Online communities allow people with similar interests to come together and feel a part of something bigger than themselves. This unifies the group and creates a sense of combining multiple parts to form a single, greater whole.

It’s human nature…

We want to be associated with others that have a similar mindset. Meaning and purpose can come in many forms. Martin Seligman – the founder of positive psychology – describes meaning as a vital component of happiness and wellbeing. An interpretation of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs puts your need for belonging and respect by others close to the top of the pyramid only behind self-actualization (the desire for self-fulfillment).

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs | Growth Marketing Conf

The Benefits of Starting Your Own Community

Communities Build Great Authority

Simply put, communities build great authority. Authority is an important building block to a better business. Here are general ways to build online authority:

  •      Create Great Content (quality content, quality strategy)
  •      Build Quality Links (guest post, attract links from other sites, etc.)
  •      Create a Strong Social Presence
  •      Recognition (testimonials, awards, mentions, associations, press)
  •      Offline (speaking engagements, endorsements, networking)

Out of these 5 ways to build authority, an online community includes 4 of the 5, and helps with the 5th. Let’s break this down.

Every great online community creates an abundant amount of focused and educational content. This content builds great links to other accredited sites and those sites and others are more inclined to link to, or back to, a community vs. individual business.

In turn, great content gives online communities a lot of social ammo to share. And since you are often sharing other people’s content, they love sharing it as well. By organically growing a strong community, you will start to build you and your brand’s authority while gaining recognition. This can lead to many types of speaking engagements, sponsorship opportunities, and being invited to networking events.

By building a community you are creating a greater authority, in a user-generated, more efficient way than any brand could compete with.

But It’s Not About You, It’s About Them

Don’t let the “building authority” part throw you off. This community is about your members and building something great within your realm of expertise. If you go into it with the mindset of creating a community for yourself it will push people away. So, make sure you don’t let it be about you. Would you want to join a group that just promotes itself all day? I know I wouldn’t.

 

How Do I Start an Online Community?

A Small Impact Starts it All

Communities can come in all sizes.

Just because a community is small does not mean it isn’t serving a great purpose. Start small and work your way up. You don’t need to grow something overnight, in fact, you probably couldn’t if you tried. It just doesn’t happen that way.

In fact, starting a community can be very difficult, but here are my suggestions for getting started:

 

1. Pick a specific niche around your expertise or interests.

This should be the easy part, as I’m sure you have an idea about what you would like to create your community around. However, try to be specific about your community’s purpose. The best communities focus on a specific topic that the members all have in common.

One way to help make a more informed decision is to use Google Trends. It allows you to type in keywords to research if one area of interest may have more interest than another. Here is an example of a comparison of some of my interests, and you can see that SaaS is trending up and looks to be the best topic.

Another great tool for making a decision is to do a SWOT analysis on your topics and see if any of them particularly end up with.

 

2. Start very basic. Get the site built with minimal effort and build the community around the user base.

Pick a platform that is right for you. There are many pre-built platforms and resources out there to get you started. Here are a few:

WordPress BuddyPress

Telescope

Spot.im

CMX Hub

 

3.  Invite friends first, but create a plan for getting others to invite their friends as well.

The best testers of your community are your immediate friends. They are naturally going to be the first people you most likely invite. This is great, but without a plan to get others involved, your community will only be your friends, which likely won’t help you grow your business. 

 

4.  Engage with the members as much as possible.

Your members are your community, without them, there is no community.

Get them involved in commenting and engaged with other users as much as possible. This will help your community grow, create user generated content, and make every get much more interesting, faster.

 

 5.  Try to get and listen to feedback from your members.

Talk to your members as much as possible and find out what the love, what they hate, and what they think can be improved upon within your community. Listening to your members and understanding their experience will help you to anticipate the needs of your community. 

 

6.  Make it easy to post and share content.

Having a great user interface will make your members more likely to engage and share. The difference between talking to an audience and building a community is all about how the members interact with each other. If it is difficult  (or impossible) for people to engage, share and communicate with each other, you have an audience, not a community, and you can’t reap the benefits in quite the same way.

 

7.  Promote others when possible.

One of the best ways to get your community to speak up is to provide a place where they feel comfortable sharing their own wins with each other. Allowing people the opportunity for a little bit of self-promotion pretty much guarantees their desire to actively participate in your community.

Also, highlighting specific members of your community for their achievements and allowing others to revel in the spotlight is a gratifying experience for the individuals involved.

I’ll talk about other ways to do this in a little bit, but creating those gratification “hooks” is one of the best ways to build an active community of participants who actually enjoy being a part of what you’ve created.

 

Here are some additional tips to help get things moving:

Set up a way to communicate easily and share new features and news. At SaaS Community, we chose Intercom.io to use for chat, onboarding messages, and some triggered communication. This can help personalize the experience for your user base as it grows. You will want to map this experience out and test it often to optimize it.

Incentivize interactions and involvement through gamification. Give points, kudos, karma, stars or some form of award for being more involved. This can help keep the community engaged which helps less aggressive users to want to be more active. We are working on this aspect ourselves. Right now we incentivize high-quality new posts by being featured in the weekly newsletter. Which brings us to….

Start a newsletter. This is a great way to communicate, weekly or monthly, with your user base. Give updates on the community and what is new. We use an awesome tool called Curated.co to run the newsletter; I highly recommend checking them out. Here’s an example of what our newsletter sign-up looks like:

SaaS_Community

Conduct Interviews, create a podcast or do webinars. This is a strong way to build your brand and the online community. I have personally seen this work extremely well, and is something I am trying to become better at.

 

Growing an Online Community

Success Doesn’t Come Overnight…

This is not a “Field of Dreams” scenario, where you build it and they will come.

Community Building | Growth Marketing Conf

An online community takes A LOT of time and effort. Keep pushing forward, test what is and isn’t working, and continue to make things better. If you don’t have time, find someone to appoint as your community manager; it is a very important role. A community is about consistent progress. These small changes and additions for the better will add up over time.

 

Leveraging Your Other Social Channels

Being active on social can also really help boost your community.

People like sharing things they relate to or are a part of and the right social channels is the best place for that. Make sure you are spending the most time on the channel that works be best for your audience. If you don’t know which social channel, or channels, are your primary ones, try testing them evenly and see your traffic and conversion numbers. You should be able to start easily seeing the difference and be able to pay closer attention to the social platform that is speaking to your audience.

Just like with anything that needs to be marketed, distribution is a big part of it. Leverage social automation to help get your content distributed and try to get your community involved.

 

Grabbing from Related Communities

Almost everything invented comes from something else. Model some of your community around the things that are obviously working for others. This doesn’t mean go out and copy a community, but pay attention to small parts that are working. This might be details of their newsletter, or days and times they are sending it. Or it could be formatting around your login or registration page, or possibly any ways they are increasing commenting and engagement.

 

Having Influencers Guest Host Your Community

Reach out to influencers in your industry and guest host their expertise on your community. It will help relate the site to authoritative people and thus growing your sites’ legitimacy.

You can do this in many forms. Create a guest post, or recorded video, to a live AMA (Ask Me Anything). Use the suggestion above and possibly see what is working for other communities. If you are first in your market, then give them all a try and see what works best for you.

Do you have any great tips that you could add to this post? I would love to hear them! Tweet me or post your ideas in the comments section.