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.
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.
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.
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?
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!