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“If you really want to know about business, you should refer to Scott Steinberg.” -Sir Richard Branson, Virgin Group

How to Build and Grow an Online Community

Call it an online community, tribe, or target market: In all cases, building and maintaining an audience for your products, services, or solutions is key to maintaining a competitive edge in any industry. What’s more, according to The National Bureau of Economic Research, the amount of time that we spend online has been on the rise, but usually in “bursty” or “plastic” behavior, making it more imperative that you put a focus on finding clever ways to connect with and engage potential clients than ever. In essence, when it comes to connecting with businesses and brands in the digital space, most people simply log on and log off of online platforms – unless they have an incentive to stick around. And other people much like ourselves (a.k.a. the community) are often a leading incentive. But before audiences can be encouraged to interact and communicate through the channels we provide, we have to captivate them first.

Consider that online communities fill a unique space in the business world, so your methods of growing have to be equally original and differentiated as well. Learning to scale is equally imperative: Just as online retailers such as Amazon and eBay scale by offering many products, and putting as much of these products in as many hands as possible, people-based platforms only grow when enough people come aboard. Folks won’t get involved in your community en masse until you’ve reached a critical mass of other people using these platforms with which they wish to connect. This chicken-and-egg dilemma means your first users must become evangelists, and also role models as well. That’s because initial community members are likely to directly attract and draw (and/or be directly connected) to each successive wave of community members. And each group will share some type of real-world bond as customers, friends, or fans of particular brands and interests, who will often share the same values and ethics. Caterina Fake, the mastermind behind the preeminent online community Flickr, says that those who are pioneering online communities are essentially the framer of the Constitution and, in Biblical terms, the father Abraham that begat everyone else. And while it falls to you to set the stage as the community founder, the first members of your online community are the people who will actually carry out your proverbial Ten Commandments. In effect, their behavior will dictate your community’s culture and nature going forward.

Those looking to build and nurture an online community will find that setting the pace is a marathon, not a sprint – and requires constant, purposeful wise decisions, as opposed to the “set-it-and-forget-it” model common to so many other online businesses. For instance, the video game hit Overwatch recently brought in as many as 35 million monthly players and, along with it, a high amount of trash-talk, trolling, and bad behavior. Blizzard lead Jeff Kaplan addressed the issue at a special conference, taking some responsibility for the chaos, but ultimately put the onus on players themselves to behave better. This is a mistake: Your community won’t just act differently because they should or, worse, because you tell them to. As one critic put it, “We should absolutely hold ourselves to a higher standard online – but that starts with the companies and studios having the tools [and policies] in place to enforce that higher standard.” Which isn’t to say that Blizzard hasn’t provided a great community, or service – rather, that building and maintaining an online community involves active involvement both from the top down (i.e. organizational leader) as well as bottom up (from community members).

Social media itself is one of the most powerful tools you can use to encourage people to join, stay, and interact with your community – and allows you to do so by sharing news, opinions, and thought leadership, as well as fostering dialogue and discussion. You absolutely need to have someone at the wheel of efforts focused around communicating via social networks, though: As Online Community Management for Dummies author Deborah Ng says, “You can’t schedule community.” Consider that all major airlines now have nearly 24/7 social media responders on-call to handle customer inquiries, as do many quick-service restaurants – and that their online communities often don’t technically exist outside of channels that go beyond these social media accounts. Today, customer expectations when it comes to both engagement and response times are sky-high. Be prepared to stay connected and leverage processes, platforms, and people that can help you respond to your community at a moment’s notice.

Likewise, it can often work to the benefit of an online community to help encourage real-world interaction, e.g. through live events and programming, especially given that the larger your platform, the more likely groups of users will also be physically present in the same city or region. Former Etsy community strategist Morgan Evans notes that the key to successful community management is proactively cultivating grassroots connections. Like a political campaign, the broadest possible message succeeds when it is repeated in small, intimate pockets. This strategy obviously worked for Etsy: Launched in just 2005, the community-focused handcrafter website increased its value to the point that it trades for around $2 billion on the New York Stock exchange.

The most important step to creating success with an online community is to define some simple objectives and rules from the outset. The goal could be to galvanize around virtually any topic from how to save money while traveling, or the best credit card to choose from, and the key metrics used to determine success based on number of active users, time spent online, or length of average engagement. In any event, all should be measurable and objective. To get started defining your vision and approach, professionals recommend asking exploratory questions such as:

  • How do you define engagement?
  • How quickly do you hope to increase engagement?
  • What level of engagement increase will you consider a success?

Defining a clear vision and purpose; creating a profile of audience members you specifically wish to attract; and adhering to meaningful metrics will help you stay focused as you build your online platform. And remember, humans are many things, but seldom predictable. However, the more you can incentivize them to take part in the community – whether by sharing their thoughts, asking questions, uploading videos, connecting with thought leaders, or otherwise – the more you’ll watch your community thrive and grow.

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