Dornubari Vizor April 28, 2023
Ultimate Community Building Guide – How To Build An Online Community That Sells Itself
It’s no secret that online communities are all the rage these days. According to a survey by Sell Courses Online, 88% of community professionals believe that an online community can actively help a company achieve its mission and goals. Additionally, 66% report better customer retention, and 68% find it easier to generate new leads for their business, all thanks to online communities.
These promising statistics are just the tip of the iceberg. Having your own online community can be a game-changer for your business. To take advantage of all the benefits, you need to create your own online community.
So, how do you go about building one? This guide provides a clear and step-by-step roadmap for building an online community in 2023.
Let me define an online community for you.
Simply put, an online community is a shared space for like-minded people to engage and network over shared goals. Typically, an online platform, such as GroupApp, hosts the community.
Now, let’s consider online communities from a business perspective.
An online community can be an effective way to connect with current and potential customers. Entrepreneurs can generate recurring income through community memberships. Additionally, an online community can be used to monetize digital products.
There are various types of online communities, ranging in size from small, exclusive groups of a dozen members to large communities with hundreds of thousands of members. Check out this article for more information on the different types of online communities.
Online community building is the process of gathering people with shared interests and goals in a shared online space. It involves providing them with a safe environment for interaction and engagement.
Many people mistakenly use the terms “community” and “audience” interchangeably. However, they are not the same thing.
Allow me to clarify the difference between the two for you.
Even though the two might seem similar, there’s a difference between an audience and a community.
Image by OfficeParty
The simplest way to differentiate between the two:
While an audience is completely focused on one central figure (be it a person or a brand), a community focuses on the group as a whole.
In an online community, people contribute, engage, and build a network with other like-minded people. Thus developing a shared identity and a sense of belonging.
On the other hand, audience members are merely following what the central figure is doing.
Still, you’ll find an audience within almost every community. Why?
Let’s be real. There cannot be any community where all members contribute and participate to their fullest. In fact, there will be members who are just absorbing content and not engaging or contributing. However, it varies a lot.
Now that you know the difference between community and audience, let’s move on to the different types of online communities.
Online communities are centered around bringing people to a common ground, interest, or focused goal. The nature of that focal element further determines the type of online community.
Further, online communities differ in terms of structure, values, and management approaches. However, one cannot categorize an online community into one type. Today, online communities are flexible in terms of goals and nature.
For clarity, let me highlight the two most common types of online communities.
An online learning community is about people connecting on an online platform with shared learning goals. Members connect to take lessons, complete assessments, attend live sessions, and participate in peer-to-peer discussions.
An online learning community is run by one or more instructors with expertise in a particular niche. These experts design cohort-based courses, create learning resources, and assess student performance.
Online learning communities are quite effective when it comes to imparting knowledge and sharing ideas. In fact, 94% of online community members admit to having used an online community to learn about new topics.
Such online communities are more relevant to course creators, online coaches, corporate trainers, and online teachers. These experts can also incorporate certifications with online courses or training.
Online learning communities perform at their best when they are hosted on platforms dedicated to online learning. Such platforms come with features that correspond to the needs of an online learning community.
Let’s consider an example here. Consider GroupApp.
It’s an all-in-learning community platform. GroupApp provides experts with a robust course builder. Now, all an expert or instructor needs to do is upload content and embed media.
Further, the instructor can also create a course landing page and set pricing for the course. Not just that. The instructor can adjust access levels and durations according to different membership plans.
That’s everything an instructor needs when launching a course.
All of this wouldn’t be possible on platforms such as Slack or Discord.
An online brand community is centered around a particular brand or business.
It brings customers, stakeholders, and brand employees to a shared platform. This helps the brand to engage directly with its consumers and receive feedback. Plus, consumers can share their experiences with the products and ask questions.
The main aim is to foster brand awareness and instill brand loyalty. Moreover, the brand can share updates, answer questions, introduce new products, and announce upcoming discounts.
Once again, online brand communities require a platform. For such communities, one can go for basic platforms such as Slack or even Facebook groups. although I do not recommend that.
It’s better to opt for a community-building platform to create an exclusive place that is well-regulated and offers a smooth experience. You can also appoint dedicated community managers for moderation, management, and engagement.
An online brand community can work wonders for any business or brand. It establishes a strong and direct relationship with customers.
That way, consumers can share honest and constructive feedback for product improvement. In fact, 90% of professionals use direct feedback from brand communities to improve their products.
Moreover, 85% of marketers believe that a branded online community helps to establish brand credibility and improve customer journeys. Plus, an online brand community makes customers feel more valued.
Next, let’s talk about the benefits of online communities.
Having an online community gives you a solid edge over businesses or experts without an online community.
Let’s talk about the 8 benefits of having an online community.
This is the biggest benefit of having an online community. It establishes a direct connection between your business and your customers.
You can make the most out of this opportunity. No other marketing channel enables you to form this link.
You can receive real feedback from your customers, which is way better than getting feedback through other channels. In fact, 40% of organizations have seen better results with feedback collected through online communities.
Your customers can connect with your fellow customers. This helps in establishing a brand tribe.
When you directly connect with your customers, they feel valued. That ultimately creates a sense of belonging and affiliation for your customers because they know they are heard.
This is the best way to learn more about your customers. An online community can act as a focus group for your business and future product research. Moreover, you can find out their specific needs and behaviors by observing them interact with each other.
Sure, you could send out a survey for your audience to fill out, and I’m sure you’d get a lot of useful quantitative data.
However, observing unguided interactions between members of your community gives you insight into what they think while their guard is down.
One of the greatest things about having an engaged online community is that, after a while, you won’t be needing to reach out to influencers or ask people to recommend you – people will want to do it on their own.
Of course, in order to turn your community members into brand ambassadors, in addition to building a strong community, you need to give your customers some actual value. This won’t happen overnight. It will take time.
When you manage to do so, your community will become a powerful recruitment center for brand ambassadors.
Some will get their friends to join. Others will recommend you to their colleagues. Some will chip in to help in some way (writing a blog post or review, user testing, hosting or attending an event, etc.).
Community building provides your customers with a platform to discuss your brand online. It can turn the most passionate customers into brand ambassadors and encourage others to engage with your brand.
One of the most significant benefits of increased engagement is better customer retention. Your customers see your online community as another place where they can get assistance, either from your own customer support team or from other community members.
As I mentioned earlier, 66% of marketing professionals report that having an online community has a positive impact on customer retention.
Having an engaged online community can help drive customer retention. By providing a space for customers to discuss their interests with like-minded people, you can build interest and keep people invested in your brand.
Consider that it can cost up to 5x more to acquire a new customer than to retain an existing one. Increasing customer retention rates by just 5% can lead to a profit increase of 25% to 95%. Therefore, building an online community can greatly benefit your business.
Consequently, once you improve your retention rates, your churn will decrease.
With the added value that your online community brings to your products and services, you are likely to reduce churn, returns, and refund requests by actually helping people find success with what you have to offer.
As previously mentioned, creating an online community enables you to provide better and more timely customer support, leading to increased customer success.
The direct nature of communication within a community allows customers to reach out whenever they have an issue that needs addressing. You can quickly address their concerns or someone else from the community may take care of it for you.
Small things can make a big difference, and the ability for customers to easily reach out to you for information or advice can greatly increase their satisfaction.
This benefit only applies to those who use a dedicated community platform to host an exclusive community.
If you host your online community on social media platforms, such as Facebook or LinkedIn, your data and your members’ data are not safe. Such platforms withhold user and group data, which can result in the loss of precious user data and compromising the privacy of your customers.
In contrast, using a dedicated community platform for hosting an exclusive community means you exercise complete ownership over data. This allows for complete access to user insights, data, and analytics, securing your customers’ privacy and protecting their data.
Having an online community provides an additional channel for providing better customer support. In fact, according to BloggingX, 56% of organizations use online communities to provide customer support.
There are several benefits to having an online community. First, you can directly interact with customers and provide real-time feedback. Second, it makes your customers feel heard and assisted by a human being, not an emotionless chatbot.
Third, customers can find answers to questions and concerns from other customers. They can share experiences and solutions, eliminating the need to wait for support emails. This also leads to an engaged community and reduces the cost of providing customer support.
Now, it’s time to learn how to create your own online community.
Now, we have a pretty good understanding of online communities and why they are important. It’s time to get into action.
Below is a step-by-step roadmap for you to build a successful online community.
starting with the most important step.
Choosing the right community platform is a pivotal step that will directly impact your member experience and community performance. With plenty of options available, it’s important to be mindful of your choice.
While Reddit is a popular option, most forums are kept alive only by the most passionate forum members. LinkedIn Groups are not known for their engaging communities, and Patreon is more popular among individual creators than big brands.
