Building a community is a passion. Over the past 12 years, it’s been my pleasure to help online brands grow an enthusiastic base of friends and fans. I get a kick out of solving problems and helping others achieve their goals. While many of my peers dread opening emails or checking private messages, I can’t wait to dig in. Part of it is my desire to help and part of it is that I’m a prolific communicator. I love talking, whether it’s in person, on social media or through my writing. I share with others every day and appreciate getting schooled in return.

Community building comes easy but hasn’t been without fits and starts. Online communities evolve. People come and go. There are dry periods where the conversation isn’t flowing. The social networks are down. A campaign flops.

These are all normal and all learning experiences. Use them well.

While communities evolve, many of the rules of building a community are evergreen. This week, I’d like to share some of the methods that helped me throughout my time as a community manager. I hope you find them useful, and I hope you will share your thoughts and experiences in return.

Two people meet for tea

1. Get to know your community

It’s not enough to have people dig what you do. If you don’t take time to listen and learn, you won’t hold anyone’s interest. Worse, you can lose them when campaigns or communication don’t apply to them. Understanding the individuals who make up an online community is important for success. When you take time to learn names and interests customers become evangelists. Take time to read feedback or comments on social media. Respond to online reviews, whether negative or positive. Say “please” and “thank you,” using first names whenever possible. When you care about people, they’ll care about you.

2. Building a community on your terms

For every popular social network, there are three more that faded away, taking your hard-fought community building efforts with them. The thing about social networks is that they don’t belong to you and someone can pull the plug at any time.  Users can grow bored and stop using the network or move on to the next big thing. Using a community building app or hosting your community on your own platform means your people always have a place to interact.

3. Hold your online community close

It can be tempting to set up pages on all the popular social networks. After all, the experts tell us we need to go where the people are. Except that there are so many platforms, you risk thinning out your community. When people scatter it’s hard to get them back together again.

Instead of opening up a dozen accounts, consider where the majority of your people hang out. Ideally, you’ll host your community on your own platform. Owned media such as your blog, a community media app, and email newsletter are effective community building tools.

Once you have a thriving community on your own terms, you can test the waters at a popular social network. Just keep in mind that sending people to someone else’s platform, you run the risk of losing people on your own.

4. You get what you give

You know what thriving online communities have in common? Community managers.

Part customer service, part marketing, part content creator, and part cheerleader, community managers put a face and voice to the brand. Active community managers keep conversation flowing and are in tune to their members’ needs. They know when to take a step back and let members chat on their own and when to step in to offer guidance. Community members appreciate when someone from the brand is “one of them.”

When a community is left to run on its own devices several things can happen. The community can become a free-for-all with no one to make sure everyone is playing nice. Another thing that can happen is that the community can stall out and the members will go where there’s more activity.

If no one from the brand invests in the community, the community has no motivation to invest in the brand.

5. Boundaries are your friends

All community media platforms need moderation. Having rules in place doesn’t mean you’re stifling free speech. Without guidelines, a community might turn into a finger-pointing, name-calling, hotbed of negativity.

I should know. I belong to several political discussion groups.

Moderation can also prevent negativity towards the brand. For example, when customers complain on a social network or other community platform, others can join in. Seeing these types of comments keep potential members from getting behind the brand. Community managers nip negativity in the bud by taking disgruntled members aside and quietly handling customer service issues before things escalate out of control.

A card and flowers to say thank you

6. Say “thank you” with rewards

An online community is made up of people who are interested in having a relationship with the brand. Treat them with respect and they’ll advocate the heck out of you. Say “thank you,” by offering rewards. Share discounts and free products. Have contests and games. Award prolific activity with badges, awards, and company perks. People who feel appreciated and valued are passionate and enthusiastic evangelists.

data dashboard from the Community Hub

7. Analytics for community building

Community analytics share a wealth of information. It’s through analytics that you learn your community’s habits. Use them to see which content brings in readers and engagement, which campaigns bring in members, and which promotions bring in sales. It’s through your analytics that you learn the individual habits of your community members and how they come to arrive at where you are. Understanding what people like and how they respond can help your community strategy moving forward.

8. Request community feedback

Ready for a surprise? Ask your members for feedback. The answers you receive will be different from what you expect. When you invite others to share their thoughts and ideas, they feel more invested in the brand. Even better, the people who use your products or services might have some good, helpful ideas.

Feedback isn’t always pretty, though. Often your community will share negative feedback about the brand. It’s not easy to hear bad things, but it presents you with a valuable opportunity to improve. Treat all feedback as an important tool for growth and improvement.

9. Be transparent

Be honest with your community. If your brand is experiencing a form of online negativity, be as open and honest as possible. Address criticism head-on and answer questions with honesty.

Sweeping things under the rug leads to mistrust and more online negativity. Apologize when things go wrong, and praise the community when things go right. No one is expecting a brand to give away company secrets.

Still, people invest a lot of time and money in the brands they’re loyal to and deserve the same respect in return.

10. Highlight individual community members

Successful communities put their members front and centre. They encourage user-generated content, host photo contests, and praise their members’ achievements and accolades. Highlighting members fosters more engagement and growth as members proudly share their contributions.

Community building doesn’t mean setting up a meeting place and sending out half-hearted invitations to see if people show up. Communities need daily upkeep and maintenance for growth. Do this by providing something of value to your members. The more you give them, the more love they’ll show the brand.


A note about the author

Deborah Ng knows a thing or two about community building. Starting out as the community manager for her small writing blog, she discovered her passion for building and managing communities. With that passion, she successfully turned her blog into the number one online community for freelance writers.

From there, Deb went on to chronicle her learnings and experiences in a well-known book titled Online Community Management for Dummies – a book which has slowly been making its way around the offices here at Disciple. We’ve all learned a lot from Deb’s work so it’s with real pleasure that we can say Deborah is now a guest contributor to the Disciple blog!