I recently looked at switching to a new workplace productivity tool, and I wanted to know how other digital marketing professionals logged project hours in the software. So, I turned to a Facebook support group for new users. Within a few hours, multiple people within my industry had answered my question.
That’s the power of an online community.
Research shows that 76% of internet users are part of at least one online community. Like the brand behind my productivity tool, you can leverage these groups to help customers answer questions and connect with each other.
However, you have to do it right.
That’s what this article is all about. We’ll cover eight best practices for online community building, plus three examples of excellent groups to inspire you.
Why you should build an online community
Let’s start with the “what” and the “why.” Online communities are groups of people who meet in a designated virtual space to discuss a shared interest, challenge, or goal.
Starting an online community can help you:
- Increase brand awareness among new leads
- Seek feedback from loyal customers on product changes, new products, or brand decisions
- Increase revenue by retaining customers and attracting new leads (the average Return-On-Investment for advanced online communities is 7,071%)
- Expand your reach online
- Cultivate brand ambassadors
- Establish yourself as an industry leader people can turn to for high-quality, educational information
Additionally, online communities have strong customer service benefits. Group members can ease customer service agents’ workloads by answering questions, fixing issues, or providing advice.
Member-to-member discussions are also more effective for new customers, as they are more of a referral than a customer service response. For example, research shows that 92% of people trust recommendations from peers, compared to 37% for search engine ads and 24% for banner ads.
Best practices for strong communities
Cultivating an online community for your brand is smart, but it’s not always easy. There are many problems you need to face — fights within the group, trolls, bad actors, and the struggle of keeping the group “alive.”
Here are eight best practices to help you handle these and master your community:
1. Set clear rules
Though setting rules and boundaries may feel creatively limiting, it’s vital to the long-term success of your online community. Rules help foster a welcoming and supportive environment free from bad actors.
Here are some standard rules you can use in your community:
- No bigotry
- No self-promotion
- Provide an archive.org or outline.com link to all news articles behind a paywall
- Be civil to other members
- No spam
- No illegal material or encouraging of illegal acts
- No copyrighted material
- Mark sensitive content with an NSFW (Not Safe For Work) tag
- Tag upsetting content
Give clear examples of unacceptable conduct when writing rules. For example, here’s how the community managers of r/CrappyDesign elaborated on the rule “titles should describe and represent the content:”
Additionally, recruit a diverse team to run your group. Diversity is vital because people bring unique experiences to the table that can help you make better decisions. For proof of this, look at research from People Management UK. The organization’s study of 200 teams showed that diverse teams made better decisions than individuals 87% of the time.
2. Have transparent moderation processes
Have you ever been part of a group that fell apart because of a bad community manager? It’s not uncommon, as moderation can make or break an online community.
Setting your moderation team up for success can help them handle difficult situations easily. In part, this means setting clear penalties so community managers know what action to take instantly.
Divide rule violations into clear categories to set penalties:
- Violations worthy of a permanent ban
- Violations worthy of a temporary ban
- Violations worthy of a warning
Then, list exceptions. Will you unban users who apologize, recant their harmful statements, or recognize why they were wrong? Moderators don’t need to agree 100%, but they do need to support each other’s decisions on exceptions. So, make sure you include all community managers in your discussions.
After you’ve decided on penalties, start some group chats for moderators to collaborate on. Group chats are important because moderators can seek advice on handling a situation and get instant support.
Finally, set up a documentation system so you can track rule violations. This system will help you identify repeat offenders that might otherwise slip through the cracks if different mods handle each violation.
3. Screen members to eliminate trolls
Not everyone will enter your group with wholesome intentions. A report for the United Kingdom’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport shows that 1% of internet users from the UK were trolled in a 12-month span. That figure increased to 5% if the person was aged 16 to 24.
Though each trolling instance is unique, many trolls target groups because they can reach many people at once (and thus maximize their impact).
You can’t completely prevent trolls, but you can minimize their influence by screening potential members. For example, you could set a minimum karma requirement for a subreddit. Or, you could make your group private and ask vetting questions to potential members. Try these questions:
- Why do you want to join this group?
- How did you find this group?
- Can you confirm that you have read the rules and will follow them?
Of course, you should also consider what people outside your group are saying about your brand so you can take action if someone plans to brigade you. That’s where social listening tools (sometimes called “media monitoring tools”) come in. These tools collate social media posts, reviews, news articles, blog posts, and other online content that mentions you, so you can quickly review it and spot bad actors.
4. Select a hosting platform aligned with your members
Your group will never get off the ground if you don’t host it on a social media platform potential members like. So, when choosing your own community platform, ask members of your target audience which platform they would prefer.