Facebook Groups is a popular option, but it has several cons that need to be considered. Free options such as Facebook and Slack may seem like the best option, but they may not be sustainable in the long run. Alternatively, there are dedicated community membership platforms like GroupApp available in the market.
In this article, we will compare free options against dedicated community membership platforms.
There are numerous free platforms with community-like features that you can use to start your own community. Here are some of the most popular ones:
Free community platforms have their pros and cons. The most obvious benefit is that they’re free and already have an established base of loyal users.
However, you don’t have much control over free platforms since you don’t own them. Plus, your success and strategy are completely dependent on ever-changing algorithms. Finally, there is very limited scope for earning through free platforms.
Now, let’s discuss membership community platforms.
These platforms are specifically designed for hosting online communities. Did you know that 65% of Gen Z prefer apps/platforms that are community-focused? That means you have the opportunity to attract more members to your community.
Membership community platforms offer tighter control over your community. They allow you to go beyond the limitations of social networks and add extra functionalities that forums lack. Such platforms are designed to create a better overall experience for community members.
Furthermore, they let you charge your community members a monthly or yearly membership fee. This way, you can offer exclusive content to paying members of your community.
Community platforms offer advanced analytics tools that allow you to forecast growth with KPIs (Key Performance Indicators). Additionally, such platforms come with useful API integrations.
Given that Facebook has almost 2.5 billion monthly active users, it’s not surprising that Facebook Groups have been a valuable tool for community marketing for quite some time.
However, you may want to explore alternatives to Facebook Groups for your business. Here are some main reasons why you might consider using a Facebook Groups alternative for your online community-building efforts:
Visually, you want your community group to resemble the rest of your product/website branding.
With Facebook, this is hardly possible due to limited customization options – it only lets you change your group’s name and description, cover image, and type.
Due to the poor organic reach that Facebook provides, in order for people to naturally discover your community, you’ll probably need to spend money on paid ads.
Getting new members organically through good content and best-practice community management has become extremely difficult lately.
Managing a Facebook group has become a full-time occupation, and large companies often have entire teams dedicated to managing their online communities. This is largely due to the fact that Facebook gives admins only limited control.
For instance, if you are looking to offer subscription-based membership to your members, the closest thing you have is Facebook’s fan subscription option, for which you have to earn eligibility.
High-quality customer support and social media don’t go together. Fact.
Forget about the diversity of third-party integrations. Are you looking to integrate with Intercom, Mixpanel, or another third-party app that you use for your business? Sorry, it’s unlikely to happen if you’re building your community using Facebook Groups.
Study the platform options in light of the 7 points stated below.
A good idea would be to rate each out of 5.
Make sure to choose the one that scores well based on the seven points above.
Let’s take a step further and work on some foundational elements of a successful online community.
To take online community building seriously, you must first define your business goals. Behind every successful business community, there must be a healthy business that stands on solid ground.
If your business revolves around sustainability, your community should be shaped around that topic. Members will discuss sustainability issues, offer advice, and team up to act on a local level. They can also raise awareness not only in your online community but in their offline communities as well.
It is also a good idea to research what your competitors are doing and see how you can do it better. While it is always easier to find a unique angle when you do not compete against too many direct competitors, at least you will know what you are up against.
Finally, come up with your brand vision. Try to describe your business goals in one simple, compelling sentence. Depending on the platform you use to build your community, you can use this sentence as your group description or tagline.
Defining your target community members is the second vital element of your community launch framework.
Here are some of the top benefits of properly defining your ideal community members:
One of the safest ways to determine your audience is by combining adequate demographic and psychographic characteristics.
The former will show you who would engage with your brand while the latter will let you know why they would do so.
If you’re a major brand selling a product that finds its place in general everyday use, you might decide to target all of the demographic categories.
Let’s take Starbucks as an example. People of all ages, regardless of their marital status and education, drink coffee. This makes their potential range very broad.
On the other hand, if you’re selling beauty products for elderly women and don’t do international shipping, your demographics will look quite different.
Once you’ve identified your ideal community member persona, it’ll be much easier to build a community of like-minded individuals who will be passionate about exchanging their opinions about topics and products of interest.
This is where your online community will gain its proper online presence.
Let’s face it: your community isn’t going to explode in popularity on day one. Community building is a gradual process, much like growing a business, and it has to start small.
