How to promote online communities

by Martin Reed on 10 November 2008 in Articles

online communities promotion

This is the ninth article in what I hope will be an indefinite series about the processes involved in developing a new online community from scratch. I am currently developing a brand new online community and will detail its development on this blog. As I have said before, I think it is far easier to learn by example rather than simply reading another person’s theories and ideas.

Promoting an online community

Female Forum launched on 4 September 2008. Since then, the site has had a total of:

  • 13,258 visits
  • 60,060 pageviews
  • 194 forum members
  • 3,048 forum posts

You shouldn’t judge your success based on figures like those I have shared above. Your online community should be unique – therefore you can’t compare your stats to others as a determinant of your success. If you are meeting your own goals, then you are enjoying success.

In this article, I will tell you the promotion methods I have employed to reach the milestones stated above.

1. Leverage existing traffic

I added links to Female Forum on my existing websites, however I didn’t go ‘all out’ and blanket my current sites with links and banners. You want to start your external promotion efforts slowly – you want to build traffic and increase it day after day. You don’t want to open the floodgates on a new community that has minimal content. By promoting your community slowly, you will also allow yourself time to fix any bugs or errors that crop up.

2. Ensure pages are search engine friendly

Firstly, let me state that I am not an expert when it comes to search engine optimisation – I simply put strategies into practice that I have picked up in my experience with developing websites. All pages on your website should have relevant titles that include the keywords relevant to the content on that page. There is debate over whether META tags (keywords and descriptions) are still relevant. I say they can’t hurt, and always work to include them. I also ensured that all images had relevant ‘ALT’ tags.

3. Drop your link whenever possible

Every day I try to add at least one external link to Female Forum. Not only do links help bring in more direct traffic, they can benefit your existing search engine rankings. I get royalty free images for this blog and Female Forum from sxc.hu. On each image page there is a box for comments. Users who upload their photos love to know where they are being used – so every time I use an image, I thank them and include a link to where their image is appearing. Not only is this appreciated by the owner of the image, I also get myself an additional easy backlink.

Make sure you do not spam other sites. Joining forums or sites just so you can drop your link is never a good idea. Some forums allow links in signatures, others don’t. If in doubt, always ask first. You don’t want people to spam your online community, so don’t spam those that belong to others.

ExpressionEngine is the software behind Female Forum. They have a forum category where you can announce your EE based website. I made a post there, and also submitted the site to the EE Showcase (it was accepted and sent some good traffic).

I also use Article Marketer to build links to Female Forum. Every now and then I will rewrite an article and post it to Article Marketer, with links to the site in the author bio box. Typically this will then be distributed and earn a good number of additional links to your site. Thanks to the help of Article Marketer, Female Forum currently has 2,613 external links pointing to the site (according to Google Webmaster Tools). When it comes to Yahoo!, there are 3,414 inlinks.

4. Paid Advertising

I rarely undertake paid advertising, so this area was pretty new to me. Before I began advertising, I ensured I set up a ‘Goal’ in Google Analytics. The goal I set was for visitors to reach the forum registration page – this would allow me to determine what advertising was the most effective (ie which sites sent traffic that converted into members). Ideally, I would have placed the goal page on the ‘Registration Success’ page, but EE doesn’t have a standalone page of this nature.

I advertised Female Forum using the following sites:

AdBrite – What attracted me to AdBrite was the fact I could target specific websites and niches, however I found the traffic converted pretty poorly. Female Forum appeared as an interstitial and consequently few people clicked around – they just skipped it and continued on the site they were visiting. It was definitely the cheapest option I tried, though.

Google AdWords – I haven’t fully explored Google AdWords with Female Forum yet, however I did try placing a few video ads (click here to see a low-quality example). I found the videos had a disappointing play rate, however I still need to play around and find a more enticing ‘teaser image’ that appears before a viewer clicks the play button and then move onto text ads.

StumbleUpon Ads – Advertising on StumbleUpon can be a good way of getting a new site ‘out there’ and generating some awareness. I can target those interested specifically in ‘Womens Issues’, and each click is a real visitor to the site. What’s more, you can see how well your site is perceived by the StumbleUpon community. On my last check, Female Forum achieved an 81% approval rating.

