Building an online community is hard work and there are never any guarantees of success. Most people give up too soon; the best online communities grow organically through word of mouth and recommendations. They contain members that consider other members to be their friends. This takes time.
Too many people throw in the towel too early. They have the ‘build it and they will come’ mentality. This is rarely true – and almost impossible when it comes to community building. Even if you have hugely passionate customers, you’ll be working hard to build, nurture and sustain your online community.
It will take months and years, not days and weeks to build a genuine online community. Relationships take time to develop. They take even longer when you take away face to face contact and replace it with a computer screen and a keyboard.
Time is against you
Not everyone has a lot of time to spend in your community. Parents are busy raising their children. Fishermen are busy fishing. Gamers are busy playing games. They need a reason why they should give up their spare time to contribute to the community.
You need to get the word out – this doesn’t mean paying for ads. It means going out and finding the type of people you want as members. Build relationships with them. Get them involved in the development process of the community. Give them influence. You’ll get ‘perfect members’ and great feedback.
Community building isn’t just about developing relationships with people inside your community – it’s about building relationships with people outside of it, too.
If, despite your best efforts, you aren’t seeing much in the way of activity you should ask why. Ask yourself (be honest and objective) and ask your members. Don’t sound desperate. Don’t sound accusatory. Be honest, and ask for honesty in return. You want criticism. You don’t want people telling you the community is great (you know it isn’t).
Rope in family and friends, too. Watch them use your community and take a note of any bottlenecks. After they’ve spent some time in the community, ask them for their honest thoughts. Make sure they don’t hold back. Make sure you get as much information as possible out of them. If they say they don’t like your community then you’re off to a great start – just remember to ask them why.
Get your members to tell you ten things they don’t like about your community (preferably in private – you want to avoid groupthink). If you think you’ll be hurt by this just remind yourself that you’ll be more hurt if they don’t tell you.
An online community is never ‘done’. It is always evolving – new members join, old members leave. New stories form and the personality of the community evolves. You should be involved throughout the lifecycle of your community. Don’t expect to be involved for a few weeks and then sit back and watch your members create all the value and content for you.
You need to be involved in your community. You need to influence its development. You need to be visible, known and dedicated. If you don’t want to be involved in your community, why should your members bother?
You might introduce a new feature (maybe your members asked for it) but it doesn’t get used. You might create fantastic content yet nobody responds. Don’t give up.
Community building is all one big experiment. There are no guarantees. Sometimes, things work. Sometimes, they don’t. As long as you continue to learn, nothing is a failure.
It’s easy to be blind to the faults in your online community. It’s also easy to over-estimate the enthusiasm people may have for a certain topic. Maybe you were convinced people would be flocking to a community dedicated to the art of paperclip sculpture yet they failed to materialise? Maybe you thought people in a local village with a population of 250 would prefer to talk online rather than in person?
Sometimes your ideas may fail. Sometimes the entire concept of your community may fail. If the people are out there, but aren’t coming (despite your best efforts), try recruiting a community manager with better skills. Otherwise, you may need to seriously think about shutting the site down.
Not ready to give up yet? Great! Here’s what you need to do:
Your community needs to be:
Your members need to feel: