Give yourself the best chance of community building success

by Martin Reed on 22 January 2010 in Articles

successful online communities

The key to building a successful online community is to start small – build individual, meaningful relationships between you and potential members, and amongst your potential members. Don’t rush to build an online community website before you do this – you’ve already made the first (and probably the most common) mistake.

Step one – Why is a community needed?

Why do you want an online community in the first place? To increase brand awareness/perception? To reduce costs? To better engage with your customers/target audience? Because everyone else is doing the same? The first three are valid reasons – the last one might be valid, but it’s the least likely to see you succeed.

Step two – Where are your potential members?

It’s much easier to find vegetarians online than it is fortune cookie writers. This needs to be considered – the harder your potential members are to find, the more challenging it will be to build a community in the first place. There are advantages, though – the harder these people are to find, the less likely it is that a competitor has already moved in. Smaller groups are better at building relationships – so see this as an advantage (albeit a challenging one).

Step three – Reach out and build relationships.

As you come across potential members, you need to reach out. This doesn’t mean you spam them or ‘sell’ to them. If they have a blog, read it and leave comments that have value. If they are on Twitter, get involved in a conversation or two. You need to provide the value here – if you aren’t relevant or you don’t satisfy an individual’s self-interest, you won’t get very far.

You need to be genuine, and be human. Have a personality (that’s still allowed, you know) and enjoy this stage – you are now getting your name out there; what it gets associated with (good or bad) is up to you.

Step four – Develop relationships.

Although you should be slowly reaching out to new people, don’t do this at the expense of those you have already built relationships with. Now is the time to build on those relationships and develop them further. Find out what these individuals want – what is their self-interest here? Why were they initially receptive to what you had to offer?

If you aren’t sure, ask. Remember, you need to tailor the online community to meet the needs of your members – not your own needs. Find out what these members want and make sure you deliver.

Step five – Golden members.

Not everyone you approach will be interested in working with you on this project. That’s OK – you only want a small number of dedicated individuals at this stage anyway.

Those that are interested are hugely valuable – make sure you treat them as such. It takes monumental effort for someone to reach out to you (when most of us go online we become lazy, cynical and fed up with being marketed to). Bring these individuals in as your initial members – give them extra responsibilities and make sure you listen to what they say. Choose the right people, and they will help ensure your community is relevant, attractive and fun.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking the website is the most important aspect of your online community. It isn’t – people and relationships are. You can build a community without a website. You can’t build a community without people. Always remind yourself of this fact and you’ll be ahead of most of your competition.

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Nicole Price January 23, 2010 at 3:50 am

The two items in your post that appeal to me most are:
1. The value of those who are genuinely interested and
2. The importance of people and realtionships.

Attention paid to these two aspects will result in maximum mileage for community building.

Andrew January 28, 2010 at 6:57 am

This is a very timely article. A lot of people nowadays are after quantity and not the quality. Quality in relationships, in products and in many others are often overlooked. We should take a step back and analyze our purpose and goal in building communities. It should be people-oriented and relationship-oriented. And I also agree that we should start building small.

Sasch January 31, 2010 at 6:29 pm

@Andrew – well said my friend. People are after Quality in everything they do, and building a good, stable online Community is no different.

It indeed should be aimed at people and relationships… And always start small building up as you go along, and getting feedback from the people you want to attract to your community…

Sharon February 5, 2010 at 10:55 am

Re: #2 and picking your target audience. This is a struggle. Whether you have a mainstream topic or not, it’s hard to reach the right people, just for different reasons. On a mainstream topic, though, a USP can help: something that no one else in your subject field is offering.

Nicole Price February 5, 2010 at 10:59 am

I have just been given an example of how community managers do not follow what you have advised here. I had been a member for almost eighteen months in sub group. After a number of complaints from me about a rather unpleasant member, I got an advise in very polite terms, but in effect telling me to lump it. My requests for deleting my name from their mailing list is also not being accepted by their mechanized system. I have just marked them for black list on my filter. I have decided to lump it!

Ed Harris February 17, 2010 at 2:23 pm

The “potential members” aspect is my biggest challenge. Many of my “prospects” are already members of bigger established Forums which makes it harder to add them as regulars. Obviously, I need to find some unique aspects that might spark their interest.

