How to Create a Community Online from Scratch

create community

For someone who’s made a conscious decision to read a blog about how to create a community online, you’ve likely already done some reading about the benefits of online community building.

So you probably know that online communities deliver deep, long-term engagement with customers, followers, and fans. You probably also know that gathering your most loyal followers into their own dedicated space makes them feel part of something, creates a sense of belonging and makes people much more likely to continue using your products and services.

But did you know that highly engaged customers spend up to twice as much with their favourite brands? Or that customers who join a brand’s online community spend on average 20% more than those who don’t? Or that a community member app can help increase annual revenues by 5%?

We could talk all day about the benefits of online community building. In fact, we’ve spent a lot of days talking about just that. And you can read about those days here.

But now you’re ready to start considering how to go about it, and no doubt you’re exploring and weighing up all of the options available to you. Well, this blog can help.

Options for creating your community

The most important question when assessing how to create a community online is whether you should build or buy.

On the one hand, you can build your own app with the precise features and functionality you want, completely from scratch.

On the other hand, there are SaaS solutions – like us at Disciple – with a versatile set of customisable features and functions that can deliver exactly what creators, businesses and influencers want from their own community app and be up and running at the fraction of the cost and launched much quicker. 

The option that’s right for you will depend on what you want to achieve. So it’s critical that you know why you want to create a community in the first place.

Here are a few things to consider before deciding which option will be the best option for you:

What’s the purpose of your community?

Being clear on the type of community network you want to create and the purpose of it will ensure that you have a clear picture of what features will be most important to you and your audience.

Some examples of things to think about are:

  • Do you want your users to be able to post updates (whether that be photos, videos or text). If you do plan to use a news feed function, decide who will be able to post. Will status updates be for all users or just some?
  • Do you want to enable comments or like features to foster user engagement?
  • Will you require Push Notifications to keep people engaged with your content?
  • Will your community be private or free for anyone to download and interact?
  • Do you want to allow geolocation? Geolocation allows you to locate where your users are. This could be a useful tool if you want to use user-generated content and allow people to tag where they are or where their content was sourced from.

Once you have a clear idea of what your community will be about and the purpose of it, you’ll want to consider your options for user retention, as well as what strategies you’ll use to grow and engage your community. If you plan to make money from your community, think carefully about your different monetization options and whether these will be available on whatever route you decide to go down.

Budget

Getting clear on the type of budget you’re working with will help you to narrow down your options and decide which will be the best option to create your community. The cost of creating a community will vary depending on whether you want to create a social media app from scratch or whether a SaaS solution will be more effective for your goals.

If you want to create an app from scratch then you need to account for the cost of back-end development and the cost of developing your app on either iOS or Android. The costs can range anywhere from $95,000 for one platform up to $153,000 for two platforms. This can also be a very lengthy process with most apps taking up to 18 months to build before going live.

On the other hand, if you want to use a SaaS solution, the cost is going to be significantly lower and you can put your community out into the world very quickly.

How hands-on would you like to be?

Being honest about the amount of time and energy you want to invest in the development of your community will help you to weigh up which route to take. Some options require a lot more time, whereas others are very easy to get up and running with minimal involvement.

If you’re planning to hire a developer to develop a bespoke community app from scratch you’ll need to provide outlines and designs that are clear from the outset. You can start by wire-framing what you want your app to look like and what tabs or pages you want buttons to link to. The developers will usually then move to the ‘prototyping phase’ where they will start mocking up a working model of what has been discussed. This process will require a more hands-on approach.

If you want to use a SaaS solution. The amount of time and effort required to put your community live will be significantly less. The only things you’ll need to be involved in are choosing what features you want to use and the types of branding and designs you want to include in your community.

How experienced are you?

Another key consideration is understanding how experienced you are at setting up a community. If this is the first time you’re setting one up, maybe creating an app from scratch could be challenging as you’ll be left trying to figure things out on your own. If you are set on this option, it’s important to seek advice from others who have already walked the path that you’d like to embark on to get some tips and advice. One of the biggest advantages of using a SaaS solution is that they have a tonne of case studies to draw from which will help you to set your community off to a great start, as well as lots of additional support, advice, and tips.

Once you’ve decided on the above, you’ll be ready to choose from the following three options.

Option 1: Rent some space on another platform

You may have decided that all you need is a simple, information-based community. An online space that keeps your audience informed and up to date. Or perhaps you’re simply after an easier way for your local community to communicate. If so, there are a number of sites like Islands or Nextdoor that create an online space for you within their platform.

Their basic templates and simple build instructions allow you to create an imprint or subsection of their websites that only you and your community members can access. They’ll give you a slightly more customised and private experience than you’d ever find from the likes of Facebook. But, beyond these small customisations, these platforms are not that different from big social media features like Facebook Groups.

