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.