Online Community Building: How to Set Up and Manage an Engaged Customer Base

How often do you see companies screaming their sales pitch at you out of nowhere?

No previous conversation. No context. No engagement. No value is given.

And how often do you buy from such brands? My guess would be not so often.

Other than looking spammy (and scammy), such brands make it hard to connect with on a human level.

In an era of automation, machine learning, and chatbots that pop out of everywhere asking how they can help you today, it’s easy to lose the human touch in your community marketing efforts.

That’s why the most successful brands do everything in their power to show their customers they really care about them. They listen to their concerns. They want to find out more about their needs, interests, and behaviors. They engage with their customer base.

To put it in other terms, they foster community. A community of inspired, engaged, and loyal customers. The most successful brands such as Lego, Sony, and Sephora have recognized the real value of online community building and have had enormous success with their Lego Ideas, Playstation Community and Beauty Talk online communities.

They all know how to build an online community.

In this post, I aim to teach you how to do so too. As building an online community is just the first step, I’ll also try to show you how you can better organize, manage, and engage your community.

Let’s dig in.

What is community building?

Actually, before we start talking about community building, let’s first define an online community.

In the simplest of terms, an online community is a group of people who interact among themselves on some kind of an online platform. In most cases, they are gathered around a shared or similar interest.

But if you scratch a bit under the surface and take a look at online communities from the perspective of a business-oriented mind, an online community is an amazing way to find new business opportunities, reach out to new potential customers and easily connect with like-minded people.

There are many different types of online communities and they can vary in size from closed super-exclusive groups with just a dozen members to huge online communities consisting of hundreds of thousands of members.

That being said, community building is the process of gathering people with common interests, ideas, experiences, passions, needs, problems, business goals, etc. and providing them with a place where they can interact among themselves or where they can be engaged with.

People often confuse the terms “community” and “audience” and use them interchangeably. But they shouldn’t.

Audience vs. community

Even though the two might seem similar, there’s a difference between audience and community.

The simplest way to differentiate between the two:

  • Audience: one-to-many relationship
  • Community: many-to-many relationship

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.

The main difference is that in a community people are contributing, engaging, and building a network of relationships among each other (thus developing a shared identity and a sense of belonging), while the members of an audience are merely following what the central figure is doing.

Still, you’ll find an audience within almost every community.

In fact, there’s a 90-9-1 rule of participation inequality which says that in online communities and on social media, 1% of members actively create content, 9% engage in a meaningful interaction with that content, while 90% are passive consumers (the so-called lurkers).

(This doesn’t have to be the case, though. Keep on reading to learn how to better engage your community.)

Let’s take The Startup publication as an example of the distinction. It’s one of Medium’s largest active publications, followed by impressive 613K+ people.

Even though they will invite you to “join their community”, the very fact that there’s a “Follow” button next to it, doesn’t make you feel like an active participant of a community but rather like a passive consumer of the content being published, right?

Now that you know the difference between community and audience, let’s move on to the essentials of online community building aka. why should you, as a business owner, care about it in the first place?

Benefits of online communities for businesses

First and foremost, from a business perspective, an online community is a place where your customers network and build relationships both with each other and with your brand. This can be significant to your business for many reasons so here are some of the top benefits of community building:

1. Adding value for your customers

Your community should be a valuable resource for your customers. In order to keep them coming back and get them to actively engage in community activities, you need to make sure they’re actually getting some value from it.

To achieve that, your customers need to see your community as a place where they can quickly get answers, find the information they need, share ideas with other members of the community and get meaningful feedback, or simply share their interests and enjoy fruitful discussions with like-minded people.

2. Focus group for your business

As creepy as this might sound, the best way to learn more about your customers and their specific needs and behaviors is 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, but being able to observe unguided interactions between members of your community gives you insight into what they really think while their guard is down.

3. Recruitment center for your brand ambassadors

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 simply 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 (go back and read benefit no. 1 again).

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.).

4. Driving retention

Community building provides your customers with a place to talk about your brand online. While it can turn the most passionate among them into brand ambassadors, it also encourages others to engage with your brand.

One of the most important benefits of increased engagement is better customer retention. How come? Well, they see your online community as another place where they can get assistance, be it from your own customer support or from other community members.