Yes, they’re familiar to use, seemingly inexpensive and simple to set up. But, they don’t give you any control over the user experience as you’re essentially just renting a space within someone else’s platform (and playing by their rules). They also don’t give you the customisation options to make this space your own – to build a space that visually represents the community that’s meeting there.

These DIY community spaces may be a nice value-add for customers and followers. But, if you’re looking to create a true community app – that is, a space where your community comes together around their shared passions – then you’ll need the design and functionality that promotes, encourages and represents the people that gather there.

Renting space on Facebook

Although Facebook is a public social network app, you could create your own community using their group feature. However, it’s very quickly becoming a pay to play system whereby an algorithm (that you don’t control) decides whether or not someone sees your posts (even if they’ve chosen to join your group.

However, with that said, if you can’t afford to work with an agency and don’t mind not everyone seeing all your content, Facebook could a way to create your community members app.

It is important to note that if you do use Facebook, you don’t own your users’ data and it’s not really your community app, you just have a small segment of it.

Option 2: Build your own from scratch

OK, now onto your second option – building your own bespoke solution. You can do this by either working with a development team or building your own social network using WordPress.

Perhaps you want to gather research from your community members. Or you want to create new revenue opportunities for your brand. Maybe you have a very specific plan for your community in the months and years ahead and a vision for the community app that’ll help you achieve that plan.

If you have these kinds of specific objectives, then you’re probably looking for something much more bespoke that’s tailored to your goals. In this case, if you have the time, budget and resources, you could consider building your own bespoke community app from the ground up. You’ll get complete control over scoping, wireframing, design, functionality, prototyping, testing and back-end development.

But, to achieve that, you’ll either need to invest in in-house developers with the coding skills to build something from scratch. Or you’ll need to hire an app development agency like Borne Digital or Fueled who can do it for you.

If you do decide to go down this route, the result will be a community app that does exactly what you want. You’ll own the app and have full control over the designs, features, how it works and your user experience. Which are all really important benefits.

But. Going down this route is also a big commitment. It’ll take a lot of time, not only to build but to see a real return on what will inevitably be a significant investment. What’s more, once you’ve finished developing the app, you may be on your own as most development agencies won’t help with submitting your app to app stores and keeping it updated once it’s live.

So – as with all things – the bigger the risk, the greater the reward. And the rewards of successfully making your own bespoke community app are significant. But so are the risks.

Use WordPress & BuddyPress

If you’re familiar with WordPress, the online website builder, you might know there are ways to bootstrap together a community app. BuddyPress is WordPress’ social networking solution that allows users to build a social network app.

Developing your app yourself can be time-consuming and expensive but WordPress makes it easy for people with limited technical ability to set up a social networking platform of their own.

Using the BuddyPress WordPress plugin, you can turn your website into a social network. Using this process, you can create an online community.

If you’re looking to move away from Facebook and want control of your social network, this is an option to consider.

However, as with many tools, there are limitations to WordPress. Think carefully about what you want your community members app to be about. If you’re looking for forum software, BuddyPress might not be the right option for you.

You’ll also have to consider that you need to wait for the plugin to be updated. Finally, when building your social network on the website, you need to check that all your plugins are compatible with each other. In many cases, downloading one plugin stops another from working.

Option 3: Enter the community app platform

When it comes to making your own community app, there’s a third way. A way that combines the best of both options outlined above. A happy middle ground, if you will.

Based on the concept of software as a service – that is, providing the app software as a canvas for you to build your community on – you can create your own community app on a dedicated app-building platform. Like ours at Disciple.

Whilst we don’t build one-off bespoke apps on an agency basis, we do have a platform that builds highly customisable, versatile community apps that suit a huge range of needs, requirements and use cases. From the official Rolling Stones fan app, through to a mobile constituency app for British MP Matt Hancock, we’re uncovering new use cases and market fits every day.

Our community platform is a great way to get the flexibility and functionality you’d expect from a bespoke build, but without the price tag and with the added benefit of ongoing support, guidance and expertise from our Community Success team.

As is true of option one 👆, you’ll have the ease and simplicity of an out-of-the-box solution, which means rapid development and super quick speed to market, but with more customisation and the added confidence that the features have all been created specifically with communities in mind.

So, the apps on our platform are full of the features and customisations that we, from experience, know will help build engagement and encourage interaction in every type of online community. We’ve essentially taken (and improved) the best bits of social media communities – like simplicity, familiarity and interactivity – whilst removing the drawbacks like controversy, cluttered advertising space and a lack of control for the community host.

The result is an engaging, interactive, uncluttered space for you and your community members to call your own.

Creating a community: What will you decide?

You’ve taken the important first step. You’ve done the research and worked out that creating your own community app is the way to go. (And the benefits are endless, trust us.) Now it’s time to take the next step closer to your community. That’s something Disciple can help with. So we’ll hopefully be speaking to you very soon.

Pooja Kanabar in
9 min read
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Pooja Kanabar in Community building
Pooja Kanabar in
Community building
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