Building a thriving online community is a marathon rather than a sprint.
Communities serve the fundamental human need to connect, and relationships take time to consolidate. It is a lengthy process that has to be carefully planned and sustained by consistent work.
But the good news is not only well-established brands with tons of customers can build and monetize communities.
You can leverage community marketing even if you have a new business or want to build a personal brand. The trick is to give people value, whether or not they have made a purchase.
So let’s get into how it’s done.
Phase 1: Define your vision
a. Choose an interest
In essence, communities are about bringing together like-minded people and sharing ideas. But without a clearly defined topic to discuss, you risk unleashing unmanageable chaos.
If you have a business, build a community around an interest that is related to your brand, product, or service. Let’s say you have a business that sells cameras. You could start a group for photography enthusiasts where people could network and share their work.
On the flip side, if you’re an individual trying to build a community to monetize, start by looking into your passions.
You’re probably familiar with the quote “Choose a job you love and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.” Well, it could be easily adapted to “Build a community around a topic you love and you’ll never see it as work”.
To uncover the interest you should focus on, ask yourself questions like:
- What are the subjects I am most passionate about?
- What topics do I find easy to talk about?
- What am I skilled in?
- What do I like to do in my free time?
- What would I like to expand my knowledge of?
b. Validate the interest in the market
Successful communities usually answer a high demand in the market. Are you familiar with the blue ocean strategy? It’s the same principle. Ideally, you want to avoid cutthroat competition and find an unexplored niche that guarantees your community’s success.
You can approximate market demand for your interest of choice through questions like “How many people share this interest?” and “How many other communities are built around the same interest?”.
Put your Sherlock cap on and go find your answers by joining communities that target the same audience you plan to. They can be websites, social media groups, message boards, you name it. Study them closely to decide whether your community idea is worth pursuing.
c. Define your audience
At an audience level, you’re looking for individuals that view the interest you’re trying to build around as part of their identity.
If you have a pre-existing brand, your community’s audience must include all or at least part of your existing customers. As an individual, you must target people who share your interest, but who also have the financial power to contribute to any monetizing endeavors or buy upcoming products/services.
d. Build your community member profile
Who do you want in your community and why? Imagine what a core member of your community would be like.
This is no different than building a customer persona since selling to community members is part of the plan. For already established brands, the community member profile overlaps with one or multiple customer personas.
If that’s not the case for you, make a list of attributes you want your ideal member to have. You can include demographics (e.g. age, gender, education, income), as well as behaviors (e.g. type of personality, morals).
Not everyone will follow this cookie-cutter pattern, but the member profile will help you tailor the content and mold the community’s lifestyle.
Phase 2: Plan and refine
a. Define community value
Potential members need a reason to join a tribe so think about the purpose of your community and the value you can offer. This goes beyond sales. In fact, this comes before sales or any monetizing endeavor.
The goal is to create an inviting environment that draws members in.
People usually join communities to meet their networking, learning, belonging, or entertainment needs. Usually, it’s a combination of these motivators, but belonging is a given for any type of community.
For example, the Just Creative Design community offers members a combination of networking and learning opportunities. Creatives can connect with other graphic designers and also learn from them through feedback.
b. Choose the best platform
Communities are less about the platform they exist on and more about the story and the people that get together. Still, you can think of the platform as the soil your community grows in. The more fertile it is, the bigger the chances to have a strong community.
So which platform provides the most “fertile soil”? The one your potential community members spend most of their time on.
Still, you need to factor in your personal preference as well and think which platform you enjoy the most. You will find your ideal choice where potential members’ preferences and your own overlap.
Stick to a single platform at first. You can expand to other platforms later, when you gain more resources.
For example, Corridor Digital, an LA-based production studio started posting visual effects tutorials and how-to videos on their YouTube channel years ago. Picking the platform was a no-brainer as YouTube was and still is the best fit for long video content.
Now their YouTube is comprised of 5.4M members and they have also launched their own membership-based streaming platform.
c. Establish credibility and trust
A successful community leader must earn the trust and respect of his/her community members.
If you have a well-established brand you are automatically seen as an authority in your respective industry or niche. But things are more difficult when your business is small or you’re trying to build a personal brand.
Creating a set of ground rules for this leadership role can help you build credibility and position yourself as the head of the tribe.
- Bring value with every post. Whether it’s information, actionable advice, or even a meme, ensure all you publish serves the purpose of your community.
- Always create quality content. Set high-quality standards for your content and never publish something you are not proud of.
- Have conviction in your know-how. If you trust your skills, so will the people in your community. Appear confident and have a positive attitude at all times.
- Communicate your vision. Let members know where do you see the community heading in the future and what are your plans for further development.
In the words of Seth Godin, “Be genuine. Be remarkable. Be worth connecting with.”
d. Create content, connect, collaborate
These are the three main elements of the community-led approach you must adopt.
