Community. It’s what the heart wants.
People have a primal urge to be part of tribe. This is a fundamental need rooted in our evolutionary history, and backed up with scientific evidence. To be part of a group of people that reflects your identity is a core component of being human. At the same time, suffering from social exclusion may result in many negative emotional, cognitive, personality, and social outcomes.
As a result, people are continuously searching for that sense of belonging. Searching to recreate the connection felt by human beings in their small hunter-gatherer tribes for most of our species’ history. This connection was more than a matter of feeling good for our primitive ancestors—separating from your crew could mean death, as you are left on your own to survive in the wild and with no one to reproduce with.
In modern times, being tossed out of a social circle doesn’t affect your survival prospects quite as much, but it still hurts. In fact, severing someone from their group is so painful that the practice of exile has been commonly used as a form of punishment. Even today, many communities push people out as a form of punishment—take the Amish with their practice of “shunning” when a community member has done wrong.
All of this is to say, need for belongingness is one of the reasons social networks like Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and many others have seen so much success and user adoption.
Although being online is no replacement for real-life interaction, it’s a digital extension of that need. In fact, at least one study has shown that the social connectedness felt over Facebook seemed to yield similar positive outcomes as in-person connectedness. These included lowered depression, lower anxiety, and greater subjective well-being.
So what does this have to do with you and your business? A lot.
Benefits of Online Communities for You (and your Biz)
Understanding belongingness can be a major driver in building your tribe—that group of people who are dedicated to your message and your product. It even applies on a personal level, as you too need to pick your own tribe, the people you surround yourself with.
Most importantly, figuring out a way to give that sense of belonging to your followers and customers can be key in offering value and increasing your brand’s appeal. By becoming a tribe leader, you develop a special relationship with the people who join your tribe. Seth Godin wrote a whole book (great read!) about how tribe leaders are the new world changers of today.
Fostering a legitimately helpful and delightful online community builds a lot of trust in you and your brand. It shows them that you aren’t all about cramming spammy marketing messages down their throats. Instead, you are genuinely interested in learning what they want, getting them together with other like-minded people and facilitating a real two-way conversation.
I’ve also found in my time managing online communities—I moderate our Instagram Domination group, and a group related to a side project of mine—that it can be extremely personally rewarding.
But this isn’t wishy-washy stuff. You’ll learn a lot about your target market from a community. The types of questions they ask, the comments they make, and the surveys they answer while in that community are extremely valuable for growing your business.
If you do things right and deliver value, people in your online community will draw others in. After all, why wouldn’t they want friends to get involved in your super-awesome, helpful, and friendly online community?
Just remember: The online community you build is not your marketing tool. It is part of the service that you provide. When you think of it that way, things shift mentally and your community becomes what it should be, and not a marketing trick.
With that said, let’s get into the hows and whats of online community building and maintenance.
The Right Tools for the Trade
There are a lot of tools nowadays that you can use to build an online community. I’m going to start out with the candidate you’ll most likely use, Facebook Groups.
People have been building communities through Facebook Groups since Facebook Groups were a thing. Since then, Facebook Groups have exploded into every variety of community out there. One very common and useful application has been neighborhood buy/sell groups, in which millions of dollars are transacted every year.
Lots of entrepreneurs have taken notice of the power of Facebook to connect people and communities, and tried to one-up these groups through specialized community buy/sell platforms. One example is VarageSale, whose founder was inspired by her experience in FB buy/sell groups to build something better:
Otherwise, there is a community for almost anything through Facebook groups. Here are a few interesting ones:
Vemicomposting – composting your food with worms, yay!
The Intentional Blog Course Facebook group – for people learning how to blog through Jeff Goins’ Intentional Blog Course.
And here’s a Facebook community I run for my blog, GreenHighFive.com, a group for those going through my Buy Nothing New Challenge:
There is a community on Facebook for for almost anything, so why not your business?
Facebook is the easiest way to get things going, and I’d highly recommend it as a starter online community. It’s certainly not perfect, and as you scale, you will definitely encounter Facebook Groups’ irritating limitations. However, because everyone is on Facebook and they visit the platform 200 times a day (probably), the pros outweigh the cons, especially at the start.
However, if you already have a gigantic list, or you just hate Facebook with a passion, then here are a few more options to create successful online communities.
Mightybell is one of those smart startups that have recognized the power of online community and decided to capitalize on it. They’ve created a platform explicitly to bring people together online, enabling them to meet, discuss, and network with each other.
An awesome platform that functions like a Facebook Group without the drawbacks. It also comes with many extra features, such as built-in analytics, to help you manage and grow your online Mightybell community.
The main challenge you will face initially in building this community is resistance to onboarding to a new platform. This is in contrast to Facebook, which most people are already on.
I love Reddit. Hands down, my favorite online community. It’s a good option for people looking to create more of a forum and discussion-based community. The problem is that people tend to stay anonymous, which may work just fine for your business or concept. Reddit is very popular with more of the techy crowd—programmers, engineers, analysts, etc.
Creating your Online Community
After you’ve chosen your platform, you need to put some thought into a few elements:
- Your community’s focus
- Your community’s name
Your community’s focus
This is basically what your community is going to be about. Is it entrepreneurship? Worm composting? Completing a challenge that your brand or business is hosting?
This step deserves some thought.
It may not always make sense to make your brand the group’s focus. Would you join the “Oreo Lovers Group for Oreo Fanatics”? Maybe, but maybe not. Having a group centered around your brand is a surefire way to attract devotees, but it might not necessarily foster a thriving community.
Try to gauge how much conversation and engagement your brand-centered group would generate. You might find that it’s best to center your group on a topic related to your target market’s interests. For example, if you are a fitness company or blog, you may want to create a weightloss motivation community. This will have wider appeal and will be capable of drawing in people who are not 100% sold on your brand yet. Here’s a couple examples:
Screw The Nine To Five Community is a group based around a brand.
Your community’s name
Name is important. You want it to catch people’s eyes and avoid being too long or too vague.
If you can, include a “Power Word” into your title, that is, a word that elicits a strong emotional reaction. That includes words like “strategy,” “exquisite,” “secret,” and many others. See this great post here from Sarah Peterson.
While it’s important, don’t sweat it too much—not many people will join your community based on name alone.
Choose a closed group setting (not private though), or invite-only depending on the platform you are using. This will give your community strong sense of belonging, and make them feel safe about having conversations they might feel weird airing in “public” over Facebook. This setting also gives you some control as to who enters the group. There are people who specialize in going into online communities and using it to spam their stuff or try to get leads.
Pro tip: You can often tell that this person is a spammer if they are part of hundreds of groups and have little to no friends.
Protect your community by blocking these people from the onset through a selective privacy setting.
Creating your Community
Whether you are creating your community on Facebook or a different platform, make sure you’ve got a few things down:
- A good description. Explain what your community is for, what your brand is all about, and why this group exists.
- Community Guidelines: Very important. You need to lay some ground rules. A few good ones to include (depending on your target market) are:
- No spamming/no self-promotion posts
- No discriminatory/hurtful posts
- No foul language
- Have a nice welcome message that people are presented with. Facebook and Mightybell both have the functionality to pin a message to the top of these communities so that is the first thing people see upon entering. This message should welcome new members, let them know what the group is about, perhaps lay out a few of the most important rules, and ask the new members to take an initial action (post below about yourself, introduce yourself to the group, name your business, etc.).
Growing your Community
Growing an online community is a tough step, and it’s a hustle. You’ll need to put in a good amount of work nurturing your fledging online community until it reaches a certain critical mass and starts to self-regulate.
What is this critical mass?
For Facebook and Mightybell, that will be at around 500 people. You’ll see that engagement—in the form of commenting, liking, posting—gets to a point where you don’t need to push it too much. At that point, creating interesting conversations and interactions won’t feel like pulling teeth.
For Reddit, it really depends. Generally, you are looking for at least 5,000 subscribers to your subreddit.
To grow your community, the best thing to do is invite your email list to join. Simply send out an email with the exciting news of your community. Remind them of it regularly; you’ll need to push things a little at the start.
Otherwise, you can:
- Link to your group from your website
- Promote your group over Social Media
- Call on your blog readers to join the group
- Promote your groups in other related groups (but careful, lots of groups have rules against this)
Getting Conversation Going in your Community
As mentioned, before your community reaches a certain number of people, getting some interesting engagement will be challenging. The worst possible thing for a growing group is for it to be empty, with no conversation. If you do not demonstrate to your new members that the group is a valuable place (and continue to demonstrate this), people will forget about it and let themselves be distracted by the hundreds of other notifications coming their way.
However, if your group is a place where people can get their questions reliably answered, or count on finding something helpful/funny/interesting to read, or come to check out cool events, then people will willingly go back.
To get to that point, you’ll have to spend between 1-2 hours a day in your community and making sure it’s generating conversation and jolting the group to life. If you thought starting conversation in real life was hard, wait till you try starting conversations in online life.
Don’t fear though! Here are a few suggestions:
- Have a “Welcome” thread. You can do this in two ways. The first way is that you can have everyone introduce themselves in a large thread pinned to the top of the group. This works OK when your group is on the smaller side. Much better, though, is to introduce people in chunks as they make it into the group. This is much more effective in getting people talking and introducing themselves. Check out how we do it for Foundr:
- Make asking regular and thought-provoking questions part of the group’s routine. People can’t resist answering a good question that lets them share their thoughts. Some examples include: “What would you do if you had all of the money and time in the world?” or “What’s the one thing holding you back right now?” The best thing is to regularly ask these questions to get people looking forward to providing answers. They could take form of a weekly thread, like this one in the community Female Entrepreneurs Collaborate:
These are highly effective, fun and useful for members of an online community. Make use of it!
- Seed your community. This sounds bad, but it really isn’t! Enlist/hire people that you know who’d be able to talk about the topic of your community, and get them to drop some questions and comments to get things rolling. This is great when things are just starting out at the beginning.
- Share interesting things—and use images! Don’t just awkwardly sit there as a distant and mysterious admin. Get into it! Share stuff you know your audience will find interesting or funny. Images go a very long way.
