community. With our tips and a little work, you’ve got the tools you need to create a strong, active online community.

How to Build an Online Community
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