Tom February 19, 2010 at 9:33 am

Great post. I think too often these days people focus on the technology, rather than focusing on the relationships.

Matt February 19, 2010 at 7:05 pm

I would love to build a community around our site (renters in the San Diego area) but I don’t think the commonality is there for the members to be interested enough- the fact that they all share this one thing in common isn’t enough motivation to join a group. Too bad because a lot of good could come from it- I think :)

Doug March 1, 2010 at 4:18 pm

Building relationships is more important than most people realize. I was raised in a small town and I noticed my dad was providing extra service perks like washing windows and vacuuming cars when customers would get their car worked on by mechanics. The customers admired that little extra touch and were repeat customers.

Rachel March 3, 2010 at 4:12 pm

Great ideas – I don’t have a community but love participating in them! I forwarded this link to BlogFrog, they are a great community building group of moms. Hopefully these tips will help them.

David March 4, 2010 at 4:05 am

How long should you give it before seeing success? If a new forum doesn’t take off after a year or two, is it better to shut it down, or just leave it sit unused?

Kirsty March 4, 2010 at 11:55 pm

I have to agree entirely with your post. I thinking building communities is certainly one of the strongest ways to achieve success.

After all its the relationships that build business.

Martin Reed - Community Manager March 5, 2010 at 12:37 pm

David – It depends on what you mean by ‘take off’; different communities have different goals. If you’re not happy with how the community is progressing after a year, or even two, then you need to work out why you aren’t happy, and what can be done to fix that. Don’t forget to ask your members what they think, either!

Jack March 11, 2010 at 1:37 am

One of the improvements on our website is having a forum – to be closer to our customers. But since we probably have the most boring of topics – printer cartridges – registration is few and far in between.

” Smaller groups are better at building relationships. ”

I am encouraged by the statement above. Hopefully, we can really create a community out of the few registered members of our forum.

Martin Reed - Community Manager March 12, 2010 at 12:28 pm

Jack – You’re right; it’s a pretty boring topic and you’ll struggle to get people passionate and engaged about printer cartridges. Have you thought about taking a different angle? Maybe a community about office survival? Just an idea – but as long as your focus is on cartridges, you’re going to struggle!

Dave March 22, 2010 at 9:44 am

It is also important to control the behaviour of members in online communities. Becuase if you do not know the members personally then it becomes quite difficult to control when someone starts harming the main objective. We had one online community (human rights) of 300 people based around the world. But some people joined with fake names and completely destroyed the forum as our moderators were afraid of taking action against those guys.

Jason March 23, 2010 at 4:20 pm

I thought that this was a great post, it can be hard establishing a community online. I come across so many graveyard forums on the internet, and it’s clear to see where the owner is going wrong. I myself in the past have tried community building, and to be honest the first few times i tried i failed. But i will take these tips into consideration for next time and fingers crossed, ill have better luck! thank you :)

IPaul April 16, 2010 at 5:26 pm

Thank you so much for posting this.

I find it very helpful and sure it will help me to change my way of thinking about building my online community.

Once again, thanks for this great post.

Sasch April 27, 2010 at 8:18 pm

starting small is the key and starting with a plan is important

write down the steps you need to take to get from where you are now to where you want to be – of course you need to clarify what that goal is as well.

Kate June 22, 2010 at 7:44 am

Great ideas Ė I donít have a community but love participating in them!
@Andrew Totally agree with you!

Mark June 28, 2010 at 2:31 pm

This directly hits the mark. The point is that there is an overwhelming number of groups and individuals out there, and a vast majority of them are simply looking for quick responses and visits on their blog page. This doesn’t build the long-term commitment that keeps people interested both in you and your blog. I don’t yet have an established community, but am slowly building a group through different channels.

It literally is one person at a time, and I firmly believe that there is no way around this process.



WillL July 8, 2010 at 8:44 pm

Engaging with people is important in all walks of life and as in your day to day dealings with people, there will be some you ‘connect’ with and some you don’t. Online communities are just the same; you need to work on building the relationships with those you call ‘golden members’.

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