So you want to build an online community, or at least begin the research process and find out how to build an online community. Well, we’ve got you. Our ultimate, step-by-step guide to community building is packed with information, insight, how-tos, recommendations, memes, humor, and more.
How to Build a Successful Online Community (an In-Depth Guide)
Dear friends, have fun with this guide to building online communities. And be sure to reference the ten steps we’ve outlined below to help you think through how to start an online community and keep it growing forever into the future.
We’ll be right here with you.
Step 1: What Does Your Organization Need? (Or: Start With an Intentional + Informed Plan)
“Plan your work and work your plan.” – Napoleon Hill, American self-help author
In order to build a successful online community, you have to know why you want to build it in the first place. Why? This “why” is the driving force that feeds every branch of your plan for building an online community. Without it, there is no driving force. And with no driving force, there is no energy and nothing around which to build your community strategy. Or your community.
Ask yourself: do the goals of my community (the reasons for building it) align with my organization’s goals and the goals of my users?
Your community goals are not separate from the goals found elsewhere in your organization. Instead, your community goals can and will emerge through an overlap of different goals within your organization. Can we say goals one more time? GOALS.
Once you determine the goals of your organization, you can also determine its needs (what it needs to reach and exceed its goals). Then you can tie both of these things into the creation of your online community.
And because the online community you build will be in service to its members and your organization, you’re more likely to receive support across teams and departments (more on this later). That is, building an online community does not mean siloing yourself away from the rest of your organization. It means working and building in concert with it.
In order to pinpoint objectives and determine needs—and ultimately get buy-in from key stakeholders—you’ll need to speak with people across different areas of your organization. You can do this by:
- Interviewing departments to find out their goals, priorities, and current needs
- Polling colleagues about their perceptions of online community platforms (see where they are at with the idea) and how they feel one could best help their department and the organization as a whole.
- Present a list of ways the online community platform or software you’ve chosen can support the goals of multiple departments (resource libraries, member directories, analytics and data, etc). Ask for initial thoughts and feedback.
Step 2: What do Your Users (Community Members) Want + Need?
What kind of community are your users looking for? Are they in search of connection, career insight, or becoming thought leaders themselves? Do they want continuous learning experiences while gaining exposure in their given field or industry? Whatever it is they want, that’s the kind of online community you need to build.
While you can and will benefit from building an online community for your business, it’s the needs of your community members that always come first. Yes, user needs and organizational goals can and should align. This alignment is a huge part of how you’ll build an engaged community.
Translation: one of the best foundations for building an online community is knowing what you want and knowing what your people want. Period.
With this information, you can then begin to build an engaging branded community that speaks to the needs of its members and your overarching goals.
Some of the things you should think about when creating a community are how its users will access and interact with it, as well as how they will communicate through it. And what better way to find out how potential users will access, interact, and communicate than to ask them!
Seriously, you can ask potential users about the kinds of content they want to see—including subject matter and form—and the activities they’re most likely to participate in.
And remember, online communities are long-term investments, not sprints. So getting it right from the start with a small number of people (all it takes is 1k true fans!) is far more valuable than getting it sorta right with a sea of users.
Once you have your small number of day-one superfans, you’ll automatically have a cohort of loyal individuals who trust you and appreciate the kind of value you provide. They’ll also most likely be excited to beta test campaigns, programs, products, and more, as well as advocate on behalf of your organization.
For more on building advocates within your community, check out this article on community-based marketing. We’ll see you back here—onward to building online communities we go!
Step 3: Identify Key Internal Stakeholders + Build Buy-In
Before moving full steam ahead with creating an online community, you’ll want to test the waters by first identifying key internal stakeholders. These are the employees, managers, board members, and investors within your organization who care about (or would be affected by) your community’s performance. Once identified, you’ll want to build buy-in (get these people on board with building an online community for your organization).
Key internal stakeholders include:
- Community Managers – While you want someone in your organization who will be the designated community manager, you’ll also need a team. A distributed leadership team to be precise. Why? Building a successful community is hard work, and many hands make that work light.
- Marketing (and perhaps product managers) – Basically, which departments are going to be most affected by your online community? They are some of your most important stakeholders.
- Upper Management – This person, usually an ops manager or a CMO, is responsible for the entire community and all who are affected by it.
Once you have an idea for who may (or may not) be into supporting your initiative to build an online community, you’ll then want to find out more about:
- The goals of each department, as well as organization-wide goals.
- Whether or not your organization has a history of online community building.
- What the budget and timeline are for creating this online community.
After you’ve gathered all the information you need, you’ll want to clearly and concisely connect the dots and draw up a plan. Your plan needs to illustrate exactly how an online community would benefit each department while increasing overall ROI. That is, use concrete examples and data to sell each department on your idea of building an online community!
Step 4: Develop a Launch Framework (+ set goals and KPIs)
This step ties directly into step one: what are your organization’s needs?
Whether you want to increase your customer satisfaction rating, decrease customer support-related costs, identify and mobilize key influencers and thought leaders within your industry, increase the demand for your product/service or all of the above, knowing what you want will help you develop the launch framework for a successful online community.
Just prior to your soft launch (step 10—stay tuned!) and while building your launch framework, you’ll want to set goals and key performance indicators (KPIs) in order to measure the success of your community once it’s up and running. With goals and KPIs in place you’ll be able to both qualitatively and quantitatively evaluate the success of your community and its effect on your organization.
Two key elements for measuring success are engagement metrics and business metrics. With engagement metrics (found through your community platform), you measure how active your community is, as well as what kinds of content stir up activity. With business metrics (this you measure internally, across departments), you measure the kind of impact your community has had on your overall business. Both are important to building a successful online community.
As you continue to experience community growth, you’ll be able to make good use of your data (you’ll have more of it and you’ll own it) by using it to discover new KPIs and reach new goals.
Step 5: Here’s Where You Decide How to Organize Your Online Community
Are you excited to build one large community, or build a community of segmented sub-communities organized by specific factors (product or service type, topic, region/location, etc)?
Whether you opt for one main community or several arterial ones, your community space will need to be organized around discussion threads, libraries, events, content, interests, and so on.
Just like your organization’s website, your community will need to be laid out with UX (user experience) in mind. That is, once you have your basic community structure (including its sub-communities), you’ll want to create an intuitive navigational flow throughout your community space.
Similar to a website or any digital experience, if your community members go in circles, feel lost, or get frustrated, they’re most likely going to navigate away from you. More than three clicks to get to something, and your user starts to lose interest. Soon enough you’re like, wait where did they go?
Quick Tip: Start small and see what’s working first. Invest in your current objective to build a successful online community and then add in more specific sub-communities later on, once you’re more dialed and ready to handle the added responsibility.
Step 6: Choose an Online Community Platform (that’s right for you)
Simply put, online community platforms are the go-to alternative to facebook and other public social networks. Community platforms offer highly beneficial features that can include:
- More in-depth analytics
- Data (and not just any data, but data you own)
- Greater access to community members
- Customizations that lead to better customer experiences
In determining the best community platform for your organization, take a close look at the kinds of features each platform offers and which ones best suit your community-building goals. From deeper analytics and smooth user interfaces to platform flexibility, customer support, app integrations, mobile interface and more, the community platform you choose should have the features that best support you and your community members.
Step 7: Organize + Build Your Community Management Team
Here’s where we get into the sweet and sustainable realm of distributed leadership. Considering building an online community all by your lonesome? While we commend your ambition, that’s just not how successful community building works. 🙅♀️
Once you have determined key stakeholders within your organization and achieved enough buy-in, it’s time to distribute leadership roles accordingly across departments. Doing so disperses the workload of building a community space while also promoting cross-department collaboration, communication, and utilization of skills.
When figuring out how to build a successful online community, it’s a good idea to keep in mind (at all times) that community-building is a team effort. Which means you need a dedicated team to manage your community. Always.
This doesn’t mean your community management team has to be massive, by any means. Especially if you run a smaller organization. Here are some things to think about when organizing and building out your community crew:
What size team do you need? Building a successful and engaged community can happen under the wing of just one dedicated community manager. It all depends on the size of the organization (and community) you’re starting with. As your community grows, however, you should be prepared to make new hires and grow your community management team in tandem.
Who has which roles and responsibilities? Across all involved departments, leadership and management needs to be distributed via roles and responsibilities. And no matter what, your community needs to be owned by an individual (we mentioned CMO earlier, but this individual could totally be someone else) or a specific department. Why? When challenges arise and decisions need to be made, you’ll need one main person who can support your team through the process of building a community space and making tough calls.
Who’s paying for this (which department’s budget is being used)? All the research you’ve conducted up to this point will help you and your team decide which department is going to benefit the most from your community. If it’s more than one department, you’ll want to consider tapping into budgets across multiple departments. No matter your final decision on budget, be sure to have the discussions here and now, before anything else moves forward.
Step 8: Build Your Community Engagement Plan (and make it worthwhile)
If a prospective community doesn’t provide anything of value (to you), why would you join? Why would you join a community?
Some of the biggest reasons why people join online communities are to:
- Expand and deepen their knowledge.
- Connect and build meaningful relationships with others (in their field, industry, area of interest, etc).
- Grow their own brand.
- Align with organizations that are thought leaders in their industry, and position themselves similarly within the community (ie: take on leadership roles as community members).
- Advance their careers and network.
If you build a community, however, that doesn’t really have anything to keep your members engaged, interested, and connected (ahem, high-quality content), sooner or later people are going to stray.
As we always emphasize, you have to provide something of value for free (good content). Otherwise, what are you giving your community members and why are they staying?
When building your community engagement plan, think about how people will find you (is it through other members?), and how they will connect and collaborate once they’re part of your community.
If you make it easy for potential members to find you, and for all members (actual and potential) to connect, share, create, collaborate, and engage across every touchpoint within your online community, then you’re on the right track.
(More) Things to Think About When Building Your Community Engagement Plan
- Focus on making every touchpoint and piece of content with humans in mind. You are, after all, trying to connect with and build a community of humans.
- Light (yet targeted) moderation is best. While you want your community space to feel safe, welcoming, and inclusive, you don’t want to “control” everything. Instead, give your community members the opportunity to share their voices, engage in meaningful conversations, and share ideas organically. People are looking to be part of your amazing community, not a regime.
- Organize your community so that members can easily find and utilize topic-based content and conversations in less than three clicks (like a website).
Step 9: Set Up Your Community—Wahoo!
Once you’ve decided which community platform to use, and you and your team have gotten familiar with the platform itself, it’s time to set up your community!
Here’s a small checklist of things you’ll want to consider when first setting up your community:
Enable your privacy settings (keep your community pre-launch private) – First impressions are a big deal. You only want outsiders to see and experience your community when it and you are ready.
Create initial categories – Keep your categories simple to start (you can always add more down the line). The point of category establishment is to reduce discussion noise and organize community discussions from day one. With this, you’ll also want to display a list of recent discussions on the dashboard or “homepage.” Doing so makes it easier for new or potential members to quickly and easily view the kinds of conversations happening in your community.
Review (and streamline) the sign-in process for new members – We cannot stress this enough—make your community sign-in process easy, simple, and straightforward! Definitely consider setting up a single sign-on (SSO) process, and definitely review your process before opening your community to the public.
Define staff and member roles – This includes administrators, moderators, community managers (or manager), and any kind of member roles you want to create. It also includes assigning permissions for roles. After you assign roles and permissions, be sure to test that they’re working properly.
Enable features – Decide which features you want to enable from the start, and then turn them on. Simple as that.
Establish gamification – Set up the perks, badges, rewards, or other kinds of recognition you want to offer your members.
Style out your community platform – Add personal touches. Use your organization’s logo, color palette, and fonts. Go buck wild (or keep it chill), and always keep your community on brand.
Set up your email – Which email address will you use for outgoing communications? What will your welcome and registration emails look like? Are you on-brand with your messaging? For insight and info on email best practices for online community growth, check out this article.
Spam controls, anyone? – Yes, please. Set them up, use them, adjust as needed.
Test. Test. Test. – Before launching your community, test everything at least 3x over to ensure all is operating smoothly, intuitively, and seamlessly. As you get closer to your launch date (oh yeah, choose a launch date to help you keep on task!), have other people in your organization test out your community. Having outside eyes on your community can be really helpful in finding snags or hiccups you and your team may have otherwise missed.
Step 10: Soft Launch, Promote, Moderate!
Soft launches help you prepare for the public and set you up for building a successful online community.
Soft launches include three stages:
- Soft-Launch Preparation: Inject your community with high-quality content (and make use of the content you already have) so that members have something of value to dig into right away. And, as Hubspot notes in their recent article about how to launch an online community, be sure to “start off with at least 10 discussions using your existing material. Recruit your colleagues to get the ball rolling with these discussions. Tone is important, so you will want to set the right tone before moving on to the internal soft-launch.”
- Internal Soft-Launch: This is what we were talking about earlier when we said “choose a launch date to help you keep on task” and “recruit other people in your organization to test out your community.” Your internal soft-launch should include both of these things.
- Public-Facing Soft Launch: Limit this launch to a select number of people. These people should help you refine your community through critical feedback, as well as help you determine what you still need to do or change before making your community live.
Promotion, Baby—Then Go Live With Your Fabulous Community!)
Your launch date is set and you’ve done everything you possibly could to ensure you’re on track to building a successful community. You’ve read and researched and now know more than you’ve ever wanted to know about how to build an engaged online community.
So… go ahead and invite all your contacts and tell EVERYONE you know about your community. Spread the good word, and then some. Promote the launch of your fabulous community (the one you’ve worked so hard to prepare for) throughout your website, as well as through email communications.
Shortly after launching, you’ll want to ask new members to recruit other new members (don’t forget to use badges and other forms of recognition to reward people for advocating on your behalf!).
Then, watch your community grow! And by “watch” we mean be very proactive and intentional—at least in the first 6 months—and your community will grow.
Bonus Steps for How to Build an Online Community For Your Business
Bonus 1 – This is perhaps the most important element—build with empathy. Always.
Bonus 2 – From here on out, use your data! You (not some third-party data miner) own your data now, so why not put it to good use?
Thanks for reading, happy community-building, and see you next time!