A lot of online communities fail for the same reason – a ‘community’ website is launched, but a lack of activity and members from day one seals the fate of the community from day one. When you release your community to the world, it needs to have buzz behind it. It needs to have content, and it needs to have members.
Who and where?
Two of the questions I ask in my community building questions ebook are:
‘Who are your potential members?’
‘Where will you find these potential members?’
Don’t build a community until you know the answers to these questions. The early stage of community building is detective work – you need to figure out where your members are, and you need to work out how to learn from them, how to approach them and how to excite them.
Head in the clouds
Find bloggers that talk about the subject matter of your community. Read their blogs and learn from them. Get involved in their blogs by leaving comments and asking questions. Do this genuinely – you aren’t selling anything, remember. You are simply learning at this stage.
Once you have become a regular reader and contributor at these blogs, reach out and email the blog author. Tell them your ideas and ask them what they think. Invite them to get involved in the community early and tell them why you want their feedback (because you respect their expertise).
Over time, extend your blog network. One person’s opinion isn’t going to give you enough knowledge and perspective. You need to have an insatiable thirst for opinions and for networking.
Bloggers don’t want to be sold to. They don’t want to receive promotional emails. They don’t want to be spammed. Be genuine – add value to their blog by leaving constructive comments and build a genuine relationship with them. Yes, it will take time – but it will work.
You should also consider starting your own blog – why should you do all the looking? You want some people to find you, too! Having your own blog also gives you something to put in the all important homepage field of your profile when engaging in other blogs, social networks and forums.
You don’t necessarily need to set up a Facebook page – groups could well be more effective for you (and more personal). Imagine you want to start an online community based around your local neighbourhood. What raises passions and emotions in your neighbourhood? Perhaps residents are up in arms about waste collection only occurring every two weeks rather than every week. Start a group for this cause and develop the group from there.
You’re just sowing the seeds at this stage. You are learning the ropes and feeling your way. Engage in conversations and get to know these people better. Find out what makes them tick. As you get to know them, extend the group’s remit. Add new areas for discussion or move the conversation to a different (less cause-specific) group or page.
After a while, you’ll notice who the most passionate and outspoken people are. You’ll identify the people you want in your online community. Reach out and bring them into the community building process. Get their ideas, thoughts and opinions.
Twitter is great for building relationships – as long as it is used correctly. Be open, be yourself and be genuine. Follow people that fit your demographic and engage with them. If they have a blog, get involved there, too.
Don’t use Twitter solely to push out your content. Use it to develop relationships and get to know people. Send people messages, and reply to comments and questions others make.
Make yourself known, and learn. The thing I love about Twitter is that you can spend time every now and then just sitting back and watching what people are talking about. What a great source of information.
Don’t join communities of your potential competitors with the sole aim of directly stealing their members. Instead, join to get involved. Earn a positive reputation – these are the people you want to impress and have influence over. Learn what people like and dislike about the community (discover what you like and dislike, too).
Get to know other members; get to know their wants and needs and work out what your community will do that will win these members over. It’s hard to lure members of one community over to another – so unless you see a failed community, don’t see this as a huge source of new members. See it as a source of information.
There are many other places where you can find potential members for your online community. The same basic approach is always the same, though – you have nothing to offer at this time; you are learning and consuming. Be aware of that fact: listen, learn, get involved, reach out and then invite.
Making the umbrella
By now, you will have built a number of relationships and micro-communities. It will soon be time to bring them all under one roof and into your own ‘umbrella’ community. Don’t mess this up – you have spent a lot of time and effort to reach this point.
Use the relationships you have built to your advantage. Don’t just talk – listen and learn. Get a small number involved in the community building process from the outset; they’ll be enthusiastic and as keen for the new community to succeed as you.
Ensure the community meets their needs, has only the features that are wanted and will be used, and works. You can then slowly work on the public launch of your community. Send out invites slowly to members of your micro-communities. Make early membership prestigious, rare and in demand.
Yes, this process takes time and effort but when your community is ready to open its doors to the world, you’ll have something that is appropriate, relevant and exciting to your target demographic. You’ll also have a great bunch of members and fantastic content. Who wouldn’t want to join?