Newsflash: Building an online community is hard work

by Martin Reed on 17 March 2009 in Articles

community building work

Today I had a quick look at a few community building forums, and I wasn’t surprised to see the same old topics cropping up. People often have a decent member count (irrelevant) but are struggling to attract energy, life and content (essential). Most people are asking questions after their community has launched – often, they would have been better off asking those questions beforehand.

Ask these people, and they will tell you that building a successful online community is hard work. They realise it now, but I suspect a lot of them didn’t when they decided to launch their community.


First up, make sure you ask yourself some important questions. Figuring out how to attract members and engage them in conversations shouldn’t be done after your site has launched – it needs to be done beforehand. Don’t put off this critical planning stage – so much of your community’s success depends on your management and planning. Once your online community has a personality, once it has a culture, you’ll struggle to change it. You need to get this right from the outset.

Finding people

You need to be a detective. You’ve already decided who you need to attract to your community (right?) – now you need to figure out where they are. Next, you need to work out how to approach them. You are a facilitator of relationships – prove it. Build a relationship with these people before they join your community. Don’t give them the hard sell. Why would joining your community be beneficial to them? This isn’t about you.

Connecting people

You can’t just unleash a forum to the world and expect people to come flocking in their droves. In fact, I would argue that you don’t even want that to happen. Start small – let members build individual relationships. Smaller is stronger.

It’s hard work encouraging strangers to talk to each other. You need to encourage, cajole and reassure. You need to be proactive. Don’t expect your members to start new conversations if you aren’t leading by example.


It’s in capital letters for a reason. A community lives and dies by content. If your members aren’t creating any, you don’t have a community. Seed your community with content before you launch. Already launched? Create some now. Ask questions. Set the tone.

You don’t want to be creating all of the content, though. Remember – the community isn’t for you: it’s for your members. You shouldn’t be in the spotlight – that honour is reserved for your members. You are just getting people started. As soon as members start creating content, jump into action. Don’t become a stalker; just encourage and develop the discussion further. Remember what that member tells you and introduce them to other members with similar interests or experiences.

Your mind should never stop thinking of ways to encourage discussions and build relationships. Don’t obsess over numbers. The quality of discussions is far more important than the quantity.

Forget automation

A lot of online communities fail because people rely on technology. Technology doesn’t matter. Read Richard Millington’s Online Community Manifesto for more information.

Your community relies on you – or at least whoever is in charge. The person in charge shouldn’t be a technology person. They should be a people person. You can’t build a strong community with automated tools alone.

If your community is struggling, don’t add features. Don’t make your community appear bigger – you’re just emphasising how quiet the place is. Shrink it down. The smaller and simpler your community is, the more it encourages discussion.

Remember – your members are human beings. You need to be one, too.


How are you going to turn your existing members into cheerleaders for your community? You don’t want to be spending money on advertising in the long term – it’s expensive and because it’s an automated tool, it won’t necessarily be bringing in the type of members (personalities) that you want to attract.

You want people to be talking about your community away from your community. You want them to be telling their family about your site. You want them to be telling their friends – both offline and online.

You need to impress your members so much, they can’t help but mention your their community to everyone they know. How will you do that?

External community

Human relationships aren’t constrained by walls or borders – the internet has proved this. So why are so many communities only building relationships within the walls of their own web space? You should be cultivating relationships away from your community’s website – you’ll be building a reputation for yourself and for the community and what’s more, you’ll be attracting the type of members that you want. Think Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn (the big ones). Get involved in blog and forum communities. Your ‘competitors’ can be your best friends.

It doesn’t end

Don’t build a community thinking your members will be doing all the work. Building your community to the point where you see fresh content, new relationships being formed and existing relationships getting stronger each time you log in takes a lot of hard work. Now you need to keep the community strong and ensure it can scale.

Community building never gets easier. Each stage comes with its own challenges. There aren’t any rules. There aren’t any generic game plans. There is however, a lot of hard work. Enjoy!

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Edward March 17, 2009 at 3:09 pm

The image you chose for this article makes a great analogy – starting your community is just buying land! The real work is in building the community, which involves drawing up plans and building a place that people will want to go. It’s like any brick and mortar business; is there a need, and what do your customers (members) want?

All that from a picture. :)

msuzuki March 17, 2009 at 4:11 pm

Very good article!!!

I am actually building my (their) community, but unfortunately I did not have the budget to run the “market research”. The only people that we were able to get some feedback was from one of the founders that is pretty active in other communities and from his sisters.

