Building Online Communities

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Building Online Communities

Whether you’re a blogger, small startup, or a Fortune 500 company, building an online community can expand your reach, build customer loyalty, and help members generate and share knowledge. But where do you start? These 10 tips should help:

1. Find out what people are saying.
Chances are that people are already talking about your blog, books, or products. Your mission is to find out where they’re talking (Facebook? Twitter? Forums?) and what they’re saying (Good? Bad? Both?). Use this information in building your online community to determine your target audience, help address concerns that interested parties have, and identify features your audience would want in an online community. There are established communities that you can customize, such as Ning (http://www.ning.com/what-is-ning/) and Yammer (https://www.yammer.com/).

2. Leverage variety.
You’ve done your research on where people are talking about your stuff, but what do those outlets look like? What are they doing? If a majority of the outlets don’t have video, then you provide video. If they make long posts, do a “tip of the day.” If they don’t feature interviews, line up the opportunity to sit down with a top influencer in your industry. Variety is the spice of online life.

3. Help your audience engage and share.
People who use social media usually post on various platforms. Even if they come to your community just to view it (lurkers), they will most likely click on a link that will allow them to re-post the content on their other sites. Adding a “Like” button will also allow your community members to express their opinion without having to take the time to type a response.

4. Ask questions.
Start some discussions by asking how your audience deals with particular challenges that they mention on your site, such as writing strong characters or believable dialogue. You may want to “tag” a particular poster who is usually very involved on the site to get the discussion rolling.

5. Give credit.
Hosting an online community involves more than just pushing a product or distributing information. It involves sharing. And sharing kudos is one thing most people can get behind. Post an article about the top newcomers in your industry or blog about what activities your posters are conducting. And don’t forget to tell the people you mention that their name is featured in an article or blog. You can believe that post will be shared across various platforms.

6. Create an award.
People like awards. You can create an Influencer of the Year award for your industry. Encourage your posters to place nominations based on achievement. You can even convene an awards committee to choose who will be selected. It’s a great way to get others involved and get them sharing news about the award. If you’re feeling really sociable, hold a live event and hand out awards personally.

7. Get your members to commit.
Identify a common goal that members would like to achieve. Break the activity into smaller steps and ask for volunteers. Announce small achievements to encourage others to get involved. You can award prizes once the goal has been achieved, such as promoting people to moderator status, or giving them advertising space for a month.

8. Get silly.
It’s not all about business all the time. Introduce a fun activity such as a picture caption contest, themed quizzes, or vacation plans thread. When people are more relaxed, they are more likely to comment on other areas of the site, and you may get some great ideas, even from the lurkers.

9. Cross-post community news.
As your members post news across platforms, you can do the same. Identify popular content on your site and share it on other sites. Provide links. You will most likely pick up new members this way by increasing your reach.

10. Track responses.
If you can quantify your activity, you can track it to easily see what works and what doesn’t. You can also use this information to discover which parts of the site don’t get used much. Mark those for less prominent placement or removal. How many people start a topic? Do more people reply to a particular poster? What days do the most people post? Answer these, and you’re well on your way to making lasting improvements.

These tips are just a start to building an online community. You will learn more from trial and error, from community members, and even from your competition. But keep an open mind and be willing to learn from anyone.

See you in the virtual!

Photo by Baratunde Thurston

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