First things first, building and sustaining an online community is probably the toughest of tasks there is. Attracting new visitors, making them members, keeping them from going away (duh!), making sure that they contribute – every single task in that chain is a project in itself. And no matter how many guides you read (including this one), it is not going to be easy. Now you know why Facebook is valued at above $100 B & why Facebook bought WhatsApp at $19B – it is all about the huge & heavily engaged community that each of them have! Okay, so the fact that building a community is hard (& needs a decent helping of luck on top) is all good to know from a general knowledge perspective  – the real question is what can you do to build your own online community. Turns out there are still some proven steps that you can take that at least give you a fighting chance to survive in this age of over-information chaos

[box style=’info’] Who is your target audience? [/box]

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?” “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.” “I don’t much care where –” “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.” – Alice in Wonderland

Look, no one can tell you the right way if you don’t know where you want to go! Hence, before everything else, comes this question – who is your target audience? Who exactly are you talking to? If you cannot answer this question right now, in a single sentence – you should stop all other marketing/development/designing efforts and return to the drawing board. 

You don’t have to make this very complicated by making multi-page McKinsey/P&G type personas with glossy pictures and 20 rows of information. But, you must know who is supposed to read your information and feel compensated for his/her time. Think of that one person who needs what you are offering. Note down that person’s needs, wants and ambitions. Now, go a step further and think how you can make an environment (community) where this person not only consumes content but also wants to invest his/her time in making the community richer.

Just one person – not 100, not 1000! First, make sure that your content is consistent for this one person. Consistent? Yes, that means that if you decided that target reader wanted basic astronomy – you are not supplying content that can only be understood by university professors.

Once you get this right, by all means test and diversify across levels, maybe even across genres. Just don’t confuse yourself about what your own community is supposed to be.

[box style=’info’] Why will they connect? [/box]

If your aim is to build a community then this is the key problem that you must solve. What do you want from your visitors and why will they do that task. Why should anyone even spend one second to do anything that you want done? What is my incentive in writing a comment, sharing a post, filling a form, clicking a button on your site? The answer can be in many forms:

  • Maybe you have excellent content that people want to share to their followers just to showcase their own knowledge. Eg: Quicksprout.com
  • Or, you could already have reputed people participating on your site (your brand ambassadors) who demonstrate a pull effect. Eg: Quora.com
  • Maybe you can put in place an excellent gamification & reputation system that makes people participate in order to increase their own online social status. Eg: Stackoverflow.com

The point here is not to copy any of the above, but to understand that every successful community site knows what it is doing to incentivise its members. Chances are that you may not have this answer initially, which is fine. You just need to test whatever ideas you have one by one. Start looking at your strengths and implement some action steps based on that. Building a community is not a short term process, so give it time and only when you see that even sustained efforts are not yielding results should you try out a new strategy.

[box style=’info’] How will they connect? [/box]

Once you have figured out the above question, the next step is to figure out the HOW part.

If you want people to comment on your articles, have you made commenting & replying an easy process? Are you diligently removing spam from posts? If you want people to simply share your content, have you made the sharing a one click process? If you have figured out an entirely new way for members to interact, have you explained very clearly how they should do that? All online communities have different scopes and objectives. A Pinterest is not a Facebook is not a LinkedIn. Decide what you are and what you want your members to do. Only after that can you enable them to interact.

[box style=’info’] What is your growth strategy? [/box]

You are now clear on who you are and who your community members should be. The question still remains, how will you get the initial traction? The first 100, 500, 1000 members – how to get them? And again, there is no easy answer 🙂

Different companies have used different methods:

  • Dropbox is now almost a case study in how it gave members more free space if they invited their friends to the service. Great network effect that worked for Dropbox since it anyway was a service built for collaboration.
  • Remember the early Gmail? They created a scarcity around the service. It was invite-only & each member had a limited number of invites to send – the simple email address became a status symbol and everyone wanted one. Infact, this invite-only method is still widely used by many to create the initial buzz around a community.
  • Give social recognition. Yelp.com did this, they called these people Yelp Elite – superusers whose reviews had more weight attached in the eyes of readers. And new members wanted to elevated to this status.
  • Personally get some known people on-board. Quora.com did this extremely well. For a simple question & answer site it was imperative that people felt that the answers were coming from someone knowledgeable. And the site had some highly reputed people who not only could provide good answers but also brought their own follower community on-board.
  • Test & iterate the ‘hell’ out of digital marketing. Figure out the Lifetime Value of each new member – and then try out everything under the sun to get new members at something (much) less than the LTV. No need to mention that this is a risky road and almost always usable only by the ‘big pocket’ players. However, it is still a very effective one. Noah Kagan at Okdork.com is one of the pros in this sphere.  

Let me stress again that building an online community is not easy. It will take all your innovation, skill and luck to demolish this problem. So, make use of the above steps but even more importantly test and iterate continuously till you achieve that goal!

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