Following on from my article “10 key guiding principles for online community building and engagement“, here is an overview of the steps you need to follow to build a strong, sustainable community.
1. Ask the right questions
There are a number of questions your should ask yourself before launching a new community, and the first one is: Why? Identify the needs you are trying to fulfill by offering this online space for being to interact in. Decide what resource you are going to allocate to support your project, whether that be outsourced or internal.
Unless you’re addressing an unprovided-for niche, how will you make your community unique from others that exist around your chosen topic? Finally, and most importantly, is your company flexible enough to manage the feedback you will receive via your new community, and adaptable enough to address it?
2. Invite participation
If you’re creating a space for people to interact, it stands to reason they need to be made aware of it. Once you’ve identified a few potential members, reach out to them and suggest they join. Make sure you’ve made the narrative you’ve defined easy to identify; if in doubt, sign-post its steps around your community, suggesting activities members could involve themselves in.
As your new members start becoming active, keep prompting them to engage with each other around in different ways, extending invitations to parts of your community they aren’t visiting. The key is to simply ask for participation, and encourage initial activity.
3. Don’t obsess about the platform
The biggest mistake I see being made usually starts with the statement: “I need a forum/Facebook/Twitter/<insert any social network or community tool name!>, let’s build a community on that.” Focus on the purpose of your online community, and clearly define the narrative or story your members will involve themselves in, rather than the actual platform you will use.
Once you’ve decided on the purpose, draw out your key performance indicators that you will track to identify whether your community is successful. Keeping it simple is better; you can add features when they are needed, but removing them is a lot harder. Identify which platform, whether it be a social media network or a on-site discussion tool, is best suited for your fledgling community right now. You can always upgrade later as it grows and new needs become apparent.
4. Nurture early, release later
Building a community from scratch is a bit like raising a child. At the beginning, you need to be very involved in all aspects, guiding the sort of activity which is acceptable to you through your own public behaviour as well as the publication of clear guidelines of use. Seed the type of content you would like your members to create, and moderate efficiently if and when some of them step out of line.
In the early days it is better to be as visible as you can; as time goes on and some of your members start taking ownership of what they feel is becoming their community, you can take a step back, giving that sense of ownership and loyalty room to develop.
5. Taking things offline
You can read a more in-depth argument for taking your online community offline here, but the essential point is that meeting face to face makes your members’ interpersonal relationships real and reinforces their connections between each other. You are more likely to achieve tangible results in terms of helping people reach their personal goals when they can support one another in person.
By putting them in a room together, you are providing a platform for them to have more meaningful and effective interactions; by empowering your members in this way, you also increase the perceived value of your community as a place where good things happen.
6. Big up your members
Your members have an ego; stroke, massage, and leverage it. If you have a certain activity in mind that you really want your membership to be doing, then promote those most active. You can do this by providing some kind of rewards or badging system, which can you take a step further and assign different levels of points to each kind of activity, modulating this weighting as your priorities change.
When one of your community participants achieves something, celebrate it and interview them in your newsletter and feature them on your site. Even better, when your community passes a milestone or succeeds in a common goal, support and promote their celebrations. In the same way, commiserate with them on failure or the unfortunate occurrences of disaster in their lives.
7. Allow for granulation
At the beginning, your community space will address a particular topic or activity, which you’re better off maintaining a generalist approach to so as not to dilute conversation into too many smaller pots. People are more likely to participate if they can see others doing so. However, over time participants might take discussion on a tangent or want to investigate a particular aspect of what they are interested in, which will threaten to smother the generalist area. Let your community naturally split itself up; forced sub-groups are bad, organic ones are good.
Spread discussions into multiple containers as you go along to ensure that you rarely have a virtual space that doesn’t look active (unless it’s an archive and is clearly labeled as such) and allow your members to focus on more specialist aspects of your community’s narrative. This way, you also address the issue of new members being put off by old-timers hogging the limelight and imposing themselves, and make room for fresh points of view.
8. Involve your community
Reaching out and inviting your growing community to take part in either its administration or involve themselves in other parts of your company’s operations and activities is a great way to develop loyalty and evangelism. Stoke people’s passion for your brand or product by providing them with possibilities to feel more in control. You can achieve this through volunteering (potentially leading to a paid role) positions as moderators or hosts.
Another way to leverage your community is to set up initiatives such as member panels to provide feedback and market research to your marketing department, or organising a product testing group who can either be involved at an early stage of research and development, or trial test your new products prior to public launch.
9. Be firm but fair
As I covered in my fourth point, it’s important for you as the community or social media manager to set the tone, but you also need to provide guidelines for behaviour, whether on external communities you are managing like Facebook groups, or an site-based one. Start by applying these rules yourself publicly, and promote members who follow your lead.
Don’t tolerate too much debate over these rules of use; it’s your community, and you have an absolute right to decide what is acceptable or not. The hardest part is trying to be fair in your application of these guidelines when going about moderation of member activity, and maintain your impartiality.
10. Commercialise carefully
At some point you will want to (or be under pressure from your management to) commercialise your community. If you go down the easy route of using display advertising, make sure the ads don’t interfere with user experience; a flash advert covering functionality will not help your stats or member happiness!
There are many ways of investigating other avenues than direct monetisation through ads, but which still leverage your growing community. Just make sure you’re working from the starting point of thinking about your relationship with your customers rather than seeing them purely as an audience. It’s also worth paying attention to what they are saying and doing; they’ll often give you ideas for revenue streams which won’t jar with their experience and expectations.
Can you think of any more ideas? Do you follow a different approach?
This article was originally a presentation; you can view it below – I go into a lot more detail when giving this talk and cover case studies as well, so feel free to get in touch if you would like me to speak at your event. You can see my speaking profile page here.
[photo by Tim Green aka atoach]