How to make your online community stronger

by Martin Reed on 7 April 2009 in Articles

build a stronger community

Is your online community losing momentum? Here are some quick tips for getting your community back on the right track.

Be active in your own community

Don’t expect activity in your community if you can’t be bothered to get involved yourself. Your input is critical, especially in the early stages. Even as your community grows and becomes stronger, you still need to be around. You need to be visible and you need to understand your community and its members. Go the extra mile for your community members, and you’ll get more of them active and addicted.

Share information about yourself

Communities really come alive when members start to really share information about themselves. This won’t come from day one. You’ll need to earn the trust of your members before they start talking about the real highs and lows of their lives. The more open your members are, the stronger your community becomes. You need to lead by example and share information about yourself. If you aren’t comfortable sharing information about your life, why should your members feel any different?

Interview your members

Your members are all that matters. Without them you have no community. Make sure the spotlight is always on them. Don’t let your most active members hog the limelight – they are already converts. Show your community that you value every single member by interviewing quieter contributors in addition to those power members.

Foster community away from your community

Having trouble getting that group of people you really want in your community away from Facebook? Stop trying – build a satellite community in Facebook, instead. The physical location of your community doesn’t matter. Over time, you may find members of your satellite communities making the transition to your community’s main ‘base’ anyway.

Analyse site stats

I would hazard a guess that this is overlooked by the majority of community managers. Some won’t even have access to this information. You should, though – it’s invaluable.

Look for bottlenecks on the site. Do certain pages have high bounce rates? Why? What pages are people spending time on? What landing pages lead to the most pageviews? How loyal are your members? Is there any relationship between loyalty and how those visitors found your community?

I could go on but I think you get the message. Spend a day, or even a week on this if you have to. Go through your site analytics with a fine-toothed comb. Learn, adjust and improve. It’s a continuous cycle.

Delegate and empower

The more influence your members have within your community, the more loyal they will be. Be careful with this one, though. You don’t want to give the wrong members more influence and power. Your most popular members may not be the right people to pick.

Find members that encompass the qualities you want in your community. You don’t need to make them staff members – just give them additional responsibilities and your ear. The more your members put into the community, the more interest they have in its success.

Think small

Get rid of the features that people aren’t using. Get rid of the forum categories that aren’t being used – you’re just emphasising how quiet your community is. If your community is drowning in noise thanks to a huge memberbase, divide your members into groups according to their passions, interests and areas of expertise. Keep your community as small as it can be – even if it is huge. Your members don’t want to know, listen and befriend everybody!

Give your community a cause

Make a stand. Get your community to rally behind a cause. You’ll attract new members and make your existing ones more passionate. Again, be careful here. Don’t choose a cause that will be so divisive it risks tearing your community apart – unless you are really brave!

*** Now, let’s bust some myths ***

Don’t add features

The more features you add, the more your are diluting your community. You want to make it stronger, not weaker. Remember – community is based on people. Not technology. Not bells and whistles.

Don’t add discussion categories

If people aren’t using what they already have, don’t add more categories. Don’t make the mistake of thinking if you add discussion topics, people will suddenly feel inspired to engage and generate content. Don’t think people are holding back talking about something because a category doesn’t exist. That’s not how it works.

Don’t redesign the site

Community members hate change. There may be some initial momentum that comes with a redesign, but it doesn’t solve the fact your community is weak. Your efforts are best invested elsewhere.

Don’t run glitzy competitions

As soon as you give away big prizes and money, you have community mercenaries – not community members. Be careful.

Don’t hire paid posters

Yes, you’ll be adding content but you aren’t guaranteeing quality. In the early phases of community building especially, your content sets your community’s norms, culture and personality. That’s worth a lot more than a few cents per post.

Don’t get desperate

Don’t ask members to post. Instead, ask them why they think activity seems to have dropped off. Don’t ask members to invite their friends. Instead, ask them why they would want to invite friends. As soon as you point fingers or become demanding, the fun has gone. Get feedback, ask questions. Don’t go crazy, though.

Don’t start advertising

Why would you want to advertise a weak community? Adding brand new members to a weak community will only make it even weaker. Strong communities start small and feel intimate, regardless of their size. Fast growth is a great ego stroke – you’ll probably be known as a community building legend, but those in the know will see through this – as will your members.

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GregR April 8, 2009 at 7:12 am

I agree. Building a community is tough and time consuming. I have seen sites where they dive into advertising and litter the page with adsense without thinking about what it takes to build a conversation.
Forget the advertising (if you must make a leaderboard) solve the community problem first.
PS don’t put things in the way of users.

