Grow your company’s tribe: How to create an online community

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I’ve been part of some good online communities and some that are truly, honestly, just a waste of time. Sometimes it’s about size. The larger an online community gets, perhaps the more likely people post things that don’t add value. But past negative experiences aside, creating an online community can drive real brand results when done correctly! And some brand communities – like the Marketing AI Institute’s Slack Channel – have really helped me grow professionally.

But launching one isn’t easy. It takes time, strategy, and persistence. So, let’s perhaps make the process a bit easier and look at what actually needs to be done.

I chatted with Tyler Stambaugh, of Magnetiq about the topic on Episode 650 of “The Business Storytelling Show.” Tyler has in-depth expertise when it comes to building online communities. He outlined his proven step-by-step process for doing it right on an episode of the podcast.

The Risks of Neglecting Communities

Tyler shared a cautionary tale about a brand that set up an online community on a platform but then failed to manage it properly. Before long, trolls and bad actors took over. Without active moderation, communities can spiral out of control. This not only wrecks the community but also damages the brand’s reputation.

The lesson is clear: Launching an online community involves monitoring it and engaging in it.

Defining Community: It’s About Relationships, Not Numbers

Many online groups call themselves “communities” but don’t function as one. In many Facebook groups and Slack channels, interactions remain transactional. Members promote themselves, ask basic questions already covered before, or look to take without giving back.

True community requires a spirit of mutual generosity. Members develop real relationships by discussing ideas, sharing advice, celebrating wins, and motivating one another. Actively participating should make everyone feel fulfilled rather than drained.

Instead of solely chasing vanity metrics like members numbers, shift focus to relationship quality. Get clear on your target audience and nurture deeper bonds with the super fans at the core rather than the tourists that come and go.

Read next: What’s the point of top fans on Facebook?

6 Steps to Building a Strong Online Community

Ready to foster an engaged community aligned with your brand? Tyler suggests methodically following these key steps:

Step 1: Identify Your Ideal Community Members

Start by analyzing your existing customers and fans. Look beyond surface demographics to understand what unites your true super fans psychologically and emotionally. Understand and create your community member persona – perhaps with the help of AI.

  • What core beliefs and values do they share?
  • Their ambitions and pain points?
  • What types of conversations get them fired up?

Getting ultra-clear on your ideal community member will pay dividends. In later steps, you’ll craft messages and experiences perfectly matched to them.

create your buyer persona with AI

Step 2: Define Your Community’s Purpose and Set Goals

“The next step is, and this is the step that most people skip because they just hire a community manager and they’re like, make a community for me, is you really have to put together a strategy,” Tyler said. “And that strategy has to be, what do I want to get out of this? What type of value do I want people that come in to get out of it?”

Now, reflect on why you want to launch a community in the first place. What strategic goals will it help you accomplish? Here are some possible community-purpose areas to pick from:

  • Foster feedback loops – Collect product suggestions, understand pain points, and bounce around ideas.
  • Educate about new offerings – Showcase launches and train customers on features.
  • Opportunity to listen – Take the pulse on current issues affecting your industry and customers. Identify trends, concerns, and opportunities.
  • Tap member expertise – Encourage knowledge sharing between customers so they teach one another.
  • Cultivate brand advocates – Turn happy customers into influencers who organically showcase your brand to their networks.
  • Create a VIP tier for superfans – Develop privileged status, insider access, and exclusives as a loyalty rewards program.
  • Facilitate networking and bonding – Develop connections between members by sharing beyond business and reinforcing shared identity.

Also, define success metrics based on your goals, whether member numbers, the ratio of lurkers to contributors, content creation, sentiment, or something else. Revisit and refine over time.

Step 3: Select the Right Platform

The platform must seamlessly facilitate the types of interactions you outlined above. Leading options each have pros and cons:

  • Facebook Groups – Massive built-in audience but cluttered ecosystem with limited controls.
  • X Communities – A different way to connect on X.
  • Slack / Discord – Robust tools but require getting fans to adopt the new platform if they aren’t on them already.
  • Dedicated community software – Purpose-built feature sets but risks small initial memberships.
  • Existing forums – Piggyback onto popular third-party communities relative to brand industry/topics. But it competes with other subject matter, so there is less focus exclusively on your brand community.

Also, assess whether the platform’s culture and unwritten rules match that of your fans. For example, Discord’s gamer influences might not resonate with executives.

create your ownline community with podia

Step 4: Design an Irresistible Welcome Experience

First impressions last. That makes the signup and onboarding flow critical to hook new members so they come back.

