Improve your online community in five easy steps

by Martin Reed on 19 November 2009 in Articles

improve your online community

I get a lot of people contacting me for help with their online community. Most of the time, they are unhappy with the amount of activity taking place – they want to see more. Most of the time, I see the same (or at least similar) problems. Therefore, in this article I want to outline five ways you can easily improve your online community.

1. Make the community prominent.

Don’t hide your online community behind a link. Bring it right up to the front page. Anything less, and you aren’t giving your community the respect it deserves. If you are serious about your online community, prove it by giving it serious exposure.

Show that you value the opinions of your members by featuring their content alongside your own editorial content – you are equal partners in this.

This goes further than just proving your commitment to the community. It puts the community in front of eyeballs. A lot of the time, visitors won’t even notice a link to your community – so put it where they can see it if you want them to join and get involved.

2. Keep it simple.

You don’t need fancy features and a glamorous site design. Most of the time, these are simply distractions. Keep things simple. There is nothing wrong with basing your community solely on a forum. You don’t necessarily need a full range of ‘social networking’ features. People need to be able to communicate – it’s as simple as that. They can do this with a basic forum.

Fancy designs are often just an ego stroke for the organisation that commissioned them. Remember, an online community isn’t about you – it’s about your members. Strip everything back and keep it basic. Your community may not look glamorous, but it will be far more likely to contain activity and member engagement.

3. Tell me why.

I come across a lot of online communities that don’t explain or outline their purpose. As crazy as it sounds, there are a lot of people building communities without actually making it clear what the purpose of the community is. Sometimes this is obvious from the name – but even then, I need to know why I should join your community rather than one belonging to your competitor.

Ensure that all visitors to your site know why they should be joining and getting involved in the community. Keep it short, simple, snappy and accurate.

4. Be active.

As a community manager, you need to be active in your own online community. You can’t be a matchmaker unless you get to know members of your community. You can’t learn from your members if you don’t know who they are.

Lead by example – get stuck in and enjoy the community. If you aren’t active or if you aren’t enjoying being active, your community has a problem. Fix it.

5. Build relationships at home and away.

Some people who contact me stress that they are highly active in their community – in fact, sometimes they are its chief contributor. Of course, a community isn’t a community if there is only one person doing the talking. If this is happening to you, it’s an indicator that you need to be more proactive.

Just because you’ve built an online community it doesn’t mean people will flock to it. You need to get out there and find members. Fortunately, that’s never been easier. Your potential members are out there writing blogs, telling the world what they are doing on twitter, and networking on Facebook.

Don’t stalk these potential members, and don’t spam them. Get to know them. Comment on their blogs, provide value. It’s all about what you can do for them – not the other way around.

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HI November 20, 2009 at 11:01 am

Good post and pointers. I have seen so many communities close because the maker failed to keep up with the maintenance or stopped marketing. My suggestion is that unless you know you can dedicate some time to your community, don’t start one. It will eventually fail if not maintained correctly.

Nicole Price November 20, 2009 at 12:37 pm

Very basic, very true and hardly ever followed in total by most communities.

Ann Arbor November 20, 2009 at 5:33 pm

Brilliant ideas! I’ve been to tens of forums and online chats that don’t practice half these tips. It make the whole process less enjoyable.

YC November 22, 2009 at 4:51 am

Thank you for this very timely piece. I’ve noticed of late that I, myself and me have become the main contributing members. I am starting to worry. I am getting new members, that isn’t really the issue – it’s getting them to contribute and to participate. Oh dear…

Nicole Price November 24, 2009 at 11:31 am

I was a member in a community that started off very well but along the way, got lost due to not keeping it simple to participate in. I have just been advised that it has closed down.

Mr Woc November 24, 2009 at 1:18 pm

Hi there

Some pretty common sense info there, I agree with the spamming option too so many communities i join follow up with emails eventually putting me off going back to the community as Ive had to put up with badly worded and formatted newsletters i didnt even sign up to in the first place !


Paul November 24, 2009 at 3:44 pm

Another amazing community article.

