How to build an online community

by Martin Reed on 14 September 2009 in Articles

how to build an online community

So you want to build an online community? Here’s how you do it.

Planning a new online community

First, ask yourself these questions:

1. Why do you want an online community?

If your answer is, ‘because everyone else has one’, it’ll probably fail. If it’s because you want to be more customer focused and want to offer more value to your customers, you’re more likely to succeed.

Ask yourself (and your company, if applicable) a lot of questions before going any further.

2. Where do you build the new online community?

There are a number of options here. You can develop the community under its own URL, develop it alongside your existing website, or keep out of the ‘under the hood’ tinkering completely by developing a community using existing sites such as Facebook.

My advice? Integrate your community within your existing website – it proves you are serious about your community, and gives the community the respect it deserves. Build communities externally, too. Reach out to your target audience via Twitter, Facebook and wherever else they might be. If your community is only in one place, you’re limiting its exposure.

3. Where are your members?

I touched on this in point 2. Don’t expect people to flock to your community as soon as you hit the ‘Upload’ button. More than likely, you’ll need to go out and find those early adopters. Even if you’re lucky and have a hugely passionate audience, you should still consider being proactive by finding the right members for your community. Fill it with ‘perfect members’ from the outset and you’ll have a far more productive community as a result. Don’t overlook bloggers – they could be your best early members; passionate, targeted and they come with an audience.

4. What makes your community unique?

The internet is saturated with online communities. Chances are, a community already exists for the niche you are currently exploring. If your community offers nothing unique, people aren’t likely to join.

There is nothing wrong with developing a community for a niche already served by existing communities. You just need to offer something different. Your differentiator could be a number of things – for example, better quality (members and content) or better usability. Just don’t think your community is better because it offers more features – you’ll probably just end up turning people off.

5. How will you attract members and manage the community?

So you know where your potential members are and know where the community will be built. Who’s going to put all the work into attracting these members and managing the resulting community? There’s nothing wrong with learning as you go (that’s how I did it) – but be aware that community building takes a lot of time and effort. Results take a long time to arrive – do you have the patience, commitment and spare time?

Your online community will require more time as it grows, not less. You’ll need to manage conflict, you’ll need to make members feel special and you’ll need to be involved in the community.

Building a new online community

1. Keep it simple.

Are you going for a full blown social network? (Make sure you’re not just investing in a Facebook clone). A forum? Force yourself to justify every feature of your community – particularly in the early days. You don’t want distractions – your community needs to be simple. As soon as people arrive, they need to know the purpose of the community. They need to be able to register quickly and easily (if at all). They need to be able to contribute to the community easily.

Don’t use fancy words. Don’t hide things (whether intentionally or not).

2. Respect your community.

If you’re serious about building a community, show it the respect it deserves. Incorporate the community into your main website. Have community content appear on your homepage – don’t hide it all behind a ‘community’ tab.

Your community needs to be primarily for the benefit of its members. You reap the secondary benefits. Don’t sell to your community. Treat them with respect. Listen to them. Talk to them. Be involved.

3. Keep it private (at first).

Your community will never be perfect – just as it will never be ‘finished’. Keep your community small in the early days – don’t email thousands of people announcing the launch; you only get one chance to make this announcement and if your community isn’t ready, you’ll be wasting everyone’s time.

Consider keeping the community closed during the early days. Only allow certain people in – the people that you really want as members. They’ll help you fine tune the community. They’ll help generate content so that when the community goes public it isn’t a ghost town. Exclusivity is powerful – those that are in will want to stay in. Those that are out will want to be in. Use this to your advantage.

4. Have guidelines and processes from day one.

You’ll deal with troublemakers. You’ll be called names. You need to be professional and consistent. You can only do this by having community guidelines and internal processes established from day one (or even before).

Ensure your community guidelines are visible and accessible. If you need to post reams of legal text with your community guidelines, then fine – but pull a copy of the guidelines out and post them somewhere prominent. Nobody reads legal disclaimers – but they’ll read your guidelines if they are simple, clear and accessible.

How will you deal with troublemakers? Will you ignore them? Will you warn them? Will you ban them? If you’re unsure how to proceed here, why not make your guidelines and processes a collaborative effort? Your members are far likelier to respect them if they helped draw them up.

5. Highlight members and their content.

Members of your online community need to feel valued. They are members because of self interest – they want to receive (respect, attention, admiration, information). Keep them motivated by telling them how great they are – but be genuine.

If a member writes a great post, drop them a message telling them so. Make your admiration public by highlighting the best member content. Interview your members to put them in the spotlight. Don’t worry too much about jealousy – it’s a great motivator for other members to contribute even better content so they receive the next ego stroke.

Be realistic. Be adventurous.

Your community won’t be a success overnight. It may take weeks, months or even years for success to come (oh, and make sure you’re measuring success in the right ways). Lots of people give up on their community project too soon. You need to take a long term approach – remember, you’re building human relationships here. You can’t rush this.

