Why do some communities thrive while others struggle to survive? Thousands of online communities sprout up every day but few of them ever take root. Among those that do, even fewer last longer than a couple of years. What’s the secret here?
Unfortunately, there’s no surefire answer to that question yet. The best we can do is to look at the online communities of today, study what worked and didn’t work for them, and apply that knowledge when forming our own community building strategies.
So what’s the right way to grow an online community? Let’s look at a few stories.
Focus Activity In One Place
If I told you that there was an online forum for the East Dulwich district of London, how big would you think it was? That is, how many active members would you say there are? Not too many, probably. After all, it’s just a small subset of one city, right? How big could it be?
Since 2006, the East Dulwich Forum has amassed over 850,000 posts across 80,000 threads. That’s the kind of growth that most online communities would kill for. Impressive, considering the area the forum covers has a population of 15,000. How did they grow so much in just eight years?
Richard Millington, the online community consultant who founded Feverbee, took a look at the evolution of East Dulwich Forum over their first five years as a community. The surprising paradox here is that adhering to an attitude of “slow and steady” actually accelerated the community’s growth.
It took three months for the forum to reach the 100-posts milestone. The key thing to keep in mind, however, is the structure of the forum during this formative time: there were only three sections to post in. Users had no choice but to hang out where everyone else was hanging out, thus increasing interactions.
Most community managers are often too anxious and create dozens of sections right off the bat. This dilutes activity, and makes the community seem like a wasteland to first-time visitors. East Dulwich Forum kept their forum size proportional to their membership size, never added more sections unless absolutely necessary.
Even after one year, they had only expanded to six sections. If you look at the post counts in each of those sections, it becomes clear that focused activity is a good thing. When members only have a few places to hang out, they’re more likely to bump into each other (read: view each other’s contributions) and interact.
Tear Down All Barriers To Entry
I can’t count how many times I’ve come across an interesting community, tried to join as a member, but ultimately gave up because the registration process was so cumbersome. It’s one thing to be exclusive — which is perfectly fine — but I’m talking about public groups that unknowingly have too many hurdles to jump.
Every extra field in a registration form increases the probability that users will shrug and close the page. Every extra step in the process, such as waiting for manual approval, is an opportunity for the user to change their mind or to forget about your community entirely.
Ideally, the time between a user deciding that they want to join your community and the user participating in your community should be zero. It’s not always possible, but that’s the benchmark. This is why so many sites allow users to sign in using Facebook, Twitter, or Google+. It kills that barrier to entry altogether.
Look at Reddit: registration there takes literally less than 5 seconds. You enter your desired username and password… and that’s it. No confirmation email. No approval process. You click the button and you can start typing comments right away. When joining is that easy, is it any wonder how Reddit became a Top 10 site in the US?
Make Your Members Feel Important
Nobody joins a community to be marginalized. As soon as a member feels like an outsider, as soon as they feel like they don’t belong, they’ll leave. Communities often focus on attracting new blood, but let’s not forget that it’s just as important — if not more important — to retain your current members.
Case in point: social media. Much of social marketing hinges on the production of viral content, where the main hope is that each new view will convert into a new member. Not to say that it doesn’t work, because it can, but social media is useful for so much more.
Sharpie can teach us a lot about that.
In December 2010, Sharpie began posting photos of fan creations (one’s that were made using Sharpie’s markers) to their Instagram gallery. It required very little effort on Sharpie’s part since most of the photos were sent in by fans, yet it carried a lot of community weight.
In essence, putting the spotlight on individuals makes them feel as if they are important enough to be noticed by Sharpie. What happens when a fan is recognized and esteemed by their hero? They double down on their loyalty and become that much more invested as a member of that community.
But it doesn’t end there. What happens when other people notice that Sharpie is in the business of spotlighting fan creations? They attempt to make their own fan creations with the hope that Sharpie will notice them too. The result? An outsider is converted into a member without the need for any direct evangelism.
If you can find ways to make your members feel like their contributions matter, then your community will grow on its own.
Looking to kickstart your own community? There’s a long, tough road ahead of you but it’s not an impossible one to walk. As long as you’ve got the commitment to stick it through to the end and the wisdom to learn from what others have tried, success will be right around the corner.
And if you don’t have name yet, you might like these community name generators.
Image Credits: Social Networks Via Shutterstock