Being active in a community and getting involved is the best way to improve the community. Finding a few family members or friends to get involved can help take some work load off of you.

Patrick November 27, 2009 at 12:29 pm

Good stuff, Martin.

Dean Saliba December 1, 2009 at 1:38 pm

I used to ruun an online Football fan community and it was very hard work. No matter what I did I would annoy and irritate half the community.

I took six months of tantrums from them before selling the community to someone else. I didn’t need that kind of stress.

I have no idea how you guys cope.

Martin Reed - Community Manager December 2, 2009 at 12:28 pm

Dean – Being a community manager can be tough at times; and I challenge any to put their hand on their heart and truthfully tell me they have never considered throwing in the towel at some stage in their career!

We rely on the positive aspects of online communities outweighing the bad – it can be all too easy to focus on the minority of trouble makers rather than the majority of people that add real value and meaning within the community and the lives of others.

Andy December 7, 2009 at 11:58 am

I think it’s about having clear goals around what you want to acheive with an online community and focus on quality rather than quantity.

Doing something on a voluntary basis can be a thankless task! But…. any community needs those to lead from the front and without them the community would be poorer as a result..

chakkravarthi December 14, 2009 at 3:23 am

I had bitter experience with running online forums myself, All I can say is don’t open an online forums just like that unless you got a stable site to back it up like a blog.

Kevin Malone December 22, 2009 at 8:14 am

#1 reminds me of a vBulletin modification by Nexia that I recently added to the front page of my forum. This product allows you to choose how many of the latest topics you want displayed above the forum listing, and from whichever forums you want (you get to input IDs). The most important aspect of this product, though, is that it allows you to input the amount of characters from the opening post of that topic you want displayed. This showing off of the actual content makes this modification much more useful to me, and entices the reader that much more to read on.

Also, I recently added an “Articles” index, and made the link to it one of four displayed to guests. That way, I hope to encourage quality write-ups, as they won’t be lost in the topic listing of the forum. Along those lines, I’ve even encouraged members to suggest old write-ups they submitted to the forum, and any replies to it, that they’d like to have added. Since this feature has only been up for about a week, it’s too early to tell how much this feature will get used. So far, however, I’ve submitted five articles, and a fellow administrator has submitted one very worthwhile article of his own.

Regarding #2, despite being a big fan of modifications, my goal is always to simplify design. I organize my menu, for instance, but I provide guests only four links which I consider useful, while leaving other links to members. When all is said and done, I am a big fan of extensive modification, but I am also a big fan of minimalism. I can’t stand when a forum has so much that the design makes it feel bloated.

About #3, I remember saying that nobody should go to your site thinking “wtf is this about?” I have always thought about an informative welcome message since I started my forum in 2004. Although I have modified that welcome message countless times, the idea was always to take away any confusion. At this time, I have struck a balance between simplicity and detail. Along those lines, I give a sentence about the forum, and then encourage the member to read my topic on the history of the forum, and to look at the rules. On the nav bar above this message, there’s also the Staff List and the FAQ (which I renamed Q&A, since it’s not the default FAQ and I want to attract attention). For a great many sites, you’re going to have the problem of the first-time visitor with a short attention span. You need to have everything “right there” before the few seconds you have runs out.

Finally, #4 has been talked about countless times, and yet it will never stop bearing repeating. There are too many people there who want the content generated by other people, but they don’t see the irony in sitting back and waiting for others to do the work. The guest or member is the same as you: he wants content. However, the onus is on your to produce it, and encourage it in others. After all, this site you’re having them visit is your project, and it exists because you made it exist. Nobody else visiting your site ever cared to create it. MAKE them care.

Ben King December 26, 2009 at 8:42 pm

I think it is important also to incorporate the type of community into the URL, as this is extremely important with respect to Google Optimisation…!

