Whether you’re selling clothing, home decor items, or designing and publishing your own video games, most entrepreneurs would agree that a thriving online community is an absolute must. It’s what leads to higher engagement with your social media posts, more insightful feedback on your blog posts, and yes, more leads and sales.
Plus, it proves to others that you have a reputable brand. We’ve all seen that one account promoting products, coming off as self-centered. There’s no genuine care involved, they don’t actively spark up conversations with their target audience. They just expect to be paid for their time.
Don’t be that brand.
To avoid being that trainwreck, you should remember that it’s all about fostering your community. You should be caring about your customers, and it should be reflected in everything from conversations, to spontaneous action. Seek to be a friend who cares about interests, needs, and behaviors. A friend who helps solve problems.
And trust me when I write, if you do these things, your business will grow at a steady pace. Because people don’t respond well to money-hungry business practices anymore. We all crave more humanity from our interactions. We crave more empathy.
The following is a one-stop shop to building a thriving online community that will root for you in return for some much-needed, problem-solving products.
Let’s take a look.
Find Your Niche
Why should someone participate in your community over someone else’s? What do you have to offer that others do not? And furthermore, who are you catering to?
Perhaps it’s all connected.
Here’s what I mean:
Suppose you’re running a community for gardening fanatics, avid gardeners, and landscaping designers. Anyone with a love of plants who either enjoys them as a hobby, or career path. That is your niche, it’s plants.
And you started this community because you sell plants and plant-related products. That means it’s your industry―to run a plant business. You’re in retail, selling these items to people with a fascination for it.
Now, why should someone participate in your community over someone else’s?
Because you know what you’re talking about. You make a living off of it, after all. Therefore, any announcements or topics posted by you are of great value to the community members. You’re not just some plant enthusiast with little knowledge. You’re a professional, maybe even a specialist.
What are you offering that others aren’t?
Well, there’s insider knowledge for anyone looking to break into your industry and niche. There’s also the first-hand knowledge of plants that you only have with years of experience working on different types of gardens, soils, locations and themes.
Perhaps you’re even offering special discounts only obtainable through the community, making them exclusive deals.
In other words, when you’re looking to start a thriving online community around something, you really have to get specific and smart about your niche selection. It has to be something that you’re passionate about, as well as something you have a lot of knowledge on. It can’t just be something you’re mildly interested in.
Or better yet, consider this: if you don’t have a business yet, this community could eventually turn into a brand. If you can’t see yourself running a business related to this niche, then it’s probably not a good idea to begin with.
Now, if you do have a business already, and your community is just an extension of that, then you already have something to go on. You could choose a very specific aspect of your business to build a community.
Suppose you’re a marketing consultant, and you work with an array of clients all over different industries. You come in to assess what it is they’re working with, what their goals are, and then point them in the right direction, essentially fixing anything that’s broken, and implementing smart strategies for their teams to use.
That’s a business, not a community though. No, the community would come in if the marketing consultant decided to start a forum for marketing enthusiasts and professionals. A place where people could ask questions, share tactics, provide insight, get feedback on tools and software, you name it.
Of course that’s not specific enough. A niche would be something that has to do with digital marketing, but is very targeted, such as social media marketing, or better still, Instagram marketing practices.
Building a community around something that you find fascinating, but is very targeted, brings out a lot of people who are curious about the topic. People can bond over this love of Instagram marketing, and share their results after conducting marketing tests.
Now, as a precaution, remember that once you create this community, as hyper targeted as it may be now, it won’t always stay that way. At least not exactly. Things branch out, conversations evolve into relevant, yet entirely different discussions, and that’s okay.
We’ll touch on this point in another section, but for now suffice it to say that you should trust your members. Whatever conversations evolve from the seed you plant should be welcome as long as they don’t break any guidelines. In the end, your niche is still your niche, and any subtopics that pop up can still be very relevant.
Start Small With Plans to Scale
Before you really kickstarted your business, before you had an office, or even a fancy desk, your setup most likely resembled the image above. It was the living room floor or couch, maybe a side or coffee table. Perhaps even a patio with a view of your backyard.
Well, that setup changed over time. It got better as your business grew. And it only grew because you put in the time and effort to make it happen. What started off as small, scaled into something you worked very hard for.
Think of your community in the same way.
You could start your community as a very small email list, or even a forum thread. It could be friendly dinners for people who bond over… anything. Pick something you could then turn into a business at some point in the future, if you haven’t already.