Besides providing value and attracting the target audience, your content should facilitate connections between community members. For this purpose, you should take advantage of all the tools your platform of choice has to offer.
Connect with members whenever possible, whether it’s in the comments section of a post or through features like questions and polls. Ask them for feedback and use it to constantly improve your content.
By collaborating and maintaining an active feedback loop you get to know and better understand members’ needs and interests and how to cater to them. This way you build with the members, not for them.
Phase 3: Build and grow the community
a. One member at a time
Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither will your community. On the contrary, you’ll start growing it slowly, one member at a time.
Regardless of how good your published content is, community members won’t simply flock your way in the beginning. But you can approach members from similar communities and start one-to-one conversations. The goal is to build relationships with these people and then turn them into community members and even customers.
Don’t stress about metrics too much. With community marketing, strength is not in the numbers, but in how engaged community members are. A community of 2K buying members can bring more profit than a community of 10K members that don’t care enough to make purchases.
b. Promote your community
The one-by-one strategy is effective but equally time-consuming. If you want to accelerate growth, you should get your community in front of bigger communities that revolve around a similar interest.
Perform thorough research beforehand and measure the level of engagement of potential candidates. Don’t look at the member count, as it seldom matches the number of active members. Instead go through comments, discussions and even ask for engagement statistics if you are in an open negotiation.
This type of promotion can take multiple forms, including, but not limited to guests posts on social media or blogs, affiliate partnerships, speaking during a webinar or a podcast, and so on.
Just because you’re doing this to promote your own community, it doesn’t mean your promotional content should lack value, quite the opposite. Take this opportunity to show people your community is worth joining.
c. Word of mouth marketing
When people discover something valuable, they want to talk about it to family, friends, acquaintances, and whoever else is willing to listen.
So give your community members valuable content to rave about.
This way you will stimulate organic growth by doing nothing more than creating content to share with your existing members. They can even become advocates for your community and invite other people to join.
However, keep in mind that word of marketing can be a double-edged sword because people are usually just as vocal about negative experiences as they are about positive ones.
Phase 4: Shape the community lifestyle
a. Adopt a community mindset
Always have your members’ best interests at heart. If you actively try to make them happier, smarter, or wealthier, your community will grow faster.
Starting to see your community members as human beings rather than numbers will help. Engage in conversations with them, get to know them, address their pain points, and show them why your community is the place to be.
Cultivate a sense of belonging by using tactics like giving your community members a collective name, creating rituals and traditions, or holding recurring meetings for all willing to participate. This way you will cement community culture and make members feel like they’re part of something meaningful.
b. Engage with everyone
If you’re in the early days of your community and your member count is in the two-digit territory this will seem like a walk in the park.
But when you’ve reached thousands of community members, engaging with every single one might become a logistical nightmare.
Hear me out, though.
One-to-one interactions are extremely powerful so they are worth investing time and effort in. They not only make members feel valued and heard, but they lead to deeper connections. Plus, public interactions might encourage other members to engage as well, boosting community participation.
Try to keep up with responding to messages and comments and if you start feeling overwhelmed, hire someone for this purpose, such as a community manager.
c. Empower community members
Involve members in community and product-related decisions whenever possible.
For instance, if you are considering to add another platform to the mix, ask members for feedback on the idea via a form or a poll. You can do the same with product features or service improvements.
Another great idea is to create contests and reward members who participate. Alternatively, you can simply reward them for interactions to boost engagement.
Let’s take Lego’s community, Lego Ideas, as an example. Members can submit Lego set designs on the website where the rest of the community can vote for their favorites. The winning design gets released as a real set and the member who came up with the idea becomes an official product designer.
d. Go live to foster deeper connections
Live streaming is one of the biggest social media trends of the moment and for good reason. It helps people connect on a deeper level while also harnessing the power of video content.
Pretty much all platforms have live streaming features so going live with your audience is much easier than it would have been ten or fifteen years ago.
The video and audio quality might not always be the greatest, but ultimately what matters is you can talk to your audience in real-time. This type of raw content makes community members feel closer to you and your brand.
Don’t feel discouraged if you only attract a small crowd at first. If you provide value and make a habit out of streaming events your live audience will probably grow.
e. Offer exclusivity
Whether it’s in the form of exclusive content or products, having something unattainable by people outside the community will not only make community members feel important, but it might also draw new users in on account of fear of missing out.
You can even make the community itself exclusive by implementing an approval-based registration process or a paid membership system.
Smart Passive Income PRO is a private community for entrepreneurs that can be joined by applying within limited time periods. If they pass the review stage, applicants gain access to exclusive content like ask me anything sessions with experts, monthly challenges that encourage growth, and recorded workshops.
Unlike advertising, community marketing is a dialogue between brands and customers, where both parties benefit. It does not bring instant gratification, especially in the early stages of community-building. Still, it can increase brand loyalty, increase sales, boost retention rates, and bring in new customers in the long run.