Another reason why having an engaged online community will help you drive retention is that now your customers have a place where they can discuss what they do or love with other like-minded people. This helps build interest and keeps people invested in your brand.

Given that it can cost up to 5x more to acquire a new customer than to keep a current one while increasing customer retention rates by only 5% can lead to a profit increase of 25% to 95%, it becomes clear how much your business could benefit from building an online community.

5. Reducing churn

Consequently, once you improve your retention rates, your churn will drop.

With the added value that your online community brings to your products and services, you are bound to reduce churn or returns and refund requests by actually helping people find success with what you have to offer.

6. Improving customer success

As already said, building an online community allows you to provide better and more timely customer support, which in turn leads to an increase in customer success.

The more direct nature of communication within a community lets customers reach out whenever they have some issue that needs addressing. And you can act quickly to resolve their issues in a timely manner. Or someone else from the community might kick in and do it for you.

Customer support is an essential part of customer experience and having a community can be your biggest leverage. Often it’s the small things that matter and the fact that customers can be in constant touch with you, whenever they need some information or advice can go a long way in terms of customer satisfaction.

Now that you know why online community building matters, let’s see how you can do it!

How to build a community online

Ok, a couple of technical things before we start. What is the first step in community organizing and building? Well, you need to choose an adequate community platform.

Choose the right community platform

As already mentioned, communities come in many different types and forms.

There are communities for marketing, education, entertainment, activism, etc. and they can be built on a variety of platforms, including forums, social networks, chat groups, and dedicated platforms.

Aside from the relentless Reddit, most forums are kept alive only by the most passionate forum enthusiasts. LinkedIn Groups have never been famous for hosting the most engaging communities. Patreon is popular among individual creators, not so much with big brands.

With all its pros and cons, Facebook Groups is still one of the most popular community platforms. But there are also new kids on the block, membership community platforms like GroupApp that threaten to disrupt the process of online community building.

That being said, another distinction can be made between free and membership-based community platforms.

Free vs. membership community platforms

There are numerous apparently free platforms with community-like features that you can use to start your own community. Here are some of the most popular ones:

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • LinkedIn
  • YouTube
  • Quora
  • Discourse
  • Slack

These free (or free to start) platforms have their pros and cons. The most obvious pros are that they’re free and that they already have an established base of loyal users.

 

There’s one most obvious major con, however. It’s the fact that you don’t really “own” your community and the opportunities to monetize it are fairly limited.

Membership community platforms, on the other hand, give you tighter control over your community. They let you go beyond the limitations of social networks and they add extra functionalities forums lack, in order to create a better overall experience for the members of your community.

They also let you charge your community members a monthly or yearly membership. This way, you can offer exclusive content to the paying members of your community.

Why look for alternatives to Facebook Groups

Given the fact that Facebook boasts with almost 2.5 billion monthly active users, it’s no wonder that Facebook Groups have been considered a valuable tool for community marketing for quite a while now.

But is this really the best choice for your business or should you be exploring Facebook Groups alternatives?

Here are some of the main reasons why you might consider using a Facebook Groups app alternative for your online community building efforts:

  • Limited customizability. 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.
  • Minimal organic reach. 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.
  • Limited control over member activity. 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.
  • Fewer monetization options. 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.
  • Poor customer support options. High-quality customer support and social media simply don’t go together. Fact.
  • Forget about the diversity of 3rd-party integrations. Looking to integrate with Intercom, Mixpanel, or another third-party app you use for your business? Sorry, it’s unlikely to happen if you’re building your community using Facebook Groups.

Develop a community launch framework

Define your business goals and brand vision

If you really want to take online community building seriously, the first thing you need to do is define your business goals. Behind every successful business community, there has to be a healthy business that stands on solid ground.

So, if your business revolves around sustainability, your community has to be shaped around that topic. People will discuss sustainability issues, give their opinion, offer advice, team up to act on a local level, raise awareness not only in your online community but in their offline communities as well.

It’s also a good idea to research what your competitors are doing and how you can do it better. Of course, it’s always easier to find a unique angle when you don’t compete against too many other direct competitors but at least you’ll know what you’re up against.

Finally, you should come up with your brand vision. Simply 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.

Decide on who your core community members are

The second vital element of your community launch framework is defining your target community audience. This is one of the most difficult but also one of the vital steps in online community building.