The point is that you can grow this over time. You can learn more about its value, why it works, what could make it better, etc. Essentially, you could iterate it until it’s pretty much as polished as humanly possible. And from there, it could turn into a business.
If you already have a business, this small start could just be a discussion board for people to bond over the love of X, Y, or Z, all related to your brand, of course. And it could start of being this very small, personal, helpful thing. No monetary value, just a place to connect with likeminded people. Over time, you could improve on it, work out any issues, and then reach a point where you could really champion it as an integral part of your business.
If all goes well, you could have more than a community of loyal buyers, you could have some pretty close friends. Your network could expand that much more. And imagine the events thereafter: full of people who genuinely believe not just in a brand, but in you.
Set Some Clear Guidelines
Of course, as with anything in life, there are some expectations to be had when starting anything relating to other people. You simply can’t dive into something expecting people to always behave. Unfortunately, online platforms have taught us that toxicity is something to beware. It creeps into every post in the form of a comment, and it certain creeps into entire communities with their negative posts.
That’s why even though you’re starting off small, you still need to set some clear guidelines. It prevents those one-off, or even recurring, trolls from ruining everyone’s time. Letting them run rampant actually leads to a breeding ground of negativity, and in turn, makes it difficult for genuine fans to enjoy themselves. If anything, it makes them want to excuse themselves from your community altogether.
Set some standard rules, such as no spamming, only sharing relevant content, and being at least logically respectful of other members. It’s okay to disagree with people, and even argue to make points heard, but it’s not acceptable to harass, stalk, or otherwise bring about personal business into the mix.
To touch on that further, it’s okay for conversations to get heated. It shows passion, and it promises a form of entertainment. It could even educate readers, as well as the people involved in the argument itself. What isn’t okay is when a line gets crossed. The guidelines are there for this reason, to ensure that any form of abuse is outright frowned upon. What that line is, is entirely up to you.
However, it’s important to stay realistic about expectations. Really take your time to determine what the guidelines should cover, and what they shouldn’t. Ideally, you want to facilitate a welcoming environment where freedom of speech is accepted, but you also want to ensure people feel safe enough to keep coming back.
If you feel like you need the extra help, or as if it’s just too awkward to actually follow through with kicking people out, feel free to outsource some help. Online moderators are a great solution. If you’re unsure of where to find them, or who has a good reputation, talk to a marketing consultant you trust. They’re typically well-connected and can point you in the right direction.
Make A Habit of It
The most successful things in life are the most addicting. Video games that reach the top of the charts are the most played, because they’re so hard to put down. It’s why developers market their games in a way that plays up those addictive elements.
And your community should be the same way. It should be there, in people’s inboxes, every single morning. Make it easy for them to click into it and read, or comment. Become part of their routine, and you’ll quickly become a habit.
Use things like email, notifications and assignments to your advantage. If you can regularly, as in on a daily basis, make yourself a part of these people’s lives, don’t hesitate to do so.
Make It Exclusive
People like to join things that are popular. Just think of those restaurants with the longest lines. It seems like it would be a deterrent, not worth the 2 hour wait time, but wouldn’t you know it, it has the opposite effect.
When something is deemed popular, we associate it with being something of value. It’s delicious, it’s good value for the money, it’s top notch quality, pick your positive description.
And likewise, when we think of things that are unpopular, we think of them as being… well, not very good, right?
Just think of the super tiny friend group you knew back in high school. It must have been terrible, seeing them hang out, knowing that they were never quite going to fit in because the die had been cast, and they were deemed “unworthy”. No one wanted to belong to the friend group composed of all of three people.
But there’s one way around this: by making it exclusive. Just think of those fancy golf clubs or meetups. They have the best of h'orderves and cocktails, and hang out in nice rooms, and yet, there’s only 20 people in there!
Wait a second, now we’re thinking. Imagine that, a small, exclusive club with everything you’d ever want in a fancy club. They can afford to offer these luxuries because they kept their numbers small. And the quality of their meetings, the educational factor of their conversations, is high because it’s not a massive room packed with hundreds of people fighting for attention.
Suddenly, being part of a small club is a luxury, it’s a commodity. It’s something to brag about, and surely, something that will capture the attention of many.
What starts off small and exclusive often grows into something fantastical.
And for the record, no, you don’t need to have a fancy setup for people to want to join your exclusive community. Remember, this is all about online communities anyway. Just make sure you have your website, your forum, or whatever it is you’re using as a base, designed by someone who knows what they’re doing. You want it to look sleek and appealing to many people. You want to be small, yet cool enough to entice others.
Aim to Help
The best communities are helpful ones. They’re the ones that really serve each other more than anything, thus building strong, unexpected connections.
For instance, imagine someone going onto a sales forum. If you’re unaware of what these are, picture entire communities built on the sole act of discussing the latest deals, discounts, and bargains available on the market. Deals on everything from basic kitchenware, to car products.
Well, these boards are great for finding like minded people who enjoy getting a good deal, obviously. These people will swap tips, offer deal insights, and will also vote on the posts by each person. If there’s a deal that no one knows about just yet, a community member can post about it, and the whole community will vote it up or down as they see fit.
And every now and then, if two people have been members for a very long time, they may offer each other discounts or even some digital items, such as video game codes, over private message. They could even sell things directly to each other at a fraction of the regular price, assuming they’ve formed a friendship.
These aren’t things we actively associate with online communities, but they happen everywhere, in many corners of the internet. This is just one example. And it showcases the benefits of building a thriving online community.
For a business building a community, you can expect your customers, your community members, to share insights on products and discounts as well.
Perhaps you sell vinyl records and your community is built on the premise of talking about music, your store sales, and little crate gems.
One person could post about finding a certain record they never thought they’d find, and wanted to share how excited they were over it. Another person could respond with a similar story, and then a third could make the argument that your store has a very wide selection of music, perhaps the biggest selection around town, and that it makes it easy for everyone to come in and find something unexpected.
This looks good on you. And it gives people something to mull over in their minds, and on the forums. A little healthy discussion goes a long way, and could turn into an insightful resource for you.
After all, you don’t have everything. There’s bound to be a few people who make the argument that you don’t have x, y, or z available in store.
But now you know what you should be ordering for the store. Now you know what people are asking for by name.
And of course, these types of discussions are always full of helpful music recommendations. Once someone talks about a particular musical artist, someone else chimes in with a “If you like X, you’ll love Y.”
Essentially, they’ll be helping each other find things to search for in your store. And they’ll be helping you make smart choices for your store’s inventory.
By creating an environment where people can help each other, you’re creating an open, thought-provoking environment. People are free to share, suggest, and ask as needed. That equates to an environment where your community members can learn and share, and then repay that with some helpful knowledge dropping of their own.
And if you’re concerned that this will lead to bashing, know this: there’s always some level of disagreements and ill will in online communities. It’s inevitable to be spotless. But if anything is particularly out of line, that’s what the guidelines are for. Enforce the rules, and you’ll have a carefully moderated community.
The Art of Interaction
The best example for this is actually a parent, so bare with me and think back to your childhood. Whether it was biological parent, adoptive parent, or other parental guardian, you likely had someone to watch over you when you were young. This person gave you the tools necessary to learn on your own, to figure out who you were/are, and to essentially live on a day to day basis.
But this person also had to practice the art of interaction. This person had to know when to step in and course correct you, and also when to step out and let you make your own mistakes. That’s a tough call to make, and certainly one that they messed up many times on. But overall, this person tried very hard to make the right choice in the moment, with your best intentions at heart.
Well, this is the lesson that you now have to master with your online community. You have to know when to pop up, and you have to know when to leave things be.
It involves being able to trust both your members and your guidelines, knowing full well that there are things in place to handle messy situations.
But how do you know when to chime in and step out?
First of all, remember that if it weren’t for you, this community wouldn’t exist. There would be no community to share things to, learn things from, or just to connect with like minded people on.
As the point of origin that you are, you’re the one in charge of connecting members, getting the conversation going, and then letting go so that people can chime in freely.
Here are some of the instances where chiming in is your duty:
Starting actual discussion topics.
Popping in to ask a further question on a thread that’s not as active as you’d like it to be.
Pointing out how a discussion was posted in the wrong section of the forum, and then moving it to its proper spot.
Reminding people to stay relevant, or simply removing an unrelated comment altogether.
Answering questions that you have very helpful answers to.
Clearing up any misunderstandings either with you, your business, or between community members.
Handling it when someone is blatantly going against the community rules.
This is the hard part. Chiming in is easy for any community creator, as it’s your pride and glory. You want to hang around and moderate, or add your two cents in on discussions, because you created the community in the first place.
It makes sense.
But learning when to show yourself out is the parental equivalent of knowing you can go on vacation, and the house won’t be set on fire while you’re gone. Trusting that your guidance and regulations, and outright good will, is enough to influence the community into staying on track.
And this is the difficult, yet valuable lesson every community creator needs to learn sooner than later. Otherwise, everything will feel like it’s being watched over, and your members will feel heavily moderated, or even scrutinized.