Facebook Ads – This is without doubt my favourite advertising method so far. The amount of control you have when it comes to targeting your traffic is fantastic. If you play around with your titles and advertising copy, you can come up with a highly effective ad. Without doubt, Facebook Ads is the most cost-effective method I have tried and brings me the best converting traffic.

5. Networking

Find blogs that are relevant to your niche and get involved. Don’t comment just to add your link; rather, add informative and well thought-out comments. After you have done this a few times, contact the blogger and introduce yourself. Establish a dialogue with them and ask them what they think of your new site. Ask them if they would be interested in interviewing you. Ask them if they would be interested in you writing a guest blog post.

Join Twitter and get involved. My Twitter page can be found at: http://twitter.com/martinreed. Do some searching and find other Twitterers who are involved in the same niche as your online community. Follow them. My involvement in Twitter started off as an experiement so I could see what it was all about. It has given me great additional exposure and sent traffic to both my blog and Female Forum. Twitter was responsible for me getting an interview at BabeofBusiness.

Interviews on blogs are far more effective than paid reviews. To find blogs that interview readers, do a blog search on Google. Run something like following query: <subject or niche> <interview> inurl:blog

For example, let’s say your new online community is about Coi Carp. You want to find blogs that interview people in the Coi Carp field. Your query would be something like: coi carp interview inrul:blog

Play around with some search strings and you will soon find relevant blogs that conduct interviews. Get involved in the blogs by adding constructive comments, and after a while reach out by contacting the blogger and requesting an interview. Even if you don’t generate much additional direct traffic, you are getting additional links to your site and are establishing your credentials as an authority in your niche.

I have also started promoting the site within social networks – I recently put up a Facebook page for Female Forum and will soon be running a competition to encourage members to become ‘fans’. I will then build and strengthen the relationship the site has with new and potential members though the Facebook page.

Effective promotion and marketing begins at home

As I stated in my interview at Babeofbusiness, good marketing starts at home. Inbound links, visitor numbers and even Google PageRank mean nothing if your online community is not engaging, fun, and filled with high quality, unique content. Make your members feel welcome and valued. Get involved in the community yourself. Run some interesting competitions. Develop a personality for your community.

If you don’t have solid foundations, then external promotion is worthless. You need to have something that people want, so always focus on your community first and its promotion second.

Your thoughts

How do you promote your online community? Perhaps I have missed out a strategy you find effective – if so, share it! Do you disagree with some of the steps I have taken? Share your thoughts, experience and ideas by leaving a comment below.

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Tertius November 11, 2008 at 12:45 am

Your articles really are good. Like I’ve commented before I’m in the process of trying to create an online community and as it’s growing I’m going to have to really do extremely fast ad-hoc work to manage the growth.

This is massive leverage and some big companies are actually trying to become more lean when it comes to marketing. And you’re right, a lot of niches will be impossible when these are exploited especially considering, like you say, the value that they already have.

Really great tips for growth and getting growth here. Thanks!

Ben Rowe November 11, 2008 at 1:53 am

Martin this is a great article, and let me say how much I’m enjoying your blog since finding it about a month ago.

Some really good tips. Another thing that I would recommend is setting up RSS alerts to track any conversations about you in the Blogosphere / Twistterverse (is Twitterverse what it’s called?)

I’ve recently opened a small online art website, and I have RSS feeds set up for each of the artists. That way, I can keep track about what the art world is saying about them, and add to the conversation. I find that this generates a lot of awareness about the site.

Of course, I also have RSS feeds set up so that if someone is talking / trweeting about my site, I can respond quickly.

Keep up the great blog – I look forward to reading more of these posts.

Stephie November 11, 2008 at 11:03 am

You have pointed really good ideas for promotion. It is much harder to promote communities as they need a lot of attention and exposure, so there must be some strategy involved in promotion. Same situation is with search engines, which need a lot of backlinks for your community in order to get some serps.

Amish November 11, 2008 at 2:14 pm

Thank you. Very exhaustive and relevant. I have no doubts that with your approach, you will gain a lot of growth for your Female Forum

DaveMurr November 11, 2008 at 3:16 pm

I have just started my Online Community Manager adventure so I am happy to have come across your website.

Thank you for great insight!