Here are some of the top benefits of properly defining your ideal community members:

  • Make sure you’re offering the right product or service to the right people
  • Know how to tailor your marketing efforts
  • Increase your brand awareness and sales as a result of the right brand-customer match

One of the safest ways to determine your audience is by combining adequate demographic (age, gender, location, ethnicity, education, income, marital status, etc.) and psychographic characteristics (personality traits, attitudes and habits, social standards and moral values, interests and hobbies, lifestyle, and so on).

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 for example, 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 to exchange their opinions about topics and products of interest.

Setting up your community

Start small and build up from there

Let’s face it – your community isn’t going to go huge day one. Community building is in many ways like growing a business, a gradual process that takes time and has to start somewhat small.

After all, some of the most successful online communities have started as small email lists, forum threads, chat groups for friends, and so on. It’s a process that takes patience and often doing things that don’t scale right away, but in the long run, it certainly pays off.

Let’s take Product Hunt as an example. Its founder Ryan Hoover started it as an email list where he and his friends shared cool products they’ve 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 has grown by word of mouth, Ryan saw this as the much-needed validation for his idea for a community of new-tech enthusiasts – hence, 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.

Set guidelines

Just like “offline” communities, online communities need at least some set of guidelines (you can even call them “rules” if you want to sound bossy) in order to keep the free discussion flowing but prevent the state of anarchy.

That being said, most online communities have some basic rules of behavior. Disrespecting those can get you warned, suspended, or kicked out of the community.

The screenshot below shows a set of rules the members of The Content Marketing Lounge need to respect in order to keep their membership and enjoy the value that’s being shared in the group.

Identify key stakeholders

I know, right now you might feel very confident that you can take care of the entire community by yourself. But the hard truth is that if you try handling all the daily tasks you will suffer from burnout quicker than you expect. Even if your community is a relatively small one.

That’s why one of the essential parts of online community building is structuring a solid team that will 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, taking phone calls, and more.

Ok, 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 would voluntarily like to 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:

  • Community manager
  • Customer success manager
  • Marketing department/person
  • Product management (if you’re selling products)
  • Upper management (operations manager, CMO… maybe you?)

But don’t worry, many successful communities are known to thrive without at least half of those. In case you’re starting out very small, this can even be one of the steps for after you launch the community and see it start growing.

Launch your community

Ok, now that you have all the basics set up, it’s time to launch your community. Don’t worry if you don’t have it all figured out yet, you simply have to start somewhere.

At this point, your community should be ready to be launched. You might decide to pre-populate your community with a few quality pieces of content to spark discussion. Ideally, you’d use some of your existing material for this, maybe just slightly repurposing it.

It’s also time to populate your community with its first members. Those should be your colleagues or other people from your network for whom you’re certain that they fit in your target audience. They are also the best people to give you valuable feedback and report issues before your community goes live for the broader public.

At this point, your community could look something like this:

But this is just the beginning. After completing the first phase of online community building, the next steps will make sure your audience becomes actively engaged and continues to grow at a steady pace.

Deliver value

Whatever the reason people joined your community in the first place – be it curiosity, the fact that they know you personally or have used some of your products or services, or just as a response to one of their friends’ invite – there’s only one thing that will make them stay and actively participate. Some sort of value that’s being shared within the community.

That being said, you need to make sure you give them what they expect.

Produce quality content

Producing and sharing quality content is one of the essential ways of delivering value in any kind of mass online interaction. Your customers expect top-class content from you. Make sure to deliver it or else they might lose interest.

In addition to providing value, you need to show people that they are valued members of your online community. Here are some ways to show your appreciation:

  • Ask relevant questions (using polls, surveys, etc.). It’s important to get to know your customers. It’s equally important not to overwhelm them with too many irrelevant questions.
  • Don’t bombard them with too much content. You need to give your community some breathing space. If you publish a new post every couple of hours, your community will not have enough time to absorb it properly and they’ll eventually stop paying attention to your posts.
  • Back the information with facts. Make sure your content is fact-driven. Don’t post assumptions (presented as facts) and make sure to double-check the integrity of the information you share.

Solve a problem

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 (and that are related to your business and products).

The great thing about an online community is the fact 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).