In fact, some of the most successful online communities began as small email lists, forum threads, or chat groups among friends. Building a community takes patience and often involves doing things that don’t scale right away, but the payoff is worth it in the long run.
Take Product Hunt, for example. Its founder, Ryan Hoover, started it as an email list where he and his friends shared cool products they had discovered. Soon, the idea took off, and a few hundred people joined the list after the first week.
After receiving a lot of positive feedback and seeing that the list had grown by word of mouth, Ryan saw this as validation for his idea for a community of new-tech enthusiasts. Thus, Product Hunt was launched, and the rest is history.
Do you see what Ryan did there? He started small, tested, got validation, and then found a way to scale his community.
Just like offline communities, online communities need at least some guidelines (you can even call them “rules” if you want to sound authoritative) in order to keep discussions flowing freely while preventing anarchy.
That being said, most online communities have some basic rules of behavior. Disrespecting these rules can result in warnings, suspensions, or even expulsion from the community.
The screenshot below shows the set of rules that members of The Content Marketing Lounge need to respect in order to maintain their membership and enjoy the value that’s shared in the group.
Right now, you may feel confident that you can take care of the entire community by yourself. However, trying to handle all the daily tasks alone will lead to burnout much quicker than you might expect, even if your community is relatively small. That’s why structuring a solid team is an essential part of online community building, as they can assist you in running the community.
Once you have a community team in place, you can delegate most of the daily activities to them, such as replying to comments, posting content on social media, sending out emails, and taking phone calls.
If you’re just starting out, chances are you can’t afford to have a community team. In that case, you have two options: make your community so engaging that people will voluntarily contribute and take part in taking care of the community, or find a way to automate as much as possible until you grow.
In an ideal case, here are some of the key stakeholders your community should have:
Don’t worry if you don’t have all of these things. Many successful communities thrive without at least half of them. If you’re starting out small, this can even be a step after launching the community and seeing it start to grow.
Now that you have all the basics set up, it’s time to launch your community. Don’t worry if you haven’t figured it all out yet; you simply have to start somewhere.
Your community should be ready to launch at this point. You might consider pre-populating it with a few quality pieces of content to spark discussion. Ideally, you’d use some of your existing material for this, maybe just repurposing it slightly.
It’s also time to invite your first members to join your community. Start with your colleagues or other people from your network whom you’re certain fit your target audience. These individuals are the best ones to give you valuable feedback and report issues before your community goes live for the broader public.
This is just the beginning. After completing the first phase of online community building, the next steps will ensure that your audience becomes actively engaged and continues to grow at a steady pace.
Regardless of the reason people joined your community in the first place — whether it’s out of curiosity, because they know you personally, have used some of your products or services, or just as a response to an invitation from a friend — there’s only one thing that will keep them there and actively participating: the value that’s being shared within the community.
Therefore, you need to make sure you provide them with what they expect.
Producing and sharing quality content is one of the essential ways of delivering value in any mass online interaction.
Your customers expect top-notch content from you. Make sure to deliver it, or else they might lose interest.
In addition to providing value, you must show people they are valued members of your online community. Here are some ways to show your appreciation:
As already mentioned, your community is partially going to serve as a customer support center of sorts. Other than getting relevant and up-to-date information from you, your customers will also need practical help with issues or challenges they might be facing (that are related to your business and products).
The great thing about an online community is that you can quickly spot patterns in challenges your customers are facing and can come up with a major change in the way your business operates that could prevent those instances from occurring, rather than simply solving each individual issue and hoping it won’t happen ever again.
Also, you should let the community work for you. Often, when someone posts about a problem or issue they’re having, other community members will chip in and try to help (if the issue isn’t too technical and doesn’t require intervention from pros).
Customer engagement is a vital part of long-term online community building and nurturing. One of the best ways to engage your community is simply to give them something to react to. Here are some tips on how you can drive customer engagement within your community:
While those were some of the most effective tried and tested ways to increase participation within your online community, we have prepared a set of audience engagement tips and community engagement strategies to engage your community to the max.
Now that you’ve successfully set up your community and done everything in your power to encourage engagement among your community members, you should already see your community growing naturally.
But as you surely want to boost that growth, it’s time for the next phase of online community building – promoting your community.
There are many promotion channels you can utilize, and we’ll explore some of the most effective ones here.
