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Building online communities can be scary. In this post, we bring you some tips from the experts to help you become a community pro!

1. Think about the value community activity will bring to participants. 

The most important thing to do before building a community, online or offline, is to understand who your community is why they should engage with you. It seems everyone wants to build community these days, but often aspiring leaders don't think enough about the value community activity will bring to participants. If you can't clearly explain how engagement serves your potential community members' self interest, you probably won't grow quickly. And don't expect community members to tell you what they want as your numbers swell organically. That might work with some high profile political and social movements, but it's far from the norm.
Brent Messenger, VP Community & Policy at Fiverr
Generally speaking everyone interacts from a selfish standpoint, especially on the Internet. They are looking for something that interests them, that captures their attention, that helps them on something, etc. If you don't frame all of your outward messaging in the lens of value to your audience, it's lost.
Dan Uyemura, CEO of PushPress Gym Management

2. Engage people in a structured way.

Once you identify your audience and purpose, you can start engaging people in a structured way. For us, that structure begins with identifying leaders, training them, and helping them recruit supportive teams that will eventually take ownership of all community activity in their locale. Empowering local community teams to take ownership may seem risky to some, but for Fiverr it's fundamental to our strategy.

Many companies that engage in community activity use social channels and online forums to broadcast messages and encourage chatter. Companies that are good at community (not to mention well-staffed) can engage in a finite number of two-way conversations—regularly talking back and forth with community members on topics that matter most to the company.

What Fiverr wants is a bit different; we want to facilitate infinite conversations around issues that matter most to our community and to build lifetime bonds between community members, such that Fiverr is seen less as the central reason for connecting and more as the connective tissue between people who need each other.

Our ultimate goal is that, when thinking about Fiverr, our community members picture friends and peers, not our logo. To them, Fiverr should represent human faces and fond attachments, not a product. We call this idea the "love triangle." In this triangle we want the company to be relationship with community members, of course, but more than that we want them to be a meaningful relationship with each other. This triangle is how we build the authentic emotional loyalty that has fueled our community's massive global growth.

Fiverr’s approach to community building—which is a modified version of the "snowflake model"— is rooted in my experience as a leader on the 2008 Obama for America political campaign. It’s a way to scale a large grassroots community by utilizing an army of well-trained, fully empowered leaders (ambassadors, in non-political speak) as the principal community builders, while requiring minimal staff oversight.

This model allows us to establish communities in cities around the world that grow and thrive on their own without constant intervention, providing a much more engaging and fulfilling experience for everyone.

Brent Messenger, VP Community & Policy at Fiverr
Plan a content calendar that encourages engagement so your community can be the place users look forward to participating in daily/weekly. Don’t forget to create guidelines that define the purpose of your community.
Hannah Sulcov, Community Manager, The Close.com

For every popular social network, there are three more that faded away, taking your hard-fought community building efforts with them. The thing about social networks is that they don’t belong to you and someone can pull the plug at any time. Users can grow bored and stop using the network or move on to the next big thing.

Using a community building app or hosting your community on your own platform means your people always have a place to interact.

It can be tempting to set up pages on all the popular social networks. After all, the experts tell us we need to go where the people are. Except that there are so many platforms, you risk thinning out your community. When people scatter it’s hard to get them back together again

Instead of opening up a dozen accounts, consider where the majority of your people hang out. Ideally, you’ll host your community on your own platform. Owned media such as your blog, a community media app, and email newsletter are effective community building tools.

Once you have a thriving community on your own terms, you can test the waters at a popular social network. Just keep in mind that sending people to someone else’s platform, you run the risk of losing people on your own.

Pavel Gertsberg, Head of Growth at Disciple

3. Focus on what you can provide to members that they can't get anywhere else.

I like to start by focusing on what you can provide to members that they can't get anywhere else. That might be exclusive content, or it might be access to people (staff, influential peers). For example, the Envato Author community is primarily B2B. Our forums provide advance notice about upcoming events, plus direct access to staff members to give feedback. There are many satellite communities that our members run or participate in, but those benefits are only accessible from ours. Always have a clear reason why people would enter the community.
Ben Leong, Forum Manager at Envato
Provide FREE regular content for your audience that is reserved just for them and lets them know they are valued.
Stefanos Sifandos

4. Build up connections between members.

If you want the community to thrive though, you also need to build up connections between members - not just increasing the number of members who interact directly with you. That helps you scale up, and also provides a shared sense of community with other members.

Get members talking to each other, get them talking about themselves, and learning more details about the rest of the group.

Aim to transition them away from only using your community as a place to consume content that you publish: you want them starting the conversations, and responding to each other. Unique content or access gets people to join; their shared connections are what will keep them coming back again in future.

