Many businesses are beginning to understand the power of creating online communities. The Holy Grail of all marketing is to make it where customers really like and trust your business and they buy everything that you make. But that kind of success must be earned, and it takes a lot of work!

First things first: I will be drawing heavily from a post I wrote about a year ago on my board game development blog. The linked post is also about building an online community, and the principles discussed there can apply to nearly any industry.

What is an online community?

Before we go any further, though, let’s define what exactly an online community is. I’ll use the definition from the game dev blog here since it’s a good one.

As I see it, an online community is any place that people are actively engaged in conversation on the Internet. Actively engaged meaning that people check in regularly and talk to one another. It’s a simple definition, but you’ll notice that it specifically excludes online platforms where nobody ever engages. Engagement is key here.

Why build an online community?

There a number of benefits to building an online community for your small business. They can be neatly summarized in four points:

  1. Building a community of engaged, friendly, passionate people is simply great branding. It gives you a chance to have your company’s name seen in a positive light.
  2. When you have an actively engaged online community, it’s very easy to ask market research questions simply by starting a conversation.
  3. Communities are great sources for both product/service ideas and content to share online.
  4. When it’s time to launch new products or services, you will have a built-in audience. This makes it much easier to succeed.

With all this in mind, let’s talk about seven steps you can follow to build your online community.

1. Choose the Right Gathering Place for Your Online Community

Think about where your customers like to hang out online. This is very important because online communities cannot be separated from the places they are built.

You have a lot of potential gathering places. Facebook groups are one example, as are Slack and Discord servers, subreddits, other social media, and forums. Each type of community has ups and downs. Your best bet? Pick a gathering place that your customers are already using.

For example, I use Discord – a popular chat software made by gamers for gamers – as a gathering place for board game developers. Similarly, I use a Facebook group as a gathering place for entrepreneurs.

2. Establish a theme and ground rules to ensure positive discussion.

Early on in the creation of your community, you need to make sure its purpose is well understood. There are two pieces to this: theme and ground rules.

For a theme, figure out what you want people to talk about. Do you want people to swap recipes? Would you prefer for them to talk about their favorite video games? Are you making a place for real estate agents to talk shop? Pick a simple theme and come up with a punchy community name that succinctly conveys that. (For example, the Facebook group for this blog is Small Businesses Unite).

Next, you want to set a few ground rules and find a few people who will moderate your community. Keep the ground rules simple. As an example, here are the ones I use for the Pangea Games Facebook group:

  1. Be excellent to each other.
  2. Don’t discriminate.
  3. Be classy about self-promotion.
  4. Don’t spam.
  5. Help others out any way you can.
  6. Invite whoever you want, as long as they’re chill.
  7. Don’t do or coordinate anything illegal here.

I’ll once more borrow directly from the post on the game dev blog to explain why I use these seven rules.

I start with a positive rule. “Thou shalt nots” will only get you so far. Rules 2, 4, and 7 are obvious ones – don’t be any kind of -ist or -phobic, don’t tell me how you made $87,122 working from home, and don’t talk about your illegal gambling den. Numbers 5 and 6 reiterate the positive rules, with 6 doubling as encouragement to invite.

The trickiest rule here is 3. Decide how you’re going to handle self-promotion. You can police it heavily by banning self-promotion or limiting it to a certain amount per week. Alternatively, you can allow it all (within reason) and let Facebook’s algorithm do the sorting. (Bad ideas get buried in active communities, so I don’t sweat it). No matter what you choose, be explicit about how you handle self-promotion.

3. Invite about 20 of your friends so the room’s not empty.

Online communities are dreadfully boring at first. Without bringing people you know into the community, you will probably need a few hundred strangers before you see conversations actually take place.

But if you start the community with a few friends? It becomes so much easier. Strangers will see that you and your friends are already talking, and they’ll join in, too.

4. Establish norms.

Very few people will read your rules. They’re important to have, but just remember that few people are going to look.

Rules are really just a way of encouraging certain norms. If you want people to engage, you need to ask questions until people start habitually answering. If you want people to help one another, you (and your friends) need to go out of your way to help new members. People mimic the behavior they see!

When you see behavior that you like, encourage it by liking and commenting on it. If you see a behavior you don’t like, ignore the small stuff and let the algorithm sort it out. For egregious misbehavior, tell the offender to stop.

Once your norms are baked in, new members who want to fit in will conform. You want to get this right before you spend a whole lot of time and energy promoting your online community.

5. Give people a reason to join your online community.

Once your online community has been established, you will want to draw people to it. A month or two of good engagement is usually enough to make people likely to join. However, they still need to find you in the first place!

Ideally, you want to give people some kind of incentive to join your community. The community itself is valuable, but if you really want to draw attention fast, give something away for free. When attracting board gamers to a Facebook group, for example, I give away a board game and people come in droves for the free stuff and stay for the conversation!

6. Push to 1,000 members.

Once your community is established and people have a reason to join, you need to push as hard as you can to 1,000 members. I will now reference the game dev blog post once more because the reasoning is sound and can apply to any business.

Early on with the Pangea Games Discord server, I hand messaged nearly 10,000 people on Twitter and Instagram. It took about 100 hours over weeks of effort. When I was done, I had just shy of 1,000 members in the community and it was actively engaged. It has remained active without sustained effort.

I don’t know what it is about 1,000 members specifically, but this seems to be the point at which communities are self-sustaining. There have been entire weeks where I’ve dropped out of Discord and barely been on Facebook, and the communities are still running. This should be your goal.

“Brandon, I don’t have thousands of followers or the time to message all of them.” Hey, that’s fair – there are many other options. For example, I use the blog – which pulls traffic primarily from search engines – to pull in new members to the Discord server. I use regularly scheduled giveaways of popular board games to encourage engagement on the Facebook group, as well as other related channels.

7. Listen to feedback to keep your online community healthy.

Online communities need to be monitored even after they are established. While your community may be self-sustaining, bad things can still happen. People will spam you. Some individuals will be needlessly mean. You’ll be criticized for your administration of the community. Sometimes you’ll want to roll out new features.

The point here is to stay engaged after you build the community. Constantly tweak and improve based on feedback. A little bit of care goes a long way.

Final Thoughts

Building an online community is not difficult. By following the seven steps above, you can reap many of the rewards of having an engaged community.

Online communities are great for your branding and are a constant source of ideas. Once established, you’ll never struggle to find customers willing to answer your questions and you’ll never have to launch a product or service with no audience.

And of course, building communities around your interests is just plain fun 🙂