Patrick November 11, 2008 at 4:21 pm

Nice post. :) Dugg, Mixxed, Stumbled, Reddited and Kirtsied. :)

Ray November 11, 2008 at 8:59 pm

I have followed a lot of the recommendations you have made over the lasts few months – I have inbound links, web pages with content and a forum with a little content, but I’m still struggling to get traffic to the forum section of my website, and my articles are not really ranking highly in Google. This will probably sort itself out in time. Is there one single thing anyone can recommend that I can do quickly to ‘kick-start’ even a small flow of traffic to my forum?

Nicole Price November 12, 2008 at 4:03 am

You did an interview? I want to check that out!

And thanks Martin, that was another great post as usual; every time I read one of these you get my mind working along forum lines…..

Greg November 12, 2008 at 4:51 pm

Hi Martin,

Once again I praise your work! An excellent article…

I very much liked the point about leveraging existing traffic. It makes no sense at all to start promoting the community heavily if content is minimal, because everyone will come and go again. I have noticed that as my content increased the traffic converted much better to registrations.

If you take this into account thenn all kinds of paid promotion like GoogleAdwords, Adbrite, etc. make little or no sense until you have something there. If need be create content yourself…

Not long ago a member on one of my forums told me. Greg, it’s great how you start new threads and throw in posts, its like we’ve all arrived at a really great party but are still a bit shy, and you are coming around to each and everyone and introducing people, starting small chat here and there, etc.

Effectively that is what a new community is. It’s like a party… So a good party needs drinks, food, music, an environment (content and members).

I never thought about the interview and will definitely look into that. I have contacted some startup blogs but haven’t heard anything back as of yet.

Roger November 12, 2008 at 5:10 pm

Thanks Martin! This covered a lot of my (for the moment)-questions :)

Another thing to do, is to write a small article, like a press-release, and email it off to both small and big e-newspapers. If you manage to get them to write just a small article about you, you can expect to have lots of visitors, where these visitors not only visits you, but they often will look at your site as “more professional” – since the news wrote about it, and it would probably be easier to get them to register at once =)

I was so happy to finally see a new entry in the communityspark-RSS tab in my browser! – i’m keeping an eye on that tab.. always :)

PS…. You don’t happen to give private lessons in building and gaining traffic to communities? ;)

Andy November 12, 2008 at 5:37 pm

194 members does not a successful forum make. Look at your forum statistics, how many of those people have made a post? Probably closer to 50. Your forum is still in the I-could-dissolve-without-nurturing stage. What is successful? It’s hard to say, but I would say that hitting 500 genuine members (including lurkers) is definitely a safe time to call it “successful.”

Mr Woc November 12, 2008 at 9:58 pm

Hi there

Some good advice on there, I have tryed stuble upon advertising didnt really reckon much to it myself, the traffic didnt convert very well althought it was quite cheap.

I was sent an offer from Facebook for advertsing on their site avoucher for £50 I think it was, and it was soooo expensive last time i looked, it scared me off lol !

Woc

B Martin November 13, 2008 at 1:15 pm

I’ve actually used Google Adwords to promote our fledgling site which includes a forum. It’s been pretty successful and cost effective in terms of getting people to sign up. Now the trick is to get them to start participating!

Smiley November 15, 2008 at 1:11 am

I’d say it depends on what you consider successful, Andy.

Would you rather have 5 regular members all posting and enjoying your forum everyday who you get on with and make you laugh.. or 500 irregular members who make cameo appearances and fill your forum with nothing but rubbish and drivel?

Your site is a success if you’ve hit your own targets you’ve set yourself in my opinion. If you’re happy with your site, if your regulars are happy with your site – you’re a success.

Whether you want to be a bigger success however is another thing all together :D

Martin Reed - Blog Author November 17, 2008 at 10:05 pm

Tertius – Thanks for your kind comment; I am glad you enjoyed the article. I don’t think a single niche will ever be impossible to compete in; after all there is normally something that can be done better than the existing competition.

Ben – Thanks for your kind comment! I like the idea about setting up alerts so you can keep an eye on what people are saying about you or your site – if you respond to any comments or articles that mention you, you’re further building relationships and attracting attention.

My competition for a tea making penguin was picked up on a popular money saving website. Because I keep an eye on where my links are coming from, I could reply to it and generate additional interest. I received hundreds of additional visitors from that one site alone once I got involved and built relationships with its members.