- Tag people in posts. As you get more into your group, pay attention to your members and take notes about who they are and what kinds of questions they are asking. Use the information you gathered from your intro post to make getting this information easier. If you need a quick boost to conversation, tag people in relevant posts and send them a nice and unexpected notification. This works great if you’re connecting someone with a person or resource they can benefit from.
This will take some time initially, maybe a couple of hours a day, which as a sole entrepreneur isn’t a negligible amount of time. However, that’s what it takes to grow a happy and healthy online community.
Maintaining your Thriving Online Community
So things are flowing in your community. Organic conversations are happening, people are sharing great posts, and everything seems to be going great.
How do you keep up the great juju to make sure your online community stays awesome?
Be there for your kids
You don’t want your community to grow up with mommy/daddy issues. You’ve got to be there for your community. You’ve got to go in, at least once a day and participate in the conversations, break up fights, answer questions, and give your community members some loving.
Don’t be afraid to assert yourself. Lay down some rules and don’t be afraid to message someone or even ban them if they fail to follow them, or otherwise make others in the community feel unsavory.
Communities need leaders. The human species is made up of diverse personalities, and some people do genuinely need inspiration, direction, and motivation before they act. If you don’t have the opposite type of personality involved—people who are there to provide that for them (and from my experience as a community manager, these kinds of people are less common)—your group will fail to gain traction.
You need to be the leader that protects your group from those Negative Nancies and Downer Daves that love nothing better than getting at people’s nerves and picking a fight.
The internet is a big and diverse place, and your community may well attract many diverse viewpoints, cultural backgrounds, religious viewpoints, and other worldviews.
You’ve got to learn to tread a careful line. You obviously don’t want to stifle energetic conversation, but you also want to avoid offending people.
Sometimes, it’s easy to tell when someone is being purposefully insulting. That’s when you jump in, remove their posts, and possibly the person behind them. Don’t be afraid to remove people from your group. Negativity has the effect of spreading and ruining things for everyone.
Eventually, you’ll learn to read the way your community is feeling, and adjust your interactions accordingly.
Small batch welcomes
Taking time to welcome people as they trickle in is a great way to make people feel appreciated, as they are! Why not toss in a question while you welcome them as well to get your new group members talking? Here’s an example below.
Identify and Celebrate your Community’s Natural Leaders
As mentioned earlier, there are some people online who have a natural energy, initiative and leadership ability about them.
In real life tribes, these people would have acted as informal leaders, or even been elected chief. In your online group, you should give them that same honor.
You can pick them out by simply watching for people who are more involved and active in the group than others. They post great stuff and they answer questions. It’s easy to find these people using a Facebook Analytics platform like Grytics.
Identify these folks and thank them for their extremely valuable contribution to the group, tagging them in the post. Make sure to do this regularly, perhaps once a month. This will not only encourage your super contributors to continue to contribute, but may also get others interested in becoming more involved as well.
Regular Conversation Posts
Make sure that you keep conversation going by prompting the group with regular conversation prompts, at least on a weekly basis. We do three a week on Monday, Wednesday and Friday:
- Monday Goal Post – A post where we ask members to share their goals for the week
- Wednesday Wins – A post where we ask members to share their wins so far
- Friday Fun – Something fun and casual to talk about, such as their favorite movie or TV show
These are great for creating habits, giving something for people to look forward to and providing value.
Do it IRL
Bring the group to real life, almost, with a live networking call, Twitter chat, or even a REAL LIVE meetup. These are great and if done regularly, say once a month, your group will thrive and love you for doing that awesome thing for them.
It takes extra work, but once you’ve got the idea in your group’s head, they may start self-organizing.
Here are some tools to keep in mind:
No Post Bare
Every single post in your group should be commented on, liked, or otherwise acknowledged. If you don’t have the answer to a question that someone is asking, linking them to a resource or tagging in someone who does know is equally helpful. People will only post on the group if they get a positive response, that is, if people help them out. If not, they will not get any positive reinforcement and may just give up.
Leading the Group to Success
Every community needs a leader.
If you are a solo entrepreneur, that leader will be you. As you grow your business, you may be able to hire a dedicated community manager. Until then, you need to act as that strong leader for your community.
This doesn’t mean that you are a dictator. As much as possible, you should let conversations and synergies evolve naturally in the group.
However, it’s important that as a leader you do two things:
- Police inappropriate behaviors that violate your group’s rules, such as self-promotion or discrimination.
- Make sure you are answering most questions posted in the group; if you don’t know the answer, link something or tag a person who might know.
- Post interesting links and conversation topics. This really garners a lot of attention and shows people you are committed to putting effort into making this group interesting and relevant. Here’s an example of what I mean below. Always add a picture, as this attracts much more attention, without fail!
Go out there and community build!
You now have the tools you need to create thriving, positive, valuable, and end-to-end awesome online communities. The hardest part is getting started. Trust me, you’ll learn loads as you go. And the returns on your investment, which will be no more than 1-2 hours a day, will be significant for your brand and business.
Any online communities you’ve started, or any that you really enjoy being part of? Please share!