That’s not a way to run things.
So, when is it critical to step out?
If your community has boards or channels, which break off into subtopics, let them be.
If your members are direct messaging each other in an effort to build a stronger friendship, let them be.
Step out when the topic is relevant and ongoing, with members sharing insightful information and tips. Your input isn’t needed, if anything, it would disrupt the flow.
There’s an argument underway, but it’s nothing that these people can’t handle for themselves. No guidelines are being broken, it’s just 2+ people discussing something they do not see eye to eye on.
Let People Know
Finally, remember that people only respond to things they know about. If people aren’t aware of your community, they don’t have a chance to check it out, let alone become a part of it themselves.
Or rather, it’s the classic case of building something great, but it’s dysfunctional because it’s such a ghost town. Don’t build a ghost town. Use lead magnets and beyond to your advantage. Here are a few tools you should actively be using to promote your community:
Newsletter - This is a must, and if you don’t have one for some reason, that’s an issue you should resolve right away. Before you build an online community, preferably. Newsletters allow you to reach out to customers directly, share the latest news, spark conversation. It’s a bonding experience, a way to connect.
Landing Pages - You could even use a full-page popup on your website in place of a landing page, if you rather go that route. Whatever you choose, make sure it’s well-designed, and informative enough to make people aware of your community’s value.
Social media - That’s right, whether it’s an advertisement campaign, or it’s just a series of posts to your Instagram feed, you have a valuable platform at your fingertips. You can share the latest and greatest, including news about your brand new community platform. Think Facebook Ads, Tweet links, or LinkedIn articles.
Google Ads - It’s a valuable tool and you can work with the settings to make it as targeted as you want. It may not be your first choice when it comes to announcing something that is potentially being offered for free, but it is a strategy to at least consider. Make sure to do your research and use all tools available as well, such as Google Analytics, before making any major decisions.
The Actual Media - Journalists only care to share stories that do something for their publication, whether it’s getting more views or clicks, or even subscriptions. However, letting relevant publications know what you’re doing could lead to a great piece for them to cover, assuming you can present it in a light that screams “Your audience would greatly benefit from this.”
Influencers - They’re trusted by their followers, and they have a voice that’s heard all across the internet. Whether they post images to Instagram, or videos to YouTube, influencers promote products and services they feel would greatly benefit their audience. If your community fits the mark, they’ll likely talk about it in their content.
Ambassadors - Kind of like influencers, but not. Ambassadors are actually loyal customers that love your brand so much that they decide to vouch for it online. They create online content regarding your items, and then promote your brand, oftentimes using a unique discount code as an incentive. Doing so allows them to make a cut of the profits, while still providing value to their audience.
Tiered-Invites - Tier A is all about loyalty. They are super engaged with your content. Tier B, on the other hand, is moderately engaged. Start small, send invites to Tier A, and then once you’ve worked out some kinks, invite Tier B.
Your Personal Network - You’d be surprised to find out how many people you know through family and friends. And oftentimes, that’s enough for a solid start. This is especially true for those heeding the warning, and starting off small. For instance, maybe you’re building a community that could potentially turn into a brand.
Targeted Outreach - When you’re targeting people, you’re working on your outreach, trying to get people’s attention, remember the classic line “quality over quantity.” Sure, you need to get your message in front of many, many people. But all in all, it won’t matter if those people aren’t even remotely interested. At that point, it’s not your idea, it’s not your brand. You are not the problem, it’s who you’re targeting. Look for newsletters, publications, and blogs that cater to your actual niche. Make sure you appeal to those who would likely want to hang out in the first place.
Having a solid, engaging, honest community is the lifeblood of businesses, whether you see it that way or not. It’s not about the conversion rates, or the social media follows.
It’s about having a community that drives retention. One that is full of helpful advocates, and therefore, ambassadors. Acting as a massive focus group, a community can add value for your customers, sharing insight, tips and tricks that you never would have even thought of.
Fostering a thriving online community is a brand’s way of staying in touch with what it’s all about at its core: helping others solve problems.
So, if you’ve been wondering what you can do to grow your business, or to get more out of your content marketing, this is your answer.
And as always, remember that if you’re stuck at any point during the process, or you don’t feel comfortable handling things by yourself, you can always hire a marketing consultant. They come in, assess what you have, what you’re working toward, and then optimize everything to ensure you get there in the end.
By the way, if you had to choose one of these steps to call the most challenging, which one would it be and why?
Let me know in the comments section below, I love hearing from you all!