Stephie – I don’t think online communities are harder to promote than other sites; in fact I think they can be easier to promote, especially if you involve your members in your promotional strategy.

Amish – Thanks, I am glad you found some value in the article.

Dave – Welcome :) Do you manage your own online community or one developed by a third-party?

Patrick – Thank you so much; it’s greatly appreciated!

Ray – I took a quick look at your site Ray, and think the single best thing you can do is put the forum on the homepage of your website. At the moment, visitors have to find and click on the small ‘Community Forum’ text link to find your community. Put it in front of their eyeballs – don’t camouflage your forum!

You have a local online community so you should promote your community locally. Target your traffic very carefully, and good luck!

Nicole – Be sure to let me know what you think!

Greg – It is no surprise to me that you have found that as your content has increased, so has your conversion rate. This is yet further proof that quality content counts when developing online communities. Being in charge of an online community is just like being a host at a party; thanks for the great analogy!

Roger – Press releases are a good idea if you can come up with a unique angle although I have to admit I haven’t tried them. They are on my ‘to-do list’, though! Thanks for your kind comments; I don’t give private lessons on community promotion per se – at the moment, I prefer people contact me with questions so I can answer them on my blog so everybody benefits :)

Andy – You’re right. I don’t claim my online community to be self-sustainable as yet, but it is a success in terms of the specific goals I had for it at this stage of its life. I don’t think you can put arbitrary figures on success – success is based solely on how well you have met your own goals

Mr Woc – I am continuing to enjoy success with Facebook Ads; I suggest you give them another try. Make sure you target your ads to the audience you are after, and never stop experimenting. What’s more, the information Facebook gives you on the people that click on your ads is invaluable – you get both psychographic and demographic data which is worth the advertising spend alone.

B Martin – Yup, that’s always the challenge. You may like to check out my article ‘Why are active forum members like gold dust‘.

Smiley – Ah, we always strive for bigger and better success (or at least we should)!

Ed Hardy November 17, 2008 at 10:40 pm

I have always wanted to start a forum for my websites (automatic content, droool). I love reading case studies like this, they are very inspiring.

Armen Shirvanian November 20, 2008 at 10:46 am

You have pointed out numerous ways to spread one’s new forum after it has been created. It makes sense to leverage one’s previous sites to connect to the new product. Connecting to the forum link at locations passed by on the internet is the way to keep the forum alive and more well-known. Paid advertising is probably more useful for a forum that a personal site, since it would get the word out about it and its various sections.

Mark Brencick November 21, 2008 at 1:49 pm

I’ve been thinking about adding a forum to my community site but daunted by all the issues involved.

DanO November 21, 2008 at 5:27 pm

You have a wealth of information here. I just want to thank you for pointing me in the right direction. I have been working on a community website for people that live in my local area and your site has been of immeasurable value. Thank you, keep it up!

Phil November 22, 2008 at 7:41 pm

Hi Martin,

I am just about to start a community site with a forum, and have noticed a lot of people offering paid-to-post services, what is your though on using these services to get a forum going?

Regards,
Phil

Michelle November 23, 2008 at 6:14 pm

Phil: He’s got an article on that here: http://www.communityspark.com/paid-forum-posters/

Michelle

Smiley November 24, 2008 at 5:11 am

Don’t think Martin has a problem with other people using paid forum posting, as long as it’s worth it for them.

But I think, like me, he himself wouldn’t go for it.

I recall his argument being you can’t guarantee the quality of the paid poster’s content.

My main concern of paid poster’s however, isn’t about the content or the quality of the content – it’s….. what if you get found out? What if your users find out you use paid posters? There’s no law stopping the paid poster outing themself once you’ve paid them? What if one of your user by chance comes across the paid poster’s website and informs the rest of your community?

You’ll have one heck of a -s word- storm blowing your way, and you’ll have a lot of explaining to do.

I think paid posting shows a lack of trust and respect within the community.

Think of it from this perspective.

You’ve been a regular member of a forum for 2 years. You’ve visited it everyday, through the ups, and you’ve stuck by it through the downs. You’ve created hundreds of quality threads out of LOVE for your community. Suddenly you find out that the owner has been paying strangers to post…. but hasn’t paid you. Would you see that as fair treatment of your regulars?