Here are some platforms they might recommend:
- Facebook groups
- Reddit subreddits
- Slack channels
- Telegram groups
- Discord groups
- Quora groups
- WhatsApp groups
These platforms give you a forum-style community designed for shorter posts or chat messages. However, it’s still possible to post long-form content if that’s your goal. Simply start a blog or a knowledge base and link your posts within the group. You can do the same with videos — simply upload them to YouTube and share the link.
5. Use the group profile wisely
Your group profile is the first thing prospective members see when they consider joining your group. Naturally, you should use it to your advantage to win new members and boost your performance in search engine results.
Here are some things to add to your profile:
- A mission statement for the group
- A description of the type of posts allowed in the group
- Who the group is for
- Geotags if your brand wants a local audience
- Links to your website or other social media profiles
- Your business email and phone number
Additionally, select your profile and cover images carefully. You need to select high-quality images that adhere to the image size requirements of your community platform. Don’t choose random images either — use your brand’s logo, colors, and style to mark your ownership of the group.
For an example of a well-designed group profile, check out the Gals Who Sweat Facebook group. The group profile is informative, professional, and tells new members what to expect if they join.
6. Aim for a 10% participation rate
When digital marketers and brand owners start an online community, they often ask one key question: “how do I know if my online community is successful?” Then, in an attempt to gain the favor of every member, they post loud and over-the-top things multiple times a day.
This is a mistake, as many of your group members prefer to lurk. Respect that and aim for a 10% participation rate with subtle engagement strategies.
Subtle strategies give people exciting content to read but don’t come off as “salesy.” Here are some strategies to try:
- Letting users post questions, shower thoughts, or rants (also known as “User-Generated Content (UGC)“)
- Posting polls or quizzes
- Creating weekly posts like a Friday chat post or a Monday meme post
- Posting short videos
- Hosting competitions or giveaways
- Creating a digital magazine for people to read
These soft-selling techniques will foster your community long-term, stretching the mileage of your group.
7. Pay attention to your “core” group
As mentioned in “6. Aim for a 10% participation rate,” some of your members will be more enthusiastic than others. These members are your “core” group, and they are the ones you should focus on the most.
This is sometimes called “The Pareto Principle” or the “80/20 rule” after Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto. Pareto observed that most outcomes come from a “vital few” sources.
The Pareto Principle is not a hard and fast rule but a theory you should consider when cultivating your group. It is better to maintain your core group than to focus on new leads, as core community members will refer others as long as they are happy.
Don’t worry — you don’t need to appeal to your core audience through grand gestures.
Small things like commenting on their posts quickly, answering their questions, and regularly saying “thank you” will foster a relationship. Additionally, ask for feedback from your brand advocates and adjust the group to their tastes.
8. Find out what motivates community members
Finally, monitor your group carefully to see what motivates community members to post, comment, and share. Increasing group engagement is vital in keeping members and attracting new ones, as people want to join engaging communities, not boring ones.
Every group is different, so this will take trial and error. Test out many types of posts and see what works for you by measuring Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) like the number of views, positive impressions, comments, and shares.
Additionally, consider how you can develop friendships between members. Research from the Global Web Index shows that 66% of online community members joined to connect with people who share their interests.
Communities you should draw inspiration from
Research shows that 61% of consumers believe engaging, memorable content, and a distinct personality make brands stand out on social media. This section will cover three well-managed groups for inspiration on building a community that meets these criteria.
The New York Times Podcast Club
Created by the New York Times in 2017, The New York Times Podcast Club Facebook group hosts discussions of podcasts great and small. The group currently has 37,400+ members and averages three daily posts.
Here’s what this group does well:
- The group is easy to find
- The moderators govern carefully
- The group is strictly focused on a topic (podcasts)
- The content of the group is diverse and engaging
Nugget Comfort Chatter & BST
Nugget Comfort Chatter & BST (Buy, Swap, and Sell) is a customer-run group for fans of the Nugget children’s couch. The group has over 83,000 members and averages 22 daily posts.
Here’s what this group does well:
- People have the freedom to make many types of posts
- The rules are clear and well explained
- New community members are given a warm welcome
- The community is well-guarded against trolls (as it’s private and they use screening questions)
The Career Club
Run by Professor Heather Austin, The Career Club is a community for job seekers and recruiters to discuss hiring practices, resumes, skills, and professional development. The group has over 12,000 members and averages five daily posts.
Here’s what this group does well:
- Moderators encourage posts from core users
- The rules are very detailed and clear
- Professor Austin produces supplementary materials and community programs for the group
The art of smart online community building
Starting an online community can grow your revenue, foster relationships with customers, and bolster your brand’s digital presence. However, mastering community management isn’t always easy.
To be a good community manager, you need clear rules, member screening, and good moderation practices. Direction is also vital. Before starting your own online community, ask yourself, “what are we trying to achieve?” Knowing your “why” will help you make group management decisions.
And of course, don’t forget to get creative and have fun.