Are you planning to start a community for your business? Fantastic!
An active community helps businesses build rapport with their customers and is a gold mine for customer feedback. More importantly, if you get it right, your community can establish your business as an expert in the market.
But hold on. Let me tell you something important before you get hopped up on your genius idea. It’s hard work. Those “Creating a Thriving Community in 30 days” guides are a lie. You should be aware of the fact that your community won’t become as vocal as Reddit or as engaging as Moz’s overnight. Before you set out, you have to make sure that you do a lot of planning and groundwork.
Whether a community is your end goal, or another channel to reach out to customers, nurturing it during the initial days will be critical to its success. In other words, your community will fail if it doesn’t reach its “critical mass”.
What is the critical mass?
How many times has a random Google search taken you to a desolate forum where the most recent post was made a year ago? These forums are dead because they never reached their critical mass (or reached but didn’t retain it). Critical mass is the number of members necessary to actively participate in a community at any given time to keep it alive.
To achieve that you’ll first have to solve the chicken and egg problem.
The chicken and egg problem is when a community neither has enough discussions to attract participants nor enough active participants to fuel discussions.
There is no one way to solve the problem that suits everybody. Online communities that are thriving now have used various methods to solve this. Some clever, some unconventional and some downright controversial. Here are a handful:
1. Tap in the community interest
As a business, your customers are the first people you’ll turn to for your seed content. But you can’t make them care about your brand new community. Instead, find out what they like to talk about (founders love talking about their “eureka!” moment, developers love talking about the latest hacks…you get the picture) and prod them into talking about their stories in your community.
For example, most people who read books love recommending them to others and Amazon uses this to its community’s advantage. Every time I rate a book, I get an email from Amazon asking me to recommend something to others who liked the same book. This way, I get the satisfaction of sharing my opinion and the Amazon community has endless suggestions what their users should be reading next.
The great thing about this idea is that it can be used to realign your existing community. That way, your community doesn’t end up being just about reporting bugs and requesting new features.
2. Get the champions to contribute first
To drive interest for your community, throw something on the wall that you know will stick.
Instead of boring all your customers with emails (and earning a handful of unsubscriptions), pick out influencers and sell them on the value of participating in your community. Influencers bring with them a lot of opinions and aren’t afraid to polarize people, therefore, triggering serious discussions. Getting them to participate first will bring you a lot of credibility and participants, as their loyalists and fans will follow them to your community. It will also give other influencers a reason to participate.
For example, the presence of author interviews is a big incentive for readers to join Goodreads. And the fact that people like Jimmy Wales or Mark Zuckerberg jump in and answer questions played a big role in the growth of Quora.
Of course, to do this, you must be the kind of person who has a lot of “friends”.
3. Take advantage of organic traffic by optimizing for the long-tail
If you are looking to build a community that solves people’s problems, the easiest way for you to get them their answers is SEO. Get your hands on webmaster tools and find out the keywords people in your business search for; preferably those endless long-tail keywords. This will help you understand their pain points and you can start discussions in your community about the keywords and lead them to a solution.
Every discussion will eventually open your community to a tiny stream of members coming in through organic search. It’s a slow and sure way of building your community. And the best part is, your community would probably become their go-to place for help the next time they have a question.
There are endless examples of communities growing because of long-tail SEO. Stack Exchange was born ready thanks to the readers of Joel Spolsky and Jeff Atwood, but personally, I knew that english.stackexchange.com existed only when I googled “dreamt or dreamed”. Freshdesk’s community is an important support channel because our customers can find us easily through Google.
So, if your community can’t be where the cool kids hang out, fret not, it can be the nerd table with all the answers.
4. When all else fails, fake profiles remain
Tonnes of initial content in Reddit were submitted by its founders Alexis Ohanian and Steve Huffman. To make the community look active, they used fake profiles to submit links. The important point to note here is that these fake profiles could have taken them down if their content was bad. Or worse, boring.
When you create a community, you have this vision of the kind of discussions your community will nurture. If you don’t have a lot of contacts (or money to spend), don’t hesitate to roll up your sleeves and create those discussions yourself. There’s nothing embarrassing about faking profiles, as long as you can keep up the content quality. What’s embarrassing is an empty community.
Once you achieve critical mass and your community starts functioning actively without too much help, you can start focussing on retaining members through meetups, goodies, and gamification. But more on that later.
This is my two cents on solving your community’s chicken and egg problem. If you think I missed out an interesting idea, or if you have hands-on experience with something that worked well, please let me know in the comments section.
Here are some resources to help you build an awesome community: