Creating an authentic, home-grown online community is not easy! A strong community is a complex ecosystem revolving around a particular cause or interest. The most high functioning communities seem to grow naturally, but actually flourish because of engaged community managers.
This post will help you form your own plan for creating and growing a community that fosters loyalty and helps your further your brand’s goals.
1. Discover Your Roots
The first step to growing your online community is learning why the community formed in the first place, what factors drew your community together, and what need it fills for it’s members.
By understanding what your members get out of the community, you can then start to focus in on the best ways to amplify that reward, and increase its impact.
The best way to get a sense of the inner workings of any group is through direct interaction. Whether it means getting out your sneakers, your telephone, or your computer, the key is to start talking to members. Ask them how they learned about the community, why they joined, whether they’re satisfied by the existing community dynamics, and what else they’d love to be able to learn, know or access by being a community member.
When speaking with your group members, here are 4 key characters you should speak with:
The Loud Ones
Pay attention to the most-engaged community members to get a sense of the most prominent voices, and their opinions. This can also help you learn who in your community is an influencer, and who might become an advocate for your cause.
The Quiet Ones
While loud voices may be more noticeable, it doesn’t mean that they represent the majority of your group. Quiet –but engaged– members can be just as invested in making sure their community succeeds. One way to draw out quieter members is with “get to know you” surveys. Share and ask people to select the content which interests them the most, and then use those data points to shape what you share with that community.
Communities are a living, breathing entity, and can change over time. Speak with your veteran members to understand how the community has shifted, and how they feel about it. They’ll be able to give you great historical data that can help you plan future successes.
Your newcomers will have just as much valuable data about your community. Compare and contrast their answers to your vets’, to see how motivations and perceptions have changed. They’re also great to track, to see how someone comes up to speed towards membership.
While there’s nothing quite like one-on-one interactions for learning about your online community, digital tools can also help your nurture your member base. Social media monitoring tools can help you put a quantitative spin to your personal relationships. Google Analytics, or similar social analytics tools, can capture which types of content are most popular, as well as which members are most engaged.
Also, if your community is built on a certain social media platform, like Facebook or Twitter, their native analytics dashboards can help you learn about the composition of your membership, their engagement levels, and whether your efforts are resulting in the right kind of growth.
2. Find Your Voice
Once you’ve done your homework to understand why your community formed and who it is comprised of, the next thing to do is figure out how to position yourself within the group.
As a community manager, you’re responsible for steering the tone and voice of your community.
A functioning community should reflect the values and drivers of your business, but that doesn’t mean it should read like a corporate website.
Match your voice (and your actions) with the driving force(s) you uncovered in step 1. If your community’s goal is to spread knowledge, encouraging sharing with an approachable tone. If your community exists to help counsel members through hard time, use a softer, encouraging tone.
Draft a style guide with different scenarios and responses to be consistent. Community engagement can’t be forced, it has to be authentic.
3. Participate in the Right Platforms
YouTube, or Vimeo? Pinterest or Instagram? All of the above? None of the above? These are the kinds of questions that can drive a community manager crazy (but are also really fun to explore).
Different platforms have different strengths and capabilities. By understanding the needs of your members, you can best pick what platforms to use or integrate.
Important things to consider:
- Do your members share embedded media, like video or songs?
- Do they tend to have long, in-depth conversations, or quicker bursts?
- What platforms are your members already using, or familiar with?
- Is this a community that people only use for business, or personal use?
In general, Facebook enables more 1:1, or personal interactions, Twitter encourages open conversations and information sharing, LinkedIn is great for professional networking and B2B growth, and Pinterest and Instagram are optimal for graphics-heavy posts.
Of course, there are also new, emerging stars in the community building landscape, like Slack. Slack is a real time messaging app, which has an increasing number of groups forming around the platform. (In fact, we recently released a new share to Slack button!)
No matter which platform you use, be sure to put metrics in place. Metrics help to show you how well individual social media platforms are working for you, which pieces of content resonate most with your different communities, and more.
4. Break the Ice, Again and Again
Encouraging strong, active relationships between members is the key to growing a great community. Given that, an effective community manager might also be called a matchmaker — someone who is able to build connections between members who may not otherwise engage with each other.
To be effective, you need to break the ice, get conversations off the ground, model the behavior you want others to show. In general, you’ll want people to feel valued and acknowledged – so be present, and be available. Share your positive voice and respond to theirs. On the flipside, hear the negative and respond to that in a productive way, too.
Also, make sure to show appreciation for your power users, those who are naturally helping to build connections and ties. A simple “shout out” or “thanks” can go a long way toward establishing connections and goodwill.
5. Pay Attention to Your Competition
Building a strong online community also means keeping your eyes open to what’s going on in the virtual world around you. By keeping a trained eye on the competition, you’ll be better able to provide more value, resources, and higher engagement for your own community. Compare and contrast what you offer with your competitors to guarantee your offering is unique and powerful.
Participating in competitors’ communities can also help to spur new new ideas for your own membership base. Get a step ahead of the competition and listen to conversations as they happen, what content is being shared, and what issues are coming up. Then, use these issues to troubleshoot or foster a stronger community of your own.
The bottom line: Growing your online community is about making connections. The most effective community managers are hands on; bringing information, support and fun to their membership. In so doing, they model the behavior they are eager to promote, and help drive community from the ground up. It’s an amazing gift to give to the world!