Online communities are all the rage these days. Blog popularity is still on the rise. Social networks are booming with activity. Social media is only getting started. Some sources report that approximately 1 in 4 people spend more time online than they do sleeping. What does this all mean? Online communities are more relevant and prevalent today than they ever were before.
Listen up. I’ve got some good news and bad news for you, and then I’ve got some more good news on top of that. First, the good news: anyone can start their own online community. The technology is all there just waiting for you to take a hold of it and make use of it. This is what you want.
Second, the bad news: anyone can make their own online community. That means that the Internet is full of empty forums, boring websites, and ghost town communities that saw their 15 minutes of fame and quickly faded out of existence. This is not what you want.
Third, the good news again: I’ll show you how you can create an online community that will not only survive but flourish. Like most things in life, you’ll need a bit of luck in the long run, but keep reading to find out what you can do to maximize your chances of success.
You Need: Purpose
The very first thing you need in any online community is purpose. What is your reason for existence? What can you offer people that they can’t get elsewhere? Why should people participate in your community and not some other one?
To be clear, I’m not saying you need to sell a physical product. You don’t even need to give users anything tangible. What you do need is a reason for people to visit your website (or blog, forum, etc.) on a regular basis.
Maybe you have access to a large number of experts in many different fields. One idea would be to bring them all together and lead some sort of Q&A community. This online community would have a purpose: to provide people with immediate access to experts.
But your ideas don’t even need to be that revolutionary. Maybe you want to start an online forum about a particular video game. What is your purpose? To compile a mountain of top-notch game walkthroughs and strategies? To have a close-knit relationship with the game developers? To provide a central location for tournaments?
Determine your reason for being. An online community that exists just because it can is doomed to fail. If you can’t verbalize why people should participate, then no one will participate.
You Need: Outreach
So now you have a defined purpose, but your online community is still stuck with a big fat membership count of 1. Where do you go from here? The answer is obvious: find more people!
But that’s easier said than done. This part is going to require a lot of effort out of you – enough effort that it may just discourage you from continuing. At this point, you need to really believe in your purpose or else you will ultimately give up when the going gets tough.
Building a membership is as simple as telling people about your community and asking if they’re interested in joining. Be very careful, though! If you send out a mass e-mail to everyone in your address book or make a quick post to Facebook and expect people to join your community in droves, you are sorely mistaken.
People aren’t looking to be advertised to. Don’t try to throw your community to as many potential participants as you can find and hope that some will stick around. Instead, converse one-on-one. Personalize your invitation. Show them that you don’t care about numbers; show them that you care about community.
You Need: Engagement
By now, perhaps you have a dozen or so regular and active members participating in your community. Awesome! That number may be small, but it’s two hands larger than what you started with. You’ve gotten over the hard bump, but there’s still a lot more for you to do.
Now that you have some people chatting away, you can’t abandon them. Sure, they might be posting threads and submitting posts on their own. It even seems like the website will prosper without your involvement. But that would be a mistake.
You brought these people in based on a promise of community. They’re here because they believe in your purpose and they’re interested in helping you build on that platform. If you step away, even for a moment, they’ll think the whole project has been abandoned–and then they’ll leave, too.
The right thing to do is to engage your users. You’ve got them through the door, but you still need to keep them around. Feed content. Spark discussion. Do whatever it takes to keep them from growing bored. The more you stay in contact with everyone, the more likely they’ll be to stick around and see it through.
You Need: Management
Once you start to gain traction and build up a community of more than 20 people, you’re going to need a community manager. It could be you, it could be somebody else, but the most important aspect is that the person cares about the community and its health. As Richard Millington of FeverBee says, “You absolutely must have someone who wakes up worrying about your community every morning.”
When I say “management,” I don’t mean someone who implements strict rules and bans anyone who breaks them. If that’s how you want to run your community, then that’s your call. By “management,” I’m talking about someone who can act as the face or head of the community. Someone who keeps the community focused, engaged, and growing.
As for moderating, you’ll need to do that, too. You can’t let flamers and trolls destroy your community before it’s even taken off. When necessary, apply the ban hammer. But keep in mind that arguments and heated discussions are good things. Moderate drama is useful because it keeps things interesting. If you quell that, your community just turns boring. People don’t stick around for boring.
You Need: Data
Ever hear of Google Analytics? It’s a tool that bloggers use to keep track of their website’s popularity: how many people are visiting, how long do they stick around for, which locations are they from, which pages are they visiting, and so on.
That’s what you need to do. If you want to jumpstart and grow an online community, you need to find a way to gather this sort of data and you’ll need to learn how to analyze that data for useful information.
For example, if you see that most of your new members are coming from a particular website, go check it out and see what it is about your community that draws them in. If you’re running a blog, check which articles are getting the most attention and figure out why. If you’re running a forum, look through the threads and determine which topics of discussion are the most interesting for your members.
You Need: Flexibility
And lastly, you need to be willing to adapt your community to changing impulses. This is common sense in the business world, and it applies to online communities. If you don’t evolve, then you’re missing out on a lot of potential and you’re going to lose members who grow tired of the same stale community.
Use your analytics data to determine the best path for your community’s future. If 90% of your users are from China, then you would do well to accommodate that fact–maybe even turn your community into a China-centric community (if it wasn’t already). A single change like that could radically boost your success.
Here’s an example from my own experiences. A few years ago, I pioneered a website for an online PvP game that was new (at the time). As a competitive gamer, I set up the website as a hub for competitive players to come together and participate in tournaments. That didn’t work out too well.
I ended up drawing a lot of newer unskilled players who were interested in watching said tournaments, but the high-skilled players didn’t care very much. So I adapted. I altered the focus of the website, instead aiming to provide top-quality tutorials and guides that taught newer players how to play better. After that, the website exploded in popularity (relatively speaking).
Starting a new online community is hard work regardless of the subject of focus. Yes, the 6 tips that I listed in this article will help you if you’re having trouble, but none of it will matter if you don’t have perseverance or passion.
An online community won’t succeed if the energy behind it doesn’t really care if it succeeds or not. Perseverance and passion won’t guarantee success, but without it, your community is just a ticking time bomb waiting to collapse into nonexistence.