More often than not, our understanding of a problem appears magnified when you look at it from afar. It’s not until you delve, breathe, and sit in it for a while that you can start connecting the dots. Whether it’s climbing that hill that seems unclimable, or seeing that sunrise on your morning run, or starting a side business you’ve been promising yourself to work on for as long as you can remember - starting something is like venturing into the unknown where the only thing stopping you most likely is yourself.
Mustering up the courage to go out for a run isn’t remotely as complicated as starting a community, but the intent that pushes beyond the threshold, at its core, is the same - the first step is always the hardest.
Starting an online community comes with a baggage of its own. A lot of questions that need to be answered, and a lot of stuff that needs figuring out. What purpose does this community serve? Will I be bringing something new to this table? What can I do that no one else is doing? Why should people even care about this community? You need to be willing to ask yourself the questions from the harshest perspectives. Some of the most prolific answers come from difficult questions.
The trick to finding the needle in the haystack isn’t to go looking for it aimlessly, but to divide and conquer. The more you break something down, the easier it gets to be able to navigate through it. Community building is quite similar.
First of all - if you’re thinking of building an online community because everyone else is, you’re starting off on the wrong foot. If your only reasoning is ‘to be a part of the mainstream’ - that’s a surefire way to lose a battle before you’ve even started. This is not a competition and numbers are the last thing you should be concerned with. The first question you need to be asking yourself is - do I even need a community in the first place?
Assess your brand’s or organization’s needs and understand which aspect of it best aligns with the presence of a community. If you think your company could benefit most from bridging the gap between users and the product: the purpose of your community should be something along the lines of creating an all-inclusive knowledge base for everything that has anything to do with the product.
If you think there’s a disconnect between customers and support: perhaps you could benefit more from a support community where customers have easier access to experts. Or, if you think a community that promotes advocacy is what you need: your strategy should be more towards providing a great user experience with events, content, and engagement.
Identify what your organization’s long-term big-picture goals are and see if an online brand community fits into it. Keep in mind that building a community is not a one-time commitment, but a constant work-in-progress that (if all goes well) will only grow over time. This means that the efforts you put in, the time you give, and the team you build - will also have to scale with the community. Is your company willing to prioritize building a community at the moment? Is it worth all your time and effort? Leave no stones unturned.
You’ve decided your company needs a brand community, now what? The second most important thing is to understand and identify the people the community will comprise of. It’s always important to remember that a community exists for the people - a place where they feel a sense of belonging, a place where they can be open and immersed. You can’t force a community, you can only cultivate it.
Next, you need to figure out your target audience. But at the same time, know that not everyone in that group will want to or even benefit from your community. This doesn’t mean that you should broaden the spectrum and leverage vaguely defined outlines to include more people. That just leads to an overcrowded community that will definitely fall flat before it even takes off. The more targeted your community is, the better.
Define your community’s persona and identify where these people hang out. See what interests them and what drives them away. Be part of communities where you’re likely to find like-minded folks and learn how they interact with each other. As you interact more, the persona becomes more concrete. Once you’ve identified the right audience, it becomes unpredictably easier to define a strategy and align their goals with yours.
Now that you have people and a purpose, you need to lay down the goals that work in tandem with the company and target members, build strategies that will lead you to those goals, and what value can you offer to the community that’s not just riveting but also one-of-a-kind.
The first step from here would logically be to decide on an online community platform. The platform really is secondary but your choice should definitely have a logical explanation to it. Take into consideration size, purpose, pros, and cons, and most importantly, which platform is more easily accessible to the vast majority of your target audience.
Define community guidelines and start cultivating a culture. Communities are bound by culture. If you’re not offering a unique platform with unique experiences, there is no real reason for people to stick around. Constantly strive towards coming up with strategies to improve community engagement. If right from the start you’ve aligned your goals and values, you’ve already set yourself on a journey towards a self-sustaining online community that grows itself.
Adding value is an indispensable part of building communities. So, your first course of action should be to foster serendipity and bring the members closer together. The sign of a great community is one that evokes a feeling of shared emotion or belief within the members.
You don’t have to rush anything. Start small but start right. Doing things like 1-on-1 interactions, delegating responsibilities, involving the community with hands-on group projects, and sharing amazing resources can be some effective ways of offering tremendous value from the beginning.
In the beginning, it’s more important to enrich relationships and take initiatives to build strategies that focus on working many-to-many instead of one-to-many. This is why it’s not important to focus on large annual events or flashy giveaways right from the beginning. You want your community to grow organically simply by providing something that people naturally gravitate towards.
The power of consistency remains unmatched. Starting out sure is the difficult part, you’re no longer standing in your way. However, if you want your organization to turn into a community-led growth success story, you’ll have to navigate through countless experiments and come up with newer community engagement strategies. Here’s a great thing though - since you’ve focused almost entirely on building meaningful relationships in the community, your community at some point becomes self-sustaining. In a way, you only have to take things from 0 to 1 and the rest is taken care of organically.
Nudging towards that point in community building where it basically compounds on its own is the part where you have to do most of the heavy lifting. You can't do everything yourself so focus on building a community team with managers, facilitators, admins, and moderators. Explore engagement avenues through events, gamification, reward programs, ambassador programs, and more. Always strive towards providing an impeccable onboarding experience for improved member activation. Pose questions, ask for feedback, and maybe even try building in public.
Constant efforts combined with the right strategies turn into an unstoppable force for any brand community. The right community-building efforts enforce a ripple effect - what you offer resonates with people at such a fundamental level that it inspires them to give back to the community. See, you’re not the main character when it comes to community building, no one is. And that’s the beauty of it. It’s like setting sail - you can’t do it alone. Weighing the anchor is the hard part, and if you’ve decided to do so, there’s no looking back now.