Ben Leong, Forum Manager at Envato

5. Don’t disappear.

Having community-facing staff visible within your community is essential: it's not enough to have people simply reading the discussions and posting announcements. Let members see staff commenting and liking posts; let them find out more about individual staff through less formal discussions. Your members need to learn who to approach for answers, know enough about those people to trust them, and understand which types of questions they can ask each person.
Ben Leong, Forum Manager at Envato
You know what thriving online communities have in common? Community managers. Part customer service, part marketing, part content creator, and part cheerleader, community managers put a face and voice to the brand.

Active community managers keep conversation flowing and are in tune to their members’ needs.

They know when to take a step back and let members chat on their own and when to step in to offer guidance. Community members appreciate when someone from the brand is “one of them.”

When a community is left to run on its own devices several things can happen. The community can become a free-for-all with no one to make sure everyone is playing nice. Another thing that can happen is that the community can stall out and the members will go where there’s more activity.

If no one from the brand invests in the community, the community has no motivation to invest in the brand.
Pavel Gertsberg, Head of Growth at Disciple

I have built an online community of French learners who regularly help each other on French Together. While there is no forum or chat function, students regularly post comments and interact with each other and there are now 4,108 comments.

My advice for bloggers who would like to turn their blog into a thriving community is simply to interact with people who take the time to leave comments. I see lots of bloggers who say they care about their readers but never reply to comments. This sends negative signals and give the impression that comments don't matter.
Benjamin Houy, Creator of French Together

6. Listen to your audience. 

I have a few online communities I run - one of them with 2300 members, two with about 1000 and a smaller one with about 100.

The ability to use these groups (mine are on Facebook) to listen to my audience and what they need has been enormously valuable. It's allowed me to serve them in a greater way and to meet their needs exactly.

The #1 reason why I feel these communities have been successful is because we genuinely care for each and every person that is there and it shows.

People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care.

The formula has been to serve them well, engage with them, and we've seen our audiences grow as a result. 
Ryan Reger, Author
People don't like to hang out where they don't feel welcome and don't relate to the crowd. And they don't hang out where they feel unwelcome or strange. Be relatable, take time to understand them, be compassionate and empathetic. Or they won't stay for long.
Dan Uyemura, CEO of PushPress Gym Management
Whether your community is a group of hundreds or thousands it's important that you acknowledge your users and make them feel heard. The more comfortable the users feel in the community the more activity you will begin to see.
Hannah Sulcov, Community Manager, The Close.com
It’s not enough to have people dig what you do. If you don’t take time to listen and learn, you won’t hold anyone’s interest. Worse, you can lose them when campaigns or communication don’t apply to them. Understanding the individuals who make up an online community is important for success. When you take time to learn names and interests customers become evangelists. Take time to read feedback or comments on social media. Respond to online reviews, whether negative or positive. Say “please” and “thank you,” using first names whenever possible. When you care about people, they’ll care about you.
Pavel Gertsberg, Head of Growth at Disciple

Ready for a surprise? Ask your members for feedback. The answers you receive will be different from what you expect.

When you invite others to share their thoughts and ideas, they feel more invested in the brand. Even better, the people who use your products or services might have some good, helpful ideas.

Feedback isn’t always pretty, though. Often your community will share negative feedback about the brand. It’s not easy to hear bad things, but it presents you with a valuable opportunity to improve. Treat all feedback as an important tool for growth and improvement.
Pavel Gertsberg, Head of Growth at Disciple

7. Award most avid community members.

It has always been important to us to create a culture, experience and community that is sustainable in the long-term and is focused on attracting quality members who engage with us and are 'ride or die' for Loki over quantity.

We started out by awarding our most avid community members with Member of the Week awards. These were custom stickers based on an image they gave us such as their avatar or a meme.

We did this because it rewards and encourages them to keep discussing, talking, engaging and interacting with us and with each other. Some of them have been so helpful in advocating for Loki and helping others that we created a private group for them we named Valhalla, following on from our Norse-centric naming. There they are given first privileges and exclusive, early access to any big changes or new Loki products. Further to that, some of them have become pseudo community admins, who as you'll find in other online community groups like Facebook, are committed to helping new members and answering questions and issues when Loki team members are not always available. 

