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Updated Feb 02, 2024

7 Highly Effective Ways to Build an Online Community for Your Business

For your business to fully succeed, you need to build a vibrant community that you can tap into for engagement.

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Max Freedman, Senior Analyst & Expert on Business Operations
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Today, it’s not enough to have social media followers and blast out content to them. To have ongoing and meaningful engagement with their target audience, businesses need to build a community. Thriving online communities are built over time and require engaging content, transparency and authenticity to establish trust with followers. In addition, there must be mutual respect between the brand and its followers, as well as among the followers. 

When the members of an online community are genuinely engaged, it becomes a part of their identity. Community members are loyal customers and can help you unearth ideas to help your brand grow, spread the word about your business, provide valuable market research, and upload user-generated content that lowers marketing costs and provides social proof. 

Read on to learn how to build an online community that can improve, promote and grow your brand over the long term.

What is an online community?

An online community is a group of internet users who form a community around a shared interest. Conversations that would happen in person instead take place via social media among people around the world. These days, online communities may be likeliest to start on a social media platform (for example, a Facebook group), but they can also form and thrive in the comments section of a website or blog post.

Did You Know?Did you know
When an online community forms around your product or company, you may be able to turn the community members into advocates for your brand. You can also leverage their social media presence to drive customer engagement with your products.

How do online communities work?

The power of online communities is that anybody with an internet connection can easily figure out how to build an online community that fulfills their interests. A person or business that starts an online community sets it up so members can quickly join — regardless of whether an approval process is in place — and connect with other users to discuss shared interests whenever and wherever they want, entirely online.

Types of online communities

There are four main types of online communities your business should know about:

  • Social communities: As the name implies, these communities are built on social media platforms. Businesses leverage them for marketing, brand awareness and audience expansion purposes.
  • Support communities: In support communities, your customers offer support and help to other customers, thereby lowering customer support costs.
  • Advocate communities: In advocate communities, brands incentivize their most loyal customers to promote the brand online.
  • Insight communities: In insight communities, businesses get feedback from longtime customers on how their products or services could improve.

How to build an online community

If you want to maximize the performance of your business and encourage success, consider these tips and real-life examples of how to build an online community.

1. Embrace different levels of commitment from members.

Realize that some community members will be more active than others, and some won’t be active at all. The critical part of building an online community is embracing what all of your members have to offer. Some prefer to share ideas and be part of the conversation; others take those ideas and run with them. You can’t demand active users to dial down their engagement and inactive users to participate if they do not want to. What you can do is fuel the conversation and get everybody involved in their preferred way.

Take a cue from how Duolingo built a community to help its target audience learn different languages. The site encouraged users to contribute course content and moderated submissions to ensure quality.

Contributors were incentivized for their efforts with recognition and recommendations from Duolingo for what they wanted to achieve (such as a job or college degree). At the same time, users who took the course were so impressed that they recommended the app to others, thus increasing Duolingo’s brand awareness among its target audience and gaining more users.

Duolingo homepage

Source: Duolingo

2. Offer a platform for users with different perspectives.

If your business covers a sensitive and divisive subject, you need to approach the topic in a peaceful light by bridging the gap between people and misunderstanding and encouraging them to keep an open mind.

This is what Deily strove to accomplish when it was still an active faith-based community platform. People have conflicting views about religions — including clashing opinions among members of the same faith — which could lead to heated arguments and greater misunderstanding. However, when it was up and running, the site offered a chance for people to open up their faith and beliefs in a constructive manner so that all users could understand other religions from a more grounded perspective. 

3. Encourage users to create content.

Showcasing user-generated content gives your community a platform to share their unique content and connect with other users with similar interests. You can feature their ideas on your site and social media pages to increase exposure and give credit to the users who came up with them.

The community platform My Starbucks Idea proved how powerful crowdsourced content is and how active a community can be. The platform gave birth to ingenious ideas such as the splash sticks that keep coffee from spilling from the hole in the cover. Starbucks’ initiative to crowdsource ideas came when the company was closing 600 stores in the U.S. — and the risk of giving its customers a voice paid off.

According to Social Media for Business Performance at the University of Waterloo, “My Starbucks Idea sparked social for a company that is synonymous with not only great coffee, but its own deeply rooted culture with a style all their own.”

My Starbucks Idea

Source: My Starbucks Idea

TipBottom line
Amity found that 76 percent of internet users participate in online communities.

4. Let users educate one another about your products.

Let community members teach each other about your products and how to use them properly. By breeding a community where members are willing to help each other out, you can drive new customers to whatever you are selling.

WordPress is one of the most used platforms for building a site or blog. Because it is open-source, volunteers have helped develop not only the core software but also its themes and plug-ins. And because so much can be done with WordPress, users find themselves searching for ways to get the most out of the platform.

These are just a few reasons that WordPress Forums is one of the most vibrant and active online communities. The forum is a great place for becoming acquainted with WordPress, as well as for getting tips and tricks to optimize your site. It provides users with a productive and collaborative experience. Most importantly, the forum is moderated by a community manager and other experts who are more than willing to answer queries about the platform, themes and plug-ins.

5. Cede power to the people.

Don’t let your desire for brand awareness interfere with user discussions, as it destroys the authenticity of their interactions and could turn people off to your business.

Take a cue from the now-defunct online community Figment, which welcomed teenagers with a passion for fan fiction to create their own stories, share others and recommend products, all without worrying about the brand hijacking users’ content.

The cool thing about the site was how it promoted its writers on the homepage. By recognizing featured writers, Figment encouraged more writers to keep writing to the best of their abilities so they could get featured and draw more readers to their work. The featured section on the website allowed Figment to reassure users that it was all about them and their works.

Figment

Source: Figment

6. Allow the community to influence your business.

Take heed of valuable insights from community members, and listen to their needs so you can improve your products and services based on their suggestions.

Despite being an unofficial community of Lego fans, Lugnet has become a source of information even for Lego itself. Lego markets mostly to children, but this didn’t stop adult fans of Lego from sharing their creations with other fans and collaborating on projects on the site. In fact, their contributions to Lugnet were so good that it helped Lego expand to different markets.

Thanks to its enthusiastic fan base, Lego established a working relationship with the users of Lugnet, who continue to provide the company with valuable insights and uses for its products.

>> Learn more:  How to Use YouTube to Build Community

7. Set boundaries.

It’s essential for your brand to maintain a positive reputation, so you need capable moderators and firm community guidelines. Moderators are responsible for approving posts and submissions, banning members if necessary, and maintaining a healthy relationship between your brand and members, all within community guidelines. By following the “SEE” method below, they will add value to your business.

  • Support knowledge exchange. Allow users to disseