If you’ve been running a website for a while, you’ve likely already built up a regular following. Readers tend to be pretty loyal to those sites they enjoy and that provide them with excellent content. By using the tips here on WHSR, you’ve likely already built a solid blog filled with excellent content. Now, it’s time to connect with the readers you’ve gained and start to build a community.
An excellent example of the big payoff potential in building an online community can be seen in the recent sale of Warrior Forum for $3.2 million. The online forum has approximately 732,000 members. These members were very active in the online forum, making it a strong community. Apparently taking the time to build a solid community can pay off – in the millions.
How to Build a Community
When a customer feels a part of the community, he is more likely to spread news about your site to others. According to Marketing Charts, when a site adds a successful online community, it increases word-of-mouth advertising by 35%. In addition, an online forum gives you and your staff a chance to connect one-on-one with customers and interact with them. Which person are you more likely to purchase products or services from time and time again: The person who is nameless and faceless or the one you interact with on a daily basis?
Offering Value to the Member
Building an online community affords many benefits. First, people will feel invested in your site, which will make it more likely that they will visit and visit regularly. They will also:
Tell others about your site
Become engaged in conversations with like-minded (or sometimes opposite) people
Treat your site as a trusted source of insider information
The intrinsic value to members is tied into the fact that they feel a part of that community, that they add value to it by being there and this creates a strong connection with others in the community and the community forum itself. If the forum is not active enough for members to feel engaged, they won’t hang around.
Making Him Feel Part of the Group
One of the best ways to keep members engaged is to stay in contact. Here are some ideas for ways to keep your members engaged in the community and to draw in new members.
Welcome new members and ask them to introduce themselves.
If you notice a member posting thoughtful, intelligent responses, invite that member to contricute to a feature contribution or have one of your staff write a feature to share.
Recognize birthdays of members by featuring their name and a birthday wish on the official blog. Make your members feel special.
Implement an area where business owners can promote their businesses or areas of knowledge. People love to share or self-promote. Provide an appropriate forum for this and they’ll be more likely to get involved in your site.
Another thing you can do is to create regular events that members who’ve been around awhile will come to expect. They will hopefully explain these events to newbies. A site that has created an excellent sense of community that does this type of thing is Spark People.
Spark People is a diet community. Membership is free and the site also offers tools for dieting, recipes and articles. However, it has forums with thriving communities that are separated into types of dieting, types of exercise and even topics like 30-somethings. Members help one another with diet advice. Members have come to expect regular events, such as a birthday wish, reminders about goals and Challenge Central, which offers new challenges to members on a regular basis.
You’ll notice from the screenshot of the site above that there are featured member pages. These people are your success stories. They are meant to inspire and motivate you and the idea is that you might be featured there one day, too. Spark also allows members to join teams. Teams have leaders, who will spur you on and be your cheerleader. The community area also has member blogs and message boards for discussion.
Membership to Spark is free, so I highly encourage you to take out a membership and putter around the community a bit to get an idea of everything the community has to offer and why this site was the largest weight loss website as of 2011 and why it has over 13.5 million registered users in more than 100 different countries.
Find a Specific Niche
As you can see from the diet website case study above, finding a niche is an important element in creating a successful online community. Yackity yack community isn’t going to be nearly as successful as amateur golfer tips community. The key is to find an area people want to know more about or are passionate about and build on that concept.
If you own a business already, obviously you’ll want a niche community related to that business. If you just want to build an online community and are just starting out, then the sky is the limit and you can choose any niche you’d like. Keep in mind that you should probably be an expert or in close contact with an expert on the topic as your members may have questions for the moderators and owners of the site.
Moz recommends creating a sense of community by putting up “boundaries”. Your community may be smaller, but if it is stronger, then that is a positive thing as well. 13.5 million members is only an impressive number if those members regularly visit your site, after all.
Moz presents a formula in the guide on online communities that is pretty smart and impressive. It is essentially this:
Answer those questions and you’ll have a better idea of the niche area your community should cover.
Create A Safe Zone
Have you ever posted an idea or thought in an online community and had another member outright attack you? Most of us have experienced it over some thought or another. How did that make you feel? You probably were aggravated and either argued for a while and then realized it was taking up too much of your time, or you disengaged and left the forum. Either way, when members don’t feel safe to share their innermost thoughts and feelings without being attacked, they also are not going to be engaged.
Creating a safe zone within your online community should resemble a family. Are you scared to be yourself with your family and closest friends? Probably not. That is the same feeling members of an online community should experience. There are a few things you can do to achieve this:
Put firm rules in place (no name calling, no cursing, no racial slurs, etc.).
Appoint community moderators to enforce the rules, keep the peace and get discussions going.
Don’t be afraid to change the rules if you notice abuse.
Don’t be afraid to remove people from the community or to block them if necessary. It is a good idea to start with a warning and go from there.
Once you’ve established some boundaries that protect all your members, it is important to remind them of those rules from time to time. If your community is successful, you’ll be getting a lot of new members, so these reminders are vital to keep everyone on the same page.
Beeline Labs conducted a study called “The Tribalization of Business”, in which they took a look at some of the challenges online communities face. Those challenges included:
Getting people involved in the community
Time management in maintaining the community
Attracting new people to the community or growth of community
Getting People Involved
I mentioned above that community moderators can get discussion going. Whether you enlist active community members to help with this job or you and your staff cover these tasks, you can utilize the leaders of your community to:
Welcome new members
Start new discussions
Plan regular events, such as an online scavenger hunt, contest or question to answer
Answer questions members have
Running an online community can be time consuming. In fact, if the community is active, it can be almost impossible to moderate everything. There are a few things you can do to automate this and watch your time commitments.
Automatically approve posts from members with a certain number of past posts. Trouble makers usually show up within the first 20 posts or so.
Set up a way for other members to report abuse. This will help you feel comfortable with less moderation.
Watch for members who are extremely involved and know a lot about the topic but are not business competitors. Enlist their help (offer a free gift if you don’t want to pay a salary) in starting topics and other minor tasks.
As mentioned before a strong community isn’t necessarily a huge community. However, to really be effective for your business, the community does need to grow. Here are some ways to achieve that:
Encourage current members to share your site with others.
Make sign-up quick, free and easy.
Place a large call to action button on your site’s home page to encourage visitors to sign up.
Start social media pages with links to sign up for the community and cross-posts about current discussions.
What Are the Pros Doing Right that You Can Too?
Think about some of the most active communities you know of. What are these communities doing right that you can repeat? We recommend you study sites like:
Moz – Their community area has features like “Mozinars”, which are online webinars to help members learn more about marketing. They also have a Q&A area where you can ask your “tough” questions and industry experts will answer. They also feature their top users, encouraging people to get more involved.
Triberr – Topic posts are front and center and starting a conversation on each topic is simple and quick. On the right side is a running feed of live conversations. This allows site visitors to see what the hot topics are at a glance and jump into the fray. You can also sort by new topics or trending topics (read our interview with Triberr founder, Dino Dogan here).
By studying what others are doing that is working, you’ll be better able to tweak your community into the powerhouse you want it to be. You’ll be happy with all the website traffic and your visitors will be happy because they will have found an online home that is comfortable and a place they want to visit often.
Article by Lori Soard
Lori Soard has been working as a freelance writer and editor since 1996. She has a bachelor's in English Education and a PhD in Journalism. Her articles have appeared in newspapers, magazines, online and she's had several books published. Since 1997, she has worked as a web designer and promoter for authors and small businesses. She even worked for a short time ranking websites for a popular search engine and studying in-depth SEO tactics for a number of clients. She enjoys hearing from her readers.