In their first three years of business, social media management tool HootSuite grew from zero to 3 million users. It’s an impressive feat for any company, but what’s even more notable is that they did so with virtually no advertising, marketing, or PR budget.
Instead, they grew through community building. A team of 18 staff members and 100 global volunteers grew the company in a grassroots manner—all thanks to community engagement, according to CEO Ryan Holmes.
Can community building do the same for your company? You won’t know until you take these five steps to build and promote your business in your community:
Step 1: Define what is (and isn’t) your brand
In an Inc. Magazine article titled “The 9 Worst Mission Statements of All Times,” author Minda Zetlin gives the following example:
"It is our mission to continue to authoritatively provide access to diverse services to stay relevant in tomorrow's world."
Can you guess which company this mission statement came from?
It’s a trick question. Actually, Zetlin used an online mission statement generator to build her mission statement. But it’s close enough to some of the jargon-stuffed values statements used by companies today that it probably tricked you into thinking it was real.
Imagine trying to build a brand around the mission statement above. How will you differentiate your brand enough from others so that potential community members will be drawn to your company? What are you offering them that’s engaging enough to capture their attention?
Before you can build a community around your brand, you have to know what that brand is. According to Ash Ambirge of The Middle Finger Project:
“The color pink doesn’t try to make itself more green, hoping to appeal to everybody who loves both. Pink is pink, and you either like it or you don’t. There are no apologies and no justifications.”
So what’s your “pink”? What do you stand for that nobody else does? What type of people do you want in your community—and, more importantly, who don’t you want to include?
Move on to the next step only after you’ve answered these questions.
Step 2: Find the right way to connect with your community
Once you know who you’re trying to connect with, the next step is to decide where, when, and how you’ll build your community. That means choosing the right platform, based on:
- The size of your audience
- How your audience prefers to engage
- The features you need
- Your level of technical skill
- Your budget
Take, for example, Spotify’s community forums. There, more than six million members share tens of thousands of “solutions” on everything from music recommendations to future feature requests and development solutions.
Within the community, users can do everything from following threads they’re interested in, to embedding music clips into their responses to others.
You may not need something nearly this advanced for your community (and given that Spotify’s forums run on the Lithium platform, the cost may not be justified when you’re first starting out anyways).
When you’re first starting out, think small and simple. A basic forum might be enough for your website, or you might consider a private or secret Facebook group if your users will be accessing it via mobile devices.
Use these test forums to see how your community members interact. As their numbers and engagement grow, you’ll be better equipped to choose the right enterprise-level platform down the road (if needed).
Step 3: Make community membership valuable
Web communities are a dime a dozen. Why should people want to be a part of yours?
In a ForumCon Slideshare presentation, VigLink shares the five critical factors that make membership in a community desirable:
Intuitively, all of this makes sense. Your community members need to feel safe sharing with others in your group. They need to feel that they’re accepted and that they’ve “earned” their spot in the community. They also need to be able to understand the group's social norms and how to communicate like an “insider.”
How can you build these factors into your community? Possible strategies include:
- Clearly defining and enforcing moderation standards
- Limiting membership to a select group who have achieved certain status (perhaps, by buying a product or taking a course from you)
- Encouraging the development of inside jokes and memes (but also including a mechanism to get new members up to speed)
- Giving top users SWAG—even if it’s just icons for use in their posts that denote their status
What works for your community will evolve over time. Pay particular attention to the negative feedback you receive and use it to shape your community’s structure and engagement.
Step 4: Seed engagement within your community
Speaking of engagement, you might notice that if your community is new, you have, well… none.
Mashable’s Megan Berry shares the following advice from David Spinks, former director of community for Zaarly:
“Every community will go through an ‘awkward phase’ where conversations feel a little forced and people aren't initiating conversations on their own. It will pass. Keep building your community one person at a time, and it will eventually begin to flow naturally.”
Remember, even Reddit “faked it ‘til they made it.” Forming fake accounts may not be the right choice for your community, but don’t be afraid to keep pushing engagement until it begins to happen naturally.
Step 5: Go above and beyond
This last piece of advice is common sense. Why would your users remain part of your community if they aren’t getting any value out of it?
Instead, invest whatever resources you need to into creating a stellar community experience. Provide helpful resources. Answer questions. Offer whatever support you have to in order to delight your community members.
Your efforts will come back to you in the form of engaged followers, future purchases, and possible referrals.
Sujan Patel is a leading expert in digital marketing. He is a hard working and high energy individual fueled by his passion to help people and solve problems. He is the co-founder of Web Profits, a growth marketing agency, and a partner in a handful of software companies including Mailshake, Narrow.io, Quuu, and Linktexting.com. Between his consulting practice and his software companies, Sujan’s goal is to help entrepreneurs and marketers scale their businesses.