Beginner's Guide: Online community building in 10 steps

First of all, that’s a lie. There are no "quick" steps to online community building. It takes time, work and patience - but if you are a communications, public relations or marketing manager looking to engage with your audience online, this is how to start...

Step 1

Why?

Communities are as old as the hills. They form and cohere around basic needs and identities of common interest - security, protection, sustenance, companionship. But when basic needs are met, communities thrive because their members want to reciprocate, affirm and validate – in other words - share. This is how cultures develop.

Do you want to protect dolphins, trees or human rights? Do you want to secure funding for a nursery, library or charity? Do you want to share interest in Japanese pottery, Golden Retrievers or Arsenal Football Club?  The more specific the focus - the stronger the community identity.

Step 2

Identify

Identify the people a community needs to build and sustain itself. Not all ‘supporters’ are committed – for example, Tory ‘voters’ don’t necessarily want to be party ‘members’ or ‘activists’ - so try to identify, reach and engage those who might want to ‘commit’ to sharing their 'social capital' to the aims and mission of the community.

Don't try to draw people in to a community who will have no committed interest or stake in its success and sustainability. This is not a numbers game.

Step 3

Find and recruit

First, recruit from other like-minded communities. Maybe people wanting to 'Save Dolphins' are also busy 'Saving Whales'? Go to 'Whale Saving' communities and see if their members want to join you.

Second, link to other like-minded communities. ‘Dolphin Savers' can teach (and learn) a thing or two from those 'Whale Savers'. Offer them some help... you'll be surprised what they offer you in return.

Third, search for people who define themselves in terms of your community values. Twitter and the blogosphere are full of people whose profiles include things like "I'm a Dolphin Lover" or "Campaigner for Marine Conservation".

Step 4

Connect to them and connect them to each other

Introduce yourself. You might do that by 'friending’, 'liking’, 'following', 're-tweeting' - in other words, you are offering your hand to shake.

Introduce others. Just like a good host connects their guests together to get the party going... "I'd like to introduce you to a friend.... I know someone you'll like... I want my friends to meet you..!"

Step 5

Inform, educate, entertain

This is BBC's mission - and those values underpin the willingness of millions of people to endorse its existence and pay the licence fee every year. Make sure your content does exactly that – informs, educates and entertains.

If you're marketing, members won't feel as if they're being treated like a community - but rather as 'customers' - whose only value is what you can get out of them. It's called a community for a reason...!

Step 6

Vary interest

Your community needs a variety of platforms to engage with you and each other. The Glastonbury music festival has lots of stages with different music playing to audiences with different tastes... if you get fed up listening to emerging Indy bands, you can sample the acoustic tent or go off and watch Beyonce strut her stuff on the main stage...

Here are a few tips for keeping content varied and fresh...

  • Use guest bloggers - they'll bring new topics, different views and styles of writing;
  • Vary blog lengths - keep some really short and punchy - 350-400 words and only let bloggers exceed 1200 words if Arianna Huffington is offering to write for you.
  • Use visuals - good graphics and photos aid digestion, break up dense text and can result in more click-throughs. Trawl free image libraries - you'll be amazed how your messages can come alive.
  • Embed videos - they can be a great way to extend and enhance engagement and time spent on-site. Keep videos short and relevant. Sir Ken Robinson might get away with 50 minutes, but you'll be lucky to get five.

Step 7

Acknowledge, respond, reciprocate

When people respond through a post, comment or tweet, acknowledge them with a response. Reciprocal gestures are the fundamentals of social engagement. Apart from showing that you value feedback, it's plain good manners. If even a stranger gave you a compliment, the least you would say would be "Thank you!"

Step 8

Interact and share

Interact with your members by sharing good and relevant content, especially the stuff that your own members create. It generates goodwill, mutual credibility and extends engagement time. Inject your own opinion to get a new thread of a conversation going.

Step 9

Affirm, Validate, Endorse

When people post blogs, comment or contribute content - compliment, agree, politely disagree or challenge them. Don't just use "Thumbs Up" and "Likes", but really engage with the issues they raise: "I totally agree with you on that point..." or "This is so true! I had a similar experience when..."

If things get negative, address the issues directly.

Step 10

Cross-promote and integrate your content

Cross-promote and integrate your platforms and channels. Make links between them so they broadcast each other's announcements. If you have published a blog, make sure you share a headline and short-link to it on Twitter, with images on Facebook or excerpts on Tumblr or Google+.

And finally… prepare yourself for the idea that communities are organic and that they will take on a life of their own… scary but exciting!