Having an online community is great, but growing one from scratch is even better.
Despite what some may think, great communities are not built on autopilot, nor are they built overnight. They require constant monitoring and stimulating to make sure you’re building the type of group that is right for your brand.
Growing a community requires strong management skills, as well as a marketer’s point of view. You need the right systems (structure, onboarding, engagement topics, etc.) as well as deliberate outreach.
After all, if no one knows your group even exists, the rest of these steps won’t matter much.
In this article, we’ll look at the top ten tips on how to grow an online community from the ground up.
Let’s get started!
- 1. Develop a Noticeable Community Name
- 2. Create Engaging Community Guidelines
- 3. Experiment With Different Types of Content
- 4. Develop a Community Engagement Strategy
- 5. Leverage Referral Marketing
- 6. Maximize Your SEO Impact
- 7. Share Exclusive Offers
- 8. Onboard New Group Members
- 9. Benchmark and Track KPIs
- 10. Outsource Community Management
- Frequently Asked Questions
1. Develop a Noticeable Community Name
Instead of calling your group “Bob’s Business Group,” spend some time brainstorming different ideas. Your name should be catchy without being corny and descriptive without being exhaustive.
Above all, it should be positive and inclusive. Your community name is the first opportunity you have to make people feel like it’s a place where they can grow.
In some cases, this may happen organically. Fans of Taylor Swift’s music started to call themselves “Swifties.” Over time, the name stuck.
Strong community names give the members a sense of community culture. It helps them form an identity to rally around because of their shared interests. The stronger—and more relatable—the name, the tougher the cohesion.
In the beginning, though, you’ll need a name that people can relate to. If you’re having trouble coming up with some ideas, we have a community name generator that should help get your creative juices flowing.
2. Create Engaging Community Guidelines
Engagement doesn’t begin with the posts in your group; it starts with the guidelines that members read before they even step foot inside your community.
We’ve already written about the importance of developing community guidelines and how to do it, but suffice it to say that these rules can make or break your group.
Ubuntu is a software development company that’s developed different communities around its various products. Its code of conduct is long and covers a lot of very black-and-white scenarios, but right at the beginning, it lays out what’s expected.
The value of strong community guidelines is two-fold.
First, they’ll encourage the members to be active participants in the community rather than spectators who just take and take. When potential members know the content expectations from the outset, they develop a sense of ownership in maintaining those expectations.
Second, they’ll provide guidance on how to handle bad actors in your community. As important as it is to empower your community members to make positive contributions to the group, removing people who prove detrimental to your community will foster strong, positive growth.
3. Experiment With Different Types of Content
Certain content is pretty standard when it comes to online communities. Sharing blog content or images that serve as conversation starters are par for the course; implementing them will give your group a solid foundation.
But don’t be afraid to experiment with different types of content, though. Here’s a list of some content that may work really well, depending on the kind of community you have in place:
- Video (behind the scenes, live walk-throughs, product tutorials)
- Ask Me Anything (AMA) sessions
- Contests or promotions
- “Caption This” posts
- Polls (great for creating reusable original research)
- Community member spotlights
- Deliverables (e-books, white papers, graphics packages)
Obviously, the only limit here is your imagination. Community engagement is a huge topic, but these are some of the most common ways to get people talking.
4. Develop a Community Engagement Strategy
The Holy Grail of any online group is when it becomes a self-sustaining force that requires less prompting and more moderation of community engagement already taking place.
To accomplish this, you’ll need to find ways to boost community engagement and get people to interact with each other. Your active members already have a shared interest, but since they may or may not know each other, it’s up to you to find ways to get them to know each other.
This personal touch is where online communities trump social media. According to online community statistics, 36% of users prefer online communities because they believe they can have those meaningful conversations with other members in their niche.
So how do you encourage a group of people to interact with each other? While engagement content will obviously spur some conversation, you should also look to the posts themselves to create discussion.
For instance, resist the urge to respond to every troubleshooting-related question (if possible). Chances are that more than one person has had the same issue in the past, so leave the door open for others to respond with their own solution.
Also, don’t be afraid to elevate members that are contributing to other people’s questions, such as badges (mentioned below). You could also leverage other people’s groups by bringing in influencers from other sources to engage with your online community.
5. Leverage Referral Marketing
Typically, referral marketing works in one of two ways. Either you pay an influencer to advertise your branded community platform for you (called influencer marketing), or you can give current fans a financial incentive to bring others into your group.
Both will come with a certain financial cost, but if your profit margin allows you space for a referral program, it’s definitely something you should consider. Referral customers are generally more loyal and spend more than your average customer.
If you’re strapped for cash (typical for a new brand), you don’t always have to pay your group members to do this. Sometimes, just rewarding them with a status badge, like a “top referral” badge, will do the trick. Cloudera has tons of examples on its site, ranging from “conversationalist” to “graffiti artist” badges.