We believe by doing this we have enhanced the 'positive vibes' in the community channel and have made Loki's online channels rewarding, inclusive and welcoming places by an organization that truly cares and values their community.
Lucy Lovegrove, GM of Marketing @ Loki
An online community is made up of people who are interested in having a relationship with the brand. Treat them with respect and they’ll advocate the heck out of you. Say “thank you,” by offering rewards. Share discounts and free products. Have contests and games. Award prolific activity with badges, awards, and company perks. People who feel appreciated and valued are passionate and enthusiastic evangelists.
Pavel Gertsberg, Head of Growth at Disciple

8. Host Community Roundtables.

We host Community Roundtables once a month which are live broadcasts from our Executives and members of our Development Team on Youtube. During these roundtables, our community can ask whatever they'd like and comment live. These have been really successful in terms of giving the team a human face, and allowing the community to get to know us better. It's been part of our values and our commitment to transparency and accessibility, which is loved by our community and ensures that they can (and do) hold us to account depending on our moves and decisions.
Lucy Lovegrove, GM of Marketing @ Loki

9. Get SEO savvy. 

People cannot join your community if they cannot find it. Understand SEO or employ a marketing agent who can boost your page in organic google rankings.
Andrew Taylor, Director of Net Lawman

10. Respect people’s time.

Everyone is busy, do not post longwinded drivel. Get to the point, and get out. You might be talking too much, and NOT helping someone cause they lose interest.
Dan Uyemura, CEO of PushPress Gym Management

11. Highlight individual community members.

One way to grow an engaged community is to empower a small group of the most enthusiastic and engaged people to be moderators and community discussion enablers. Give those who are already committed more power and agency to shape the community, and you will be taking work off your own hands, while putting the community into the hands of those who care most about it. I've seen this increase engagement of those who are already highly involved as well as improve the overall community and its content.
Stacy Caprio, Founder of Accelerated Growth Marketing
Successful communities put their members front and centre. They encourage user-generated content, host photo contests, and praise their members’ achievements and accolades. Highlighting members fosters more engagement and growth as members proudly share their contributions.

It’s also a good idea to avoid limiting yourself to only highlighting community members within your community. Having a cross-platform approach will spread your reach further and can allow you to gain interest from potential community members. For example, if you run a podcast alongside your community, why not see if you can shout out specific members there. Or perhaps video marketing is part of your social media marketing strategy? You could record a live-streamed video speaking with your community members to increase further engagement.

Pavel Gertsberg, Head of Growth at Disciple

12. Focus on social-first content.

As someone who grew my personal following to over 1 million and have led social media for multi-billion dollar brands, I'll leave one tip. Most brands make the mistake of investing money on paid ads and repurpose the assets for organic, when that shouldn't be the case. One of my clients is Quaker and if you look at their Instagram and scroll a few times, they were posting the same thing over and over again.

Utilize user-generated content, influencer-generated content, content that amplifies events were in, and content that promotes ongoing contests and other campaigns.

By bringing this all in, you create a better social media experience to build a community. You want your content to resonate well with your followers and intrigue them enough to share with their inner circle.

Each type of content needs a specific platform strategy since the algorithms and how people use social media are all unique, so that's something to keep in mind. And that's how you grow!
AJ Cartas, CEO & Founder of Syzygy Social

 

13. Boundaries are your friends.

All community media platforms need moderation. Having rules in place doesn’t mean you’re stifling free speech. Without guidelines, a community might turn into a finger-pointing, name-calling, hotbed of negativity.

Moderation can also prevent negativity towards the brand. For example, when customers complain on a social network or other community platform, others can join in. Seeing these types of comments keep potential members from getting behind the brand. Community managers nip negativity in the bud by taking disgruntled members aside and quietly handling customer service issues before things escalate out of control.

Pavel Gertsberg, Head of Growth at Disciple
Strictly moderate all comments and only accept comments that add value so the comment section works as an extension of the articles themselves. The best online communities are those where commenters feel safe and don't have to worry about being judged or even insulted (something that, unfortunately, happens a lot in some communities.) 
Benjamin Houy, Blogger and tea drinker

 

14. Analytics for community building

Community analytics share a wealth of information. It’s through analytics that you learn your community’s habits. Use them to see which content brings in readers and engagement, which campaigns bring in members, and which promotions bring in sales. It’s through your analytics that you learn the individual habits of your community members and how they come to arrive at where you are. Understanding what people like and how they respond can help your community strategy moving forward.
Pavel Gertsberg, Head of Growth at Disciple

15. Be transparent.

Be honest with your community. If your brand is experiencing a form of online negativity, be as open and honest as possible. Address criticism head-on and answer questions with honesty.

Sweeping things under the rug leads to mistrust and more online negativity.

Apologize when things go wrong, and praise the community when things go right. No one is expecting a brand to give away company secrets.

Still, people invest a lot of time and money in the brands they’re loyal to and deserve the same respect in return.
Pavel Gertsberg, Head of Growth at Disciple

This post was brought to you by members of the "Theta Club", a private community of course makers, online coaches, membership builders, and professional content creators from around the world. Join the community here.