Scott November 24, 2008 at 5:13 am

I agree with your information about article marketing. This can be one of the best ways to get exposure. Search engines pick articles up and they generally rank higher than other content. Plus, if they are on topic, they help to draw customers by showing that you are an expert in your field.

Michelle November 24, 2008 at 5:18 am

@Smiley – That’s my thinking, too. Paying posters is horribly unfair to the people who post either because they want to or to help out the community. I would never pay for forum posts. That said, I did pay someone to enter events into my site’s community calendar and I think that’s ok. Events are more impersonal and I look at it as data entry, not community participation. I’m not sure, yet, about other kinds of posts. I might consider paid articles. Again, that’s more about adding information and not so much a community thing.

Michelle

Kenneth Holland November 27, 2008 at 5:30 pm

I have used Adwords for most of my websites the past few years with good success. They key is testing testing testing! Also, make sure you split up the content network from the search network. This is a must!

I haven’t tried Facebook ads yet but one of the above comments has me curious about them so I think I’m going to give them a try. :)

Martin Reed - Blog Author November 29, 2008 at 1:02 am

Ed – I am glad you enjoyed the article. Just remember, you need to put in a lot of hard work before your community will be self-sustaining!

Armen – Thanks for your comment and input. Leveraging existing traffic and paid advertising can both be useful; it all depends on how you approach your marketing efforts and whether you target the right people.

Mark – If you think a forum will add value, then incorporate one. Just make sure you have the time to put in the effort needed to get it off the ground! What kind of community aspects does your site have at the moment?

DanO – Thanks for your kind comment; I am glad you found the article useful.

Phil – Take a read of my article on this subject, as kindly posted by Michelle above. Generally speaking, I think you are better off making the posts yourself. That way you can keep the quality up and develop the right personality and atmosphere that you want for your community.

Michelle – Thanks for digging out the link! I think paid articles are a totally different ball game compared to paid forum posts as typically you include the names of authors. Even if you don’t though, you get to proof read submitted articles and consequently you have full editorial control over them. When allowing paid posters to write posts on your forum, you lose this benefit.

Smiley – I agree with you. If it comes out that some of your members are paid posters though, is this any different to them finding out that you are making posts using the aliases of other members?

Scott – Thanks for your comment, I am not an expert when it comes to article marketing but I do find it beneficial in terms of picking up links and that all-important link authority.

Kenneth – Testing is very important. I have also found that the content network and the search network are two entirely different animals and return very different results! If you give Facebook ads a try, please report back with your thoughts.

Smiley November 29, 2008 at 7:20 am

Well argued, Martin. But I think it’s easier to hide doing it yourself rather than paying people to do it, because well you’re only keeping the secret to yourself.

Then again I only used aliases when it first started to fill the forum with plenty of content. Once genuine members signed up, the aliases were phased out.

You can control how your aliases are phased out, and you can control how involved in the community your aliases get. You can also control the atmosphere your aliases create.

With paid posters none of this is possible, or at least it makes it a lot harder.

Martin Reed - Blog Author December 6, 2008 at 12:27 am

Smiley – I guess the real issue here is should you be hiding anything from your members in the first place? If it ‘comes out’ that you had some aliases, will your members lose trust in you and your community? It’s a tough one.

Greg December 8, 2008 at 3:59 am

Hi Martin,

I have a question regarding the number of visitors and page views your site has received, so I can get a little bit better understanding of the size and popularity. How are you determining these figures?

I am familiar with both Webalizer (the stats program which came pre-installed on my hosting account) and Google Analytics which I’ve installed/coded into on my site. The problem is that these two stats programs don’t agree with how many visitors I’m getting. I’ve read in a number of places that Google Analytics is actually very bad for determining visitor and page view numbers, whereas Webalizer (or whatever stats program is actually on the server) is much better.

So, I guess my question is, are you going by stats as determined by a program on your server? Or are you using a separate external program such as Analytics (which would presumably mean you actually have more visitors than it’s telling you)?

I hope I’ve explained this clearly… I’m just curious about the size and scope of similar websites to see where I’m at. Many thanks for your help!

