The Basic Elements of Building an Online Community

An active online community is one of the most potent assets that a brand can have. A community is not just a customer base; it is an engaged audience. A community is self-sufficient and able to provide support to each other and the brand. It will recruit friends, gather for events, and actively participate in campaigns hosted by the brand—their reason for being together!

There are many ways to turn your audience into a community, but it all starts with having the right structure. First, you need to decide the type of community you’d like to build and what would work best for your audience, the platform(s), and choose your methods for nurturing your community’s growth once it begins. 

3 Types of Online Community

The first step is to choose the type of online community you want to build. This will depend on the needs of your nonprofit or association. Some audiences will prefer to form a large support network. Some will want to connect with others who share specific interests and priorities, through which your cause can join them. Yet others would prefer to form smaller, more intimate groups connected by an overall shared community. Within your current web infrastructure, this can inform the type of online community you choose to build.

Public Online Community

Public online communities are open to everyone. Like an open Facebook group or a hashtag movement on Twitter, a public online community’s goal is to grow as large and inclusive as possible. Those who share an interest in your cause, mission, or profession can come together under one banner to share ideas and events. A public online community is the best place to start unless you know that your audience specifically would prefer something more exclusive or willing to join something private.

Private Online Community

A private online community requires more than just access to a website to join and contribute. To become a community member, a person may need to make an account and build a profile. The gates aren’t shut, but there is more of an opt-in vibe, and it takes effort.

A private community on a public site, like Facebook or LinkedIn Groups, may be a good place for causes to bring together their beneficiaries. For example, a private group may be a good place for cancer patients or people who receive the services of a nonprofit so that they can talk openly but privately about their needs.

A private community on your nonprofit website will take considerable effort to build on your behalf because you will have to start from scratch by creating the function and “place” for your community to convene. Whether that is a plug-in or a custom-coded platform, this will require resources.

Qualified Online Community

In some situations, it may be best for you to build a qualified online community. This might be a good option for an association of professionals that share a specific practice in common. This community will ensure everyone has the credentials to be there and allow the members to share honestly and openly their challenges and their expertise. A private community setting offers a protected and less disrupted engagement.

This type of community will require that a person proves their involvement in the industry before joining the community, which may be an easy benefit to include with your association membership. While this type of gate-keeping may seem counter-productive for building a large audience since it’s limiting, it is essential for creating an exclusive community.

The Community Platform(s)

The next step is to choose a platform on which to host your community. Most online brands choose more than one platform, including at least one community environment and one through social profiles.

Social Media Feeds and Groups

Always start with social media when building a community. Social media is where people connect casually to share, gather information, and comment. Your social media profiles can become a public anchor for your community to build awareness and to share fun branded content.

On-Site Forums

A Q&A forum built into your website is the perfect place for your community to share a space that is both public and private. Your forum can host an infinite number of discussions ranging from question-answer topics to deep industry contemplations between community thinkers. In addition, your forum can host event planning, contests, feedback, and surveys in addition to constant online discussions.

Chat Rooms and Live Streams

Live streaming was already on the rise before the recent pandemic. Many people have found that it’s easier to work remotely with a live conversation or chatroom open to keep them company with the lockdown. Make your community a place where people chat, stay in touch, and host live events and online venues where community members can gather to talk.

Article Comment Sections

If you have a blog, open the comments section. While comments often go unused, there are methods to encourage an already lively community to read and comment regularly. Some communities form naturally in populated comment sections, with a bit of seeding from regular commenters and the growing urge to join an exciting conversation. Write conversation-inspiring articles, and your comments are even more likely to come alive.

Cross-Site Presence

Many communities build a presence across multiple websites and platforms. You might have a Facebook group, a Twitter account, and an Instagram feed as one of the most common examples. But you might also have an open Zoom room, Slack channel, or even create a presence inside larger communities like industry advice forums.

Which online community is right for you?

The decision between choosing a public, private, or qualified online community should not be taken lightly. Any ounce of effort curating a community is an investment in the long game, so don’t get halfway and learn that it isn’t right for you; you risk upsetting your community! Here are the pros and cons of a private community on an owned platform versus a private community on a public platform like Facebook and LinkedIn. These are the two most popular ways to build a community today, and there are distinct benefits and drawbacks for both.

Cultivating an Online Community

Once you have put together the essential elements of your online community, it’s time to nurture growth. Encourage your audience to get invested in both the brand and build the network that forms a real community.

Promote Forum Activity

Encourage your audience to transition from social media engagement to forum engagement. This takes things out of the public eye and opens the door to much more in-depth and long-term discussions.

Answer Questions Promptly

When a question is asked on any platform, make a habit of answering quickly and in a casual, friendly tone. This creates an environment of friendly question-answering. Become a brand where questions are responded to instead of one known for crickets.

Reward and Thank Users Who Help Others

When your community members step up to answer questions or provide help, thank them. Then, give their efforts a branded endorsement and encourage others to do the same. That is where community comes from—when members engage with each other and not just with the brand.

Respond to Suggestions with Improvements

When a community member makes a suggestion or a request, listen. Consider how these ideas could be incorporated and learn from what they say. If there is a chorus agreeing with a suggestion, this is something your members or donors care about more than you realized.

Deputize Steadfast Community Members

Those who step up as leaders in an online community deserve to be rewarded. Don’t just thank them, invite them to become moderators and approved community leaders to solidify their roles.

Create Volunteer and Career Opportunities

Finally, consider offering opportunities for your community members to become a part of the team. Offer internships, volunteer positions (like being a brand ambassador), and let your community know when roles are available. Those who are enthusiastic about your cause may become excellent contributing members in a more official capacity.

Learn More About Community Building

Sara Wilson started a podcast called Digital Campfires, a fresh take on community development. She interviewed people involved with Pinterest, Reddit, and Food52, to name a few. And this article features Bailey Richardson, who started at Instagram and now runs an agency focused solely on helping brands create authentic communities.