At the same time, be sure to experiment and take risks from time to time. Some will work, some won’t. The more adventurous you are, the better your chances of success – you’ll be doing something different and you might just stumble on the ultimate community building strategy. If you do, be sure to let me know the secret – in return, here’s what I’ve learnt so far.

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Paul King September 14, 2009 at 4:38 pm

Great article. I have a question… I’m considering building a community for a product I’m developing. Would you launch a community then link the product to it, or does it make more sense to launch the product and develop the community around the finished product? I see pros and cons for both but want to get another opinions. Thanks in advance for your assistance!

Martin Reed - Community Manager September 14, 2009 at 6:29 pm

Paul – It depends on what the product is. Building a community first could be a great way of generating some buzz but that won’t work if people don’t know or understand the product prior to its launch.

If the product is related to a lifestyle or a certain interest, starting a community now could be a good strategy – again it really depends on the product and how integral you see community being to its success.

Have you considered going out and finding a small number of beta members and product testers/reviewers? Identify some individuals who you feel would make up your target market, reach out to them and send them some samples along with a link to the community.

Make them feel special and work with them on your community. You can generate some buzz and be creating early content for your community all at the same time. Then, take things from there.

Martin Sanders September 15, 2009 at 5:14 pm

Thanks for your blog post, I’m currently putting plans together for a Pligg community and found your article very helpful and insightful.

Nicole Price September 16, 2009 at 8:55 am

To start one, you need either a product or a service as, the premise is that your community members will be customers/clients. So, assuming that I have one, it has to be promoted by all other promotional means to create some kind of awareness for the product or the service. It is after that process has been gone through that a community of customers/clients will be built around a web site.

One finds on most products and services now a days, that a link is given in the packaging or other material to the community site with an invitation to share ideas and to give feed back. This should also help in getting actual customers/clients to visit the site.

Jesse September 17, 2009 at 3:24 am

“Interview your members to put them in the spotlight.”

Thanks a lot for adding this. It has really make me think about the community that I am working on building which involves getting secondary school music teachers collaborating and sharing resources. I have been looking at introducing this idea to student teachers from our regional teachers college. But I think I’ll interview them on their first experiences teaching which allows me to promote the community website I’m am building and add valuable information to the site.

Scott Prince September 17, 2009 at 5:25 am

Martin you’re absolutely correct about keeping the site private until your community is ready. I have see many webmasters pay big dollars on promotion with little or no content. Good point.

Justin Sheehan September 17, 2009 at 7:18 am

Make sure the site is intuitive, you have useful information and update it frequently. It takes time and hard work to build a community.

Bronson September 17, 2009 at 3:18 pm

Fantastic article Martin, many thanks. It’s helped me realise a few things that need more consideration in my first community building venture which just got underway.

Community Spark has also just earned a spot in my RSS reader :) nice!

Martin Reed - Community Manager September 18, 2009 at 4:32 pm

Bronson – Thanks for the honour; I’ll work hard to keep that place in your RSS reader!

Steve September 19, 2009 at 2:29 am

Thanks for the post. These we mostly use social networking websites to build communities. However, the points you have mentioned are very much essential to build a strong community.


Rok Mejak September 19, 2009 at 11:39 am

Great list of useful tips. I bookmarked this article and printed the list to use it in the future. I am just starting a new regional on-line community and I think I learned a lot from this post.

Thank you

Michael Perry September 21, 2009 at 4:39 pm

How about building communities around a topic on Facebook? We all know a lot of people spend their time there.

Have you ever tried building a facebook group?

Bugsy September 24, 2009 at 4:58 am

I think local targeted communities are the most likely to succeed. You have the local area focus, users are compelled to join in and start discussing topics or take initiative, and then you can go on as a company to advertise or introduce your product or services. in this way, you don’t seem like intruding or forcing users to “buy” stuff.

Mr Woc September 25, 2009 at 12:15 pm

Hi guys

Buidling a community can be a massive undertaking, If I was to do it again I would start off v small and build slowly.

Many people get too ambitious and claim they are going to be the next myspace, before they have acually got 100 people registered !

You have to set up clear goals as mentioned above and be realistic, as many people give up after a few months, when we set up our chat room we would spend many hours in there just talking among ourselves before we actually had anywhere near a following.

Those hours were long and hard but pay off in the end, you have to be prepared to do this or you commnity will probably fail !


Djembe Dude September 29, 2009 at 4:55 am

I think the “What makes your community unique?” part is the most important. I have some ideas that seem great, but if I find there are a lot of other people doing it well I bin it straight away.

Anne Fox October 1, 2009 at 12:39 pm

Building online community isn’t that simple. You really need to work hard to achieve its success. Actually, you focus on what you can offer to your members. The more interesting your offers are, the more interested they will be. It is just a give and take relationship.