Your first community members will likely be your colleagues, business associates, friends, and other professionals in your network. However, if they were not your first members, make sure to invite them, as they can provide a lot of value if they feel a personal connection with you.
Studies have shown that 84% of people trust recommendations from people they know. This is the main secret behind the success of many referral programs.
Airbnb is one of the famous brands that actively uses referral programs. They give money to users who refer their friends and get them to sign up for the platform and start using it.
Referrals are an excellent way for community members to spread the word about being a part of a great community of like-minded people. This type of word-of-mouth marketing can be incredibly effective for your organization. In return, you can offer some form of reward to those who refer others to your community. This reward doesn’t necessarily have to be monetary, and can include items such as swag, event tickets, early access to new features, discounts, and more.
A community newsletter is a report that details recent or important activities of a business or organization. It is regularly delivered to members of the community, most often via email. By frequently updating your community on current and future events, you’re more likely to keep them engaged.
Here’s an excerpt from one of Animalz’s amazing newsletters:
And here are some tips to help you create the perfect community newsletter.
If your community isn’t already built on social media, it can be a great way to promote it and get more members. Of course, even if it is, you can always do cross-platform promotion or get the members of your community to share community news on their private profiles. You can also run paid social media ads.
Have you already conducted research to identify your ideal community members? If so, it’s time to reach out to those who are not yet part of your community and showcase its amazing benefits. If they see the value in it, they will likely join.
Customer success is a vital business methodology that aims to ensure customers achieve their desired results from using a product or service.
It’s closely related to the concept of customer lifetime value, which evaluates how much a particular customer has contributed financially to your business during their engagement with your company.
In ideal circumstances, your community would have a dedicated person taking care of your customer satisfaction – a customer success manager. This person will cooperate with your sales and marketing teams and overlook the entire process of customer support – whatever it takes to keep your community happy.
When talking about measuring customer success, one of the easiest ways to do so is by running a Net Promoter Score (NPS) survey.
It is the most widely used metric for measuring customer satisfaction and loyalty. It shows how likely your customers are to recommend your business to other people and can be a strong indicator of future business growth.
What was the main reason behind your online community-building efforts?
If we’re being honest, in many cases it’s the monetization opportunities that come with having an engaged online community. However, it’s important to be careful not to push too hard and risk disrupting the harmonious relations within the community. Overselling your products and services every single day might not be the best strategy.
Instead, consider monetizing your community by charging for memberships. Think about it: the only thing your community members want is to be a part of your community. If you’re doing things right and your community members are indeed getting a lot of value, they’d be willing to pay a monthly fee.
To do this, ensure that your community is built on a membership community platform. These platforms allow you to create private online communities that hold exclusive content. To access the content, community members either have to pay or be granted access by the community manager.
This will create a sense of exclusivity around your community, but at the same time, you’ll be sure that people in your community really want to be there. Which, in turn, probably means that they’ll really want your products or services.
Finally, I have a few real-life online community examples for you.
Have a look.
With 2.8M members and 287,000 daily visits, SAP Community is one of the most active online community examples out there. Community members include huge corporations like Disney and Bose and many small and medium-sized businesses.
The PlayStation Network Community is a place for passionate gamers to connect and find players who share similar interests for the next gaming session or just a friendly chat.
Ever since the 80s, Harley-Davidson has been unstoppably growing a strong brand community revolving around what represents more than love for bikes, something like a way of life. HOG was created as a way for brand enthusiasts to connect and engage online and today it has more than 1 million active members.
Lego Ideas is a creative online community that gathers around Lego enthusiasts from all over the world. Here, the famous toy set lovers can find and suggest ideas for new designs but they can also interact among themselves in numerous different ways.
There’s even a contest element added to the community, where any design that gets at least 10,000 votes will be considered by Lego to be turned into an official set, while the creator would get a percentage of the sales.
Ahrefs, one of the best competitor, traffic, and keyword research tools out there has its own private AHREFS community. In this community, users can talk about their experience with the Ahrefs tools, get support from the Ahrefs team, or share their success stories.
I hope the online community examples above have inspired you while the information shared above has equipped you with knowledge and skills for starting and growing your own community.
Keep in mind that online community building is a process that takes time and effort. But, it will eventually be worth it. In fact, it’s hard to imagine running a successful business nowadays without an engaged customer base to back it up.
To begin building your own community, sign up for GroupApp, an online learning community platform designed for knowledge creators who want to build a thriving and engaged community around their business.