Encourage customer engagement

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:

  • Invite a volunteer. Get one of your community members to participate and others might follow. Invite guests to comment, write a post, or take part in a live stream. Even better, you can turn your “volunteer” into a lucky winner by creating a contest where you pick one person from the comments section.
  • Share success stories. Everybody loves a good success story. For example, if you sell an online course to your community, you can ask your students how they benefited from your courses and then share their achievements with the rest of the community.
  • Team up with niche leaders and influencers. If you can get an influencer from your niche to join your community, appear in your vlog or podcast, or do a live Q&A session for the members of your community, this will surely boost your engagement and probably help grow your community even further.
  • Use polls and quizzes. Their use can be twofold – you can use them to engage with your audience and get them to interact with you, but you can also run a quick poll on the most popular topics to find out what it is exactly that your audience wants to see from your community and make sure you meet their expectations.
  • Organize webinars. Choose a topic of interest to your audience, explore it in detail, and plan a webinar where you will share the latest industry standards and updates, as well as tips they can implement into their own work. Try to get them involved as much as possible by giving them an opportunity to ask questions or provide feedback.
  • Contests and giveaways. Everybody loves giveaways. People generally like free stuff even if they don’t really need it. That’s why contests and giveaways are a great way to boost your brand awareness. And the best thing is that you don’t need to give away expensive gifts, often even a small token of appreciation can make the difference.

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.

How to grow and promote your community

Now that you’ve successfully set up your community and did 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.

Personal network

Those will probably be the first members of your community – your colleagues, business associates, friends, and other members of your professional network. But in case they weren’t your first community members, make sure to invite them as they can drive a lot of value given that they feel that personal connection with you.

A referral program

Studies have shown that 84% of people will trust a recommendation made by someone they know. As simple as it may sound, this is the main secret behind the success of so many referral programs.

Airbnb is one of the famous brands that actively take advantage of referral programs. They are literally giving away money to their users who get their friends to sign up for the platform and start using it.

Referrals are a great way for community members to brag about being a part of a great society of like-minded people while doing some great word of mouth marketing on your behalf. In return, you will be giving them some (not necessarily monetary) reward. It can be swag, event tickets, early access to new features, discounts, and more.

Newsletters

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.

Social media

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.

There’s also the option of paid social media ads you can run.

Influencers

As mentioned above, influencers and niche leaders can give you a significant push in terms of online community building and growing. Getting mentioned at one of their podcast appearances, webinars or seminars, shared in an Instagram story or receiving a shout out on Twitter can be a great way for wider audiences to hear about your community. Especially if their target audience matches yours.

Targeted outreach

You already did research to find out who your ideal community members are, didn’t you? Now it’s time to reach out to those who are not in your community yet and show off its amazing benefits. If there’s value in it for them – they will join.

How to measure customer success within your community

Customer success is a vital business methodology with the goal to make sure customers have achieved 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.

How to monetize your community

What was the main reason behind all your online community building efforts? Whether you’re willing to admit it or not, in many cases it’s the monetization opportunities that stem from having an engaged online community.

Still, you have to be careful not to push it too hard or you risk disrupting the harmonious relations within the community. Overselling your products and services every single day might not be the best strategy.

What you could do instead is monetize your community by charging for memberships. Think about it. The only thing your community members want is to be a part of your community. And if you’re doing things right and your community members are indeed getting a lot of value from your community, they’d want it so badly that they will be willing to pay a monthly fee to do so.

The first thing you need to ensure is that your community is built on one of the membership community platforms because they allow you to create private online communities that hold exclusive content. To access the content, you either have to pay or simply need to 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.

5 online community examples to get you inspired

1. The SAP Community Network (SCN)

With 2.8M SAP community users and 287,000 daily visits, SAP is one of the most active online community examples out there. Community members include both huge corporations like Disney and Bose and a great deal of small and medium-sized businesses.

2. The Playstation Community (Sony)

The Playstation 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.

3. Harley Owners Group (Harley-Davidson)

Ever since the 80s, Harley-Davidson have 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.

4. Lego Ideas Community

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.

5. Ahrefs Insider Community

Ahrefs, one of the best competitor, traffic, and keyword research tools out there has its own private community where users can share their experiences, get support from the Ahrefs team, or brag with their success stories.

The bottom line

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 one that 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 start building your own community now, apply for early access to GroupApp, a Customer Community & Membership Platform that helps improve your customer engagement and provide community-driven support.