Martha Jones January 4, 2010 at 10:46 am

Surprisingly, the “why” part is something the newbie community managers seldom think about. They launch a forum thinking that it is obvious to people what the forum is about. Nothing could be further from the truth! Whether you are selling something to people or just giving away something for free, you need to tell them WHY they need to buy/download your stuff. Not everyone is Einstein. ;) Besides, if you take the time to explain the reason why you have setup that forum, it shows a commitment on your part towards that community! :D

Like, say you want to build a forum on real estate. However, there are already probably 100s of real estate forums, so why should I join YOURS? What is the USP of your forum? Those are questions visitors would be asking themselves before joining your forum.

As always, another well written article, Martin.

Martha Jones January 4, 2010 at 10:48 am


Right. It is no different than the preface or introduction of the book: it tells you what the book is about, and why should you read it.

Beth January 10, 2010 at 1:34 am

Well, you’ve inspired me!

The steps seem logical.

The “why” step is the one that I am a little bit unclear about. And, perhaps that’s my problem.

The why question means that the purpose of the community should be relatively unique, and I am having trouble finding anything that hasn’t been done ten thousand times.

I am also having trouble finding something that I KNOW that would be inspirational enough to gather a community around.

It seems logical to me that if I am going to inspire a community, I should at least have depthful knowledge and a passion for the subject or purpose of the community.

As I look at my life, such a passion doesn’t exist at the moment.

Oh I like things, like Lego building, but I don’t know enough about it to answer any questions about the subject. I just follow the directions.

I like where I get my Lego. They are great, but even as great as they are (100 times better than I would be) and even with their great content, if they get one comment a month on their site, that’s a lot for them. And, they are DO FOLLOW to boot. I mean, great content, and DO FOLLOW and one comment a month. Hard to figure.

So, I am trying to see what I could do that a ToysPeriod (my hobby store) hasn’t done a hundred times better than I could do it, and I can’t see it.

Perhaps you have some suggestions in that area.

Why anyone would be inspired by my level of knowledge in anything, I don’t know.

Frankly, I am very average, and as an average person with average knowledge, I don’t stand out.

I don’t know anything about African safaris or new disease remedies. Anyone out there want to hear about why I like jelly beans, but just those that are found in big box stores?

Just don’t ask me what’s in them or where they came from. I don’t have a clue. All I know is that they taste very good.

Martin Reed - Community Manager January 13, 2010 at 2:33 pm

Beth – I think the products are distracting you here. It’s often very difficult to build a community behind a product, because people are very rarely passionate about specific products (although there are some exceptions).

Try thinking instead about the lifestyle or aspirations of your customers. Try thinking about what your store represents, and tap into that. For guidance, look at Red Bull – it would be hard to build a community or encourage passionate discussion about energy drinks, so they invest in extreme sports and generate conversation that way.

Dan February 27, 2010 at 11:55 am

I can only imagine how much work it takes to create and run a successful community. We’ve considered it, but it is way down on our list right now. Plus, college and graduate school admissions are so cyclical that we would have to get new members every year.

I think we would have to answer point number 3 first, “what is the purpose of the community?” That’s a very good point. The community plan should be spelled out in detail, like a business plan, before you get started.

Christian February 28, 2010 at 4:56 pm

Thanks Martin.

Im trying to make a community behind a produkt and have found it pretty difficult. Thanks for all the good posts. I’ll try following some of your ideas.


Sean March 1, 2010 at 3:50 pm

I really like the way you used the Red Bull example. I think much better then their community features is their advertising, which brings me to a question. If you can only have one, which is better? Online community or great advertising?

Lora March 4, 2010 at 11:58 am

It seems really easy, but unfortunately this is not true! We must invest effort and knowledge to properly use these tips…This is my opinion. But, of course, these tips are very useful for directing to the right direction…

Martin Reed - Community Manager March 5, 2010 at 12:38 pm

Shaun – A vibrant online community can be great advertising.

Christina March 16, 2010 at 7:26 pm

The first 4 steps seem much easier to accomplish than step 5. Finding new members, who will contribute, is the step that is the most overwhelming to me. Great advice regarding the Red Bull example – lifestyles and interests can be targeted instead of products.

Henk Inkt April 29, 2010 at 8:05 pm

The fourth is the best step of all. Being active in a community is the most important thing. Get to know your members and build relationships with them. Friends will give more in return than people who are just signed in.