Martin Reed - Blog Author December 8, 2008 at 4:47 pm

Greg – Firstly, I would suggest you don’t compare your community to others, and definitely don’t use traffic as a determinant of ‘success’. I am pretty confident with the traffic stats Google Analytics returns – they tally up with stats I receive from advertising networks I use when I check ad impressions. I just checked the stats installed on my server – in my case, Google Analtyics reports very closely to Awstats (installed on my server) when it provides unique visitors and total visits. It varies wildly when it comes to pageviews though – for Just Chat, in March 2008 Google Analytics reports 1.6 million pageviews. AWStats reports 10.6 million. Yes, I double checked to make sure I wasn’t counting an extra digit!

The fact that I can get ad impression stats from other sources gives me confidence that Google Analytics is reporting far more reliable figures than my server’s traffic stats. I haven’t checked the raw traffic logs, however. You raise an important point, though – we can’t treat all traffic reports as gospel. They aren’t 100% reliable 100% of the time, and they will never be 100% accurate.

Lilla December 19, 2008 at 5:40 pm

I have heard reciprocal link building is a good way to promote sites as well. Was just wondering if it is one of the better ways to promote a site?

Martin Reed - Blog Author December 22, 2008 at 6:41 pm

Lilla – Yes, that can be a good way of promoting a site, although they don’t always bring in a huge amount of direct traffic. Online communities are different to other websites – with communities, most of your ‘promotion’ should be internal; most of your time should be spent developing the community rather than promoting it. In a successful community, the members will do most of the external promoting for you.

Shaw February 21, 2009 at 3:59 am

This is a great post with many reminders that are important to building a personal brand. Be the person that you want to be perceived as.

Sharon February 22, 2009 at 3:58 am

I appreciate your take on this post. I guess the way to persuade others to adopt these ideals is to inspire by example!

Tom February 22, 2009 at 2:49 pm

You just have to know when to start phasing the alias(es) out, and remember not to go too far.

After integrating the site, my old forum was so heavily customized it was impossible to move the SQL over. Because the tables where usernames & posts were stored had extra tables that no longer existed on the newly integrated forums. So I’ve had to start again.

I’ve been able to minimize the categories and the modifications this time. It’s not so unwieldy. I’m re-installing the main used customizations. But things I don’t need, I’m keeping out.

So I’ve got an alias on there, I only create 5 new posts per day. And in one week got 5,000 posts. I’ve found it’s actually benefited me, because the quieter members have surprised me by posting a lot more now, and getting more involved. They don’t feel as pushed out or left out as before.

I had to move servers because my SQL became too big, the hosting company wanted me to pay £87 per month. £87 per month !!! Apparently, their servers couldn’t handle a 1.2gb SQL so wanted me to move to dedicated servers with Intel Dual Core processor with 3gb RAM.

I had a feeling I was being stitched up like a kipper and they were just trying to take advantage of the new GBP exchange rates. They were in the Philippines, so they were getting a lot more money from the GBP due to recent economic shifts.

No way would a 1.2gb SQL require a dual core processor with 3gb RAM.

Lawrence March 14, 2009 at 7:55 am

Thank you so much for this article. I just came across your site by accident. A very fortunate accident. Having just launched a social network on the ning platform I am in need of some sound advice. Thanks once again.

Stroh March 20, 2009 at 1:03 am

Wow what a great article! I’ll have to try out the Facebook ads sometime and see if that will help out. Then again I have a not so nice niche. Arts can be very difficult to attract users for some reason.

Joseph Bennett May 27, 2009 at 3:22 am

Those are some impressive numbers to your Female Forum site, Congrats! I just wanted to say I love the tip about commenting on peoples photos at sxc.hu to get some easy link love. I just found that site yesterday, its hard to find royalty free images ( for me anyhow ). Thanks Martin for the article.

Paul November 13, 2009 at 4:51 pm

This is a great post with many reminders that are important to building a personal brand. Be the person that you want to be perceived as.

Daryl Wilkes November 18, 2009 at 9:39 am

Martin,

another great article. your insights into the inner workings of a Community Manager have been a revelation to me!! I am frantically writing notes after reading each of your blogs!

thanks again.

Daryl

Christina March 23, 2010 at 6:36 pm

Thanks for the advice on advertising and getting backlinks. I am surprised to hear that Facebook Ads are your most successful method. That’s an area we haven’t explored yet but we will now.

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