Sometimes, as a small enterpreneur, we are very short on the budget and how much we can spend. And I think we do need to learn the hard way. Hope this will work.

Thx again for your site, very informative!

Mr Woc March 17, 2009 at 4:41 pm

Hi there

Lol good headline, as im fed up of reading about people, who think they are going to create the next facebook overnight and make a killing, the real fact of it all is, the way to get a sucessful site is lots of hard work and long days, and creating the new facebook is not going to happen !

A lot of people give up when they realise just how hard it is to created a successful site, there are a few nice subtle tips on how to help ur community in this post.


Peter March 17, 2009 at 10:09 pm

I think you need to take it even one step further back than what you’re saying, and be a member of the community before you start the community. Unless you’re very talented at pretending to be multiple people, and have all the time in the world to build conversations by yourself, having at least a few friends who are going to be there to help you sow the seed is a necessity.

Vernon Harleston March 17, 2009 at 10:11 pm

This article hits home with me. Right now I don’t have the site or the people but I do have a burning desire to call together good decent people who are committed to family. The message to focus on building and cultivating relationships has been coming at me from all directions.

The first two points about first planning and then finding and attracting the right people are confirmation for me to keep going in the right direction. Thanks for what you are doing. This site rocks.

Nicole Price March 18, 2009 at 5:34 am

Of all the steps that you have listed out here, I believe that the most important is the first one – doing the detective work, and approaching them to join your community. Not that the others are not important, but they become important only if you have a community to start with. Once you have a decent number of participants, the other factors contribute to improve the community’s existence and future.

Patrick March 20, 2009 at 8:01 am

Thanks for the mention. :) It’s most definitely hard work!

Jordan Viator March 22, 2009 at 1:31 pm

Great points here, Martin. I work with nonprofits who are using the Internet and social media to drive their missions online and online communities are one area where many organizations are looking to help drive results. I think you last point that “it doesn’t end” is so crucial to remember. Even if you follow all the other steps perfectly, ongoing support and activity to help the community thrive is a must. As always, thanks for sharing great insight!

jennifer March 22, 2009 at 6:29 pm

Another option, and I hate to say it but it’s true, is to hire a few internet-savvy people to help get the community going. As one who does some work in marketing, a few of the jobs I’ve held have been short-term stints, getting paid to get conversations started, to act as a welcoming person to new posters, etc. Not ideal, but if the budget is there, it can be a worthwhile investment.

Chris Altesino April 13, 2009 at 3:35 pm

I agree its tough. I thought about launching a forum supporting my dofollow site. It’s tough to get it off the ground even with the help of friends. I decided to stick just with a blog and let people comment instead.

Jules June 26, 2009 at 10:09 am

Hi Martin – thanks for the well-thought out article. For our site, CONTENT has definitely been the driving force. But let me tell you it didn’t happen overnight but we stuck to it believed that GOOD content will always get the readers in.

On your other tip – External community – I agree to a certain extent. What I see around me today is that everybody wants a ‘profile’ everywhere. Somebody even sent me software to automate the number of followers in my Twitter account. I deleted the email. Will I really read 10,000 tweets? Will they read mine if I’m one of 10,000? Don’t think so… :)

Lisa Udy October 28, 2009 at 12:29 pm

I think your first point, the planning stage, is the most important. If you don’t know what you want to get out of your community, then you are probably going to fail. Most communities start out with an idea to help others, or to add something great to peoples lives. If you don’t have that in mind, people aren’t going to be apart of your community, or at least won’t stick around for long time. :) Excellent read!

Alan October 29, 2009 at 1:27 am

What I’m sick of is online communities that get started, but then just as they actually start going and get useful, fail. You go back to the site and nothing is there.

Paul December 1, 2009 at 6:46 pm

People seem to think building a community is easy and doesnt take much time. The truth is…it is one of the hardest things to do online. Also, it can take a very long time to actually get anywhere. Work hard and dont give up!

Sharon February 4, 2010 at 5:58 am

I’m most afraid of finding people – how do you do this without sounding spammy? Everything feels like spam to people these days, doesn’t it, or am I too cynical?

Martin Reed - Community Manager February 4, 2010 at 1:41 pm

Sharon – Provide value, and be genuine. Don’t sell or push. You’ll find people that will want to talk to you.

Sharon February 4, 2010 at 3:08 pm

Thanks, Martin.

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