Darrell October 13, 2009 at 11:53 am

For myself I have never really given the title of your article any real serious thought before. I suppose in part its because I find myself not having enough time to really sit down and formulate a plan. However, after going through the reasons you described, there is certainly many elements to consider.

The 2 main questions that are most relevant to me is the following:

Why do you want an online community?

What makes your community unique?

The answer to the second question listed for me is probably the most important. It pretty much sums up why I would want to be part of the online community and will I receive value from this. Being in a home based business, my time is extremely limited and I only have maybe 1 or 2 hours at the most to contribute to any online forums or communities.

Good Article


Nath October 20, 2009 at 6:28 am

can anyone recommend the best software for building an online community? I’m thinking of using vbulletin for a forums part of my website would this be a good way to go? I want to make sure that whatever I use is future proof so I provide a stable structure for it’s users

Martin Reed - Community Manager October 21, 2009 at 12:58 pm

Nath – Different software serves different needs and each come with different functionality. Just try different platforms out and see how they work for you.

Alix November 4, 2009 at 9:09 pm

@ Nath : Yeah, vbulletin is a good choice for a forum, you can have a look at phpbb or fluxbb too, which are good forum scripts.

Paul November 24, 2009 at 3:46 pm

Following these tips will surely help you build a solid online community.

As long as your are building the community for the right reasons and its not all about making money, you should succeed.

feamor January 16, 2010 at 9:49 am

Another precious article for the newbies in forum developing like me.

#3. Keep it private (at first).

If you have free advertising oppurtunity like me, what would you prefer?

I agree with the idea that a forum should have posts and some activity before launching but i cannot predict starting with 30 person before going online will be better for me?

I am developing a forum about hardware, software and programming. I have a lot of friends who are software developers but most of them don’t have so much free time to post articles. If i open the community to everybody, might it be faster when somebody post a question about their problem and my friends write answers which probably be shorter and takes less time than posting an article?

Martin Reed - Community Manager January 21, 2010 at 3:56 pm

feamor – Imagine this; you have $1 million to spend on advertising a brand new community. You’ll get a load of traffic – but money doesn’t buy relationships. Start small – relationships can’t be formed if you have a sudden huge influx of visitors.

When you have a good number of strong relationships, then you can start looking at getting more members.

Grow slowly.

Sharon February 4, 2010 at 4:53 am

Hi there – Great article. I’m in the VERY beginning stages of starting up a community so you’ll be seeing a lot of me around your site. :) Where do you stand on getting those first couple of members to post? I know you can pay people to populate your community but it doesn’t seem like the best way. We’re trying a combined approach (social stuff like Twitter, SEO, etc) but curious what your thoughts are.

Awesome site, btw.

Martin Reed - Community Manager February 4, 2010 at 1:40 pm

Sharon – If the topic is something that interests people, it’s likely they’ll talk. If people will get something in return for talking (admiration, respect, information) then they’ll talk.

However, there are never any guarantees. See if you can get people to talk to each other by running a test first; introduce people to each other on twitter, see if people talk on your blog and take things from there.

Paul February 16, 2010 at 3:11 am

Good overview of how to build an online community. I agree with Martin to a degree that you need to write something of interest to spark a growing community, however, there are so, so many communities out there these days, it takes more than that. It takes clever marketing, time, and luck.

Christina March 17, 2010 at 6:07 pm

Great advice. I think the 2 items that stand out to me are #1. Have patience and #2 Keep it simple. In my limited online experience, I have already learned that you have to be patient. Things do not happen overnight. They require a lot of work over months, even years, before results can be seen. A simple, to the point landing page is also important. If that isn’t obvious, people won’t stick around to figure it out – they have no reason to.

Christian April 16, 2010 at 1:38 pm

I have made a blog with tips on cleaning , gardening etc. But how do i get people to comment? I know the site needs more articles and Im working on this. What to do?

Martin Reed - Community Manager April 16, 2010 at 3:07 pm

Christian – Have you tried inviting comments? Ask questions and remind yourself that you’re not talking to yourself when composing posts!

Sara April 20, 2010 at 6:54 pm

@Christian – exactly what Martin Reed said. Write your articles with intention of solving a problem or some tip or end it by asking a question.

easiest one is ? What are your thoughts?

Of course, if your blog is not getting visitors then there isnt anyone to comment on them.

Nathan Richardson April 30, 2010 at 11:10 pm

I will be using these tips to make a money-saving community. But your advice, of keeping it private at first, is something I see as counterintuitive. If most of my users are coming by Google, why would I make them register?
BTW Im using wordpress not the usual forum software.

John Legend June 1, 2010 at 1:50 am

Great post!

I have been dabling in communities since my early facebook days. Still have not found ways to keep things going once I engage potential participants. I often have problems with keeping my contact regular and posts engaging. Thanks to your tips, I should be able to plan and execute my strategy way more successful than in the past.

Thank you!

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