Start with a compelling invitation that speaks to the value the community delivers – free premium access, networking opportunities, early tips, etc. Make joining as frictionless as possible.

“One of the best practices for these online communities is to create an actual onboarding flow, where you’re literally funneling someone in, giving them a welcome message, and immediately presenting them with the rules,” explained Tyler.  “And then if you want to be successful, you want to start to give them a preview, high level of the type of things that they can do and start to direct them towards it.”

Wow, newcomers are right off the bat. Have an announcement channel that builds excitement. Feature members discussing hot topics. Share quick community wins. And make the navigation intuitive while still highlighting areas not to miss.

Appoint Welcoming Committee members to look out for new people. Have them reach out with public greetings as well as private messages introducing themselves. Instant connections get people to stick around to see what the buzz is about.

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Step 5: Seed the Community to Set the Tone

A vibrant community doesn’t happen by accident. To spark engaging discussions from day one, you need “seed” members.

Start by recruiting established fans likely to participate actively, whether micro-influencers in your niche or customers already enthusiastically promoting your brand via word-of-mouth. Avoid a ghost town by jumpstarting quality conversations.

Give these influencers advance access to preview the community and share feedback. Building ambassadors grounds the community in what real fans value. Take their input seriously.

Step 6: Keep Community Momentum Building

Sustaining community momentum takes work. Set responsibilities for moderators to monitor discussions, spark member interactions, highlight great contributions, and govern respectfully.

Make sure content remains fresh and valuable. Ask staff and fans for ideas. Field questions to engage experts. Share brand updates and behind-the-scenes info. Solicit member accomplishments and suggestions.

Send quick polls to take the pulse on interests and get quick feedback. Note trending topics and proactively address them. Reward standout contributors and spotlight their work.

Adapt programming as the community evolves but stay true to the core purpose fans initially signed up for. Strike the right balance between consistency and change to keep them interested.

Promoting Quality Discussions

Facilitating great discussions is key to building community member engagement and satisfaction long-term.

Help members see the opportunities to both give and receive from their participation. Have experts generously share advice on common problems other members face. Frame questions are likely to tap members’ varied expertise gained professionally and from their unique life experiences.

Set community guidelines that encourage civil disagreement and diversity of thought. Moderators should nurture the culture without demanding groupthink. Foster connections centered first on shared humanity rather than surface labels.

The Vital Role of Community Managers

Successfully building a thriving brand community requires dedicated staff to nurture relationships between members and govern discussions. Appoint official community managers to take ownership of the following responsibilities:

Foster Constructive Conversations

Community managers should regularly participate in discussions and model the type of constructive dialogue desired. Share insights and stories that reinforce the community’s purpose and values. Gently guide conversations back on track if they veer into unproductive territory.

Set a Welcoming Tone

Strive to make all members feel included and supported. Personally greet new members and answer their questions. Spotlight contributions from less active members to draw them in. Facilitate introductions between members with common interests to spark networking.

Moderate Respectfully

Community managers serve as gentle guard rails, keeping discussions on track. Develop fair rules that allow room for disagreements while prohibiting bullying and harassment. Tactfully intervene with members who violate policies after thoughtfully considering the context.

Highlight Standout Members

Look for opportunities to praise positive behaviors that exemplify the community’s culture. Call out, especially thoughtful posts, and celebrate wins shared by members. Profile and interview top contributors. Spotlighting role models incentivize engagement.

Solicit Regular Feedback

Check-in periodically with highly active members to take the pulse on community health. Are they getting value? What additional support or programming would they find helpful? Be ready to adapt initiatives over time based on suggestions.

Responsible Self-Governance

Taking the helm of an online community brings increased responsibility compared to third-party social platforms like X and Facebook. You set the rules. Brands must monitor discussions and nurture the culture vigilantly.

Make expectations clear by posting community guidelines prominently. Zero tolerance for bullying and harassment builds safety. Have streamlined processes to privately report concerning content or behavior. No one should fear retaliation for speaking up.

Moderators should consistently issue thoughtful warnings before considering banning members, except in extreme cases. Strive to uphold the values of free speech whenever possible while sustaining a positive culture.

Launching an online community enables direct access to fans craving meaningful connections with your brand. But be strategic from the start and craft experiences catered specifically to who they are. Invest in active moderation and community management as you would any other critical marketing channel.

Stay laser-focused on continually adding value for members based on their needs. Ultimately, that sense of shared purpose and the relationships nurtured between members determines if a community thrives or fades away. Prioritize quality conversations and make sure that outside-looking-in vanity metrics like member numbers will organically take care of themselves.

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