There’s even been concrete academic research proving that virtual badges absolutely increase contributions from group members. Start by identifying top contributors to your groups, then publicly recognize them with a badge.
6. Maximize Your SEO Impact
It would take a lot more space than this point allows to talk about the impact that a successful online community can have on your SEO, but here’s a hint—it’s a lot.
Social media posts are great for maximizing your search engine traffic. An engaged community will generate a ton of clicks to a link for a blog post, which, in turn, sends signals to search engines that this is a page worth ranking higher.
Online communities can also create a treasure trove of user-generated content, or UGC, that you can add to your blog as well.
Buzzfeed is one of the most popular websites on the planet. It’s known for listicles, funny quizzes, and a host of other types of content.
But Buzzfeed also has an entire section of its website dedicated to UGC called Buzzfeed Community. Here, users can submit their own content on Buzzfeed and even get points based on how popular their material is. The gamification process keeps people engaged and striving to create better material.
Regardless of how you use your group, the fact remains that a community can really help your SEO efforts. Whether that’s manually funneling traffic to your website or letting the community create content for your site, find a way to connect your group activity to your website. The effect could be tremendous.
7. Share Exclusive Offers
Give your prospective community members a severe case of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) by using your group to share offers they can only get in their community. Whether that’s an early-bird promo, course discount, or members-only webinar, exclusivity can make your group explode.
The ways that you can marry exclusivity with discounts to encourage community building are innumerable:
- Offer discounts for beta testers and reviewers
- Bonuses for group engagement or referrals
- Resources or training only available in group
- Q&As with group leaders
The possibilities are endless. Whatever you do though, make sure that what you’re offering is of value. Nobody will sign up for a group—much less participate—if they can find the same quality of material elsewhere for free.
8. Onboard New Group Members
One of the most difficult steps for new members to take is to make their first comment or post inside a community. Most of us feel like outsiders, and the last thing we want to do is disrupt an ongoing conversation or look silly.
As a way to break this gridlock, many online communities encourage members to make a post explaining a little bit about themselves. For some, it’s where you live, what niche you work in, or the unique challenges that you’re hoping the community can help with.
In fact, some online community platforms actually build these features into their service offerings. There’s a template that people can take advantage of that automatically creates a short post about themselves or automation that publicly welcomes new members when they join.
If you join the Self Publishing Formula’s Ads for Authors course, for instance, you’ll get access to its SPF-Mastery course. Once inside, you’re asked not only to post about yourself but also a picture of your workspace. It’s a great way to brag about your setup (hopefully) and get a peek inside other people’s spaces as well.
9. Benchmark and Track KPIs
In order to truly grow your online community, you’ll need to do two things: set some benchmarks and track your main performance indicators.
Your key performance indicators, or KPIs, are the primary metrics you need to focus on for your specific brand. Every group is different, but here are some of the KPIs you should strongly consider keeping track of:
- Number of members or followers
- Engagement rate
- Rate of new member sign-ups
- Referral sources and referral percentage
- Time in group
- New posts per day
- Warm leads generated
Before you focus on growth, though, you’ll need to benchmark your numbers first. Make a spreadsheet with all the different KPIs that matter to you. (Don’t worry about getting it perfect. You’ll most likely add and subtract a few over time.)
Next, decide on a tracking frequency, whether every month or every quarter. The larger your group, the more often you’ll most likely need to track the numbers, so if your group is new, focus on every week or every month.
As important as it is to track your metrics, it’s vital to only track the numbers that matter to you. This will ultimately depend on the purpose of your group—whether it’s a lead generation machine or just an engaged community that builds brand awareness.
10. Outsource Community Management
Once your group gets large enough, the sheer momentum and velocity of posts will most likely be overwhelming. For that reason, it’s a good idea to hire a moderator (or several) so that you can focus your time on growing the group and your brand.
For a full description of what a community moderator (or manager) actually does, here’s a great breakdown.
But hiring a community moderator is more than just filling a chair with a warm body. You have to find someone who has a great set of “soft skills,” such as empathy, problem resolution, tact, and forethought. Expect to go through several rounds of interviews and hires before you find the perfect match.
Once you find a good one though, they’re worth their weight in gold.
The best community manager should set the tone for the entire group, balancing rule enforcement with conversation starters. Engagement needs to be prompt, so hire more than one if you expect to have discussions around the clock.
Another way to think about community managers is as an advocate. They help new members get acquainted with the group and the brand, as well as help people be heard. They’re vital for taking a follower and turning them into a fan.
Starting a group is a challenge, but growing a group is an exercise in patience and determination. It requires a lot of grit and experimentation to find the right ingredients that will get your group to explode.
Once it starts to pick up steam, though, you’ll have an asset that money truly cannot buy. You’ll have an army of passionate supporters that believe in your brand and believe in the community you’ve built.
If you’re ever in doubt as to your brand’s impact, just take a step inside your own community and see all the people that love what you do.
Do you have any ideas for how to grow your community? Leave them in the comments below!