Patrick April 8, 2009 at 9:08 am

Great post, Martin! :)

Nicole Price April 8, 2009 at 9:21 am

Thinking small and getting rid of categories not being used is among the most sensible advises I have ever seen. With initial enthusiasm, many categories crop up but they become dormant after some time. These tend to distract the attention and make navigating the forum more complex than necessary.

Viess April 9, 2009 at 8:42 am

I wonder how many users do you need to have to build community. Is it 100, 300 or 1000 unique visitors. Is it 10 /50/ or 300 rss readers.
I’d be glad to know your point of view on that.

Martin Reed - Blog Author April 10, 2009 at 1:24 pm

Viess – You can have 1,000 members but not have a community. Think in terms of the number of relationships you are able to develop and encourage, instead.

Jeremy L April 14, 2009 at 6:12 pm

Cool article, Martin. These are all great things to think about! I often try to get back to the basics and remember some of these things. I have a natural tendency to try to over complicate ( add features and forums ). It’s always good to be reminded that that isn’t necessary!

John April 15, 2009 at 6:20 am

Hi Martin,

It is funny how things work out. I have just stopped visiting a forum for many of the reasons you have mentioned in your post.

Many forum owners today seem far to obsessed with their rss feed count. Just because someone subscribes does not mean they will stay following the site.

I believe in the beginning it is better to build value than readers. A good, well structured, forum will do more to build a community than high rss count ever could.

All the best

Odzyskiwanie Danych April 20, 2009 at 8:11 am

Yeah letting ther users moderate some stuff and generaly giving them more power is a great way to keep them on the site. Noone will leave knowing that they have the responsibility in the community.

Mr Woc April 20, 2009 at 2:26 pm

Hi there

Good advice and im still toying with the idea of interviewing some of my mumbers, im trying to think of a wacky way to do it mind rather than the norm !


Stella April 21, 2009 at 8:45 am

This is all very new to me. Seems that weather you are building a community on line, or getting a group of people together where you live, there has to be a main thread….and that is that they have to have something in common to drive the community, and then all of the other enhancements might be well received later. Probably because it was the suggestion of several people, and then everyone starts getting involved.

Bob Sloan April 22, 2009 at 10:11 am

Great article! some very good advice here. It is for sure important to never “overdo” your effort in getting new members fast. Things take time.

David April 24, 2009 at 9:30 am

I think people need some purpose to be there and stay together, if it’s just chatting about a particular topic I don’t think that is enough….possibly there needs to be an element of self-interest, the idea that community members gain something from being there – how you can add this factor without going down the silly road of prizes and competitions as mentioned is something I haven’t worked out…

Pete Sheridan April 29, 2009 at 1:48 am

Many really do resort to advertising which detracts from the community you’re TRYING to attract. If you don’t advertise, people are more likely to like your site. Thanks

Chris May 4, 2009 at 10:45 pm

Good point about advertising. You would think this would help but in the beginning you want quality members over quantity. A few good members will give better content and could even help recruit more memebers.

Jeremy May 15, 2009 at 11:54 am

Good tips, but I think sometimes a site redesign is important. If your website does not look appealing, it is that much tougher to attract new members and keep existing one. The ‘don’t start advertising’ tip is tough to follow as well. Everyone wants their community to grow asap. It is difficult to make a community strong if you don’t have a large enough user base.

Shawn July 2, 2009 at 10:05 am

Great points, as far as features though, I’ve found that adding features that make things easier for people has helped a lot. As long as they aren’t distracting I don’t think that it’s too bad. There are definitely additions that I would stay away from, but tasteful additions can go a long way.

Laura July 28, 2009 at 5:47 pm

Thanks for the tips. I already implement some, but other have got me thinking – hence the comment!

I’ve seen forum dynamics over the years. All the way from a fan forum, turned official forum, turned fan forum due to fighting and that then split into three forums! You could honestly write a thesis on social dynamics of internet forums!

David July 30, 2009 at 4:17 am

We have found that starting a competitive league has really helped bring our community together. There are arguements from time to time but people seem to love to get involved in things like fantasy football leagues and one of competitions.

Peter August 9, 2009 at 4:34 am

Some interesting ideas I always make sure that a Frequently Asked Questions Section is prominent which answers the most obvious questions.It get get a bit annoying answering the same Questions again and again.

Paul December 2, 2009 at 2:37 pm

All of these tips will surely make your community stronger. One thing I was surprised by was your suggestion to not hire paid posters. It seems like if your community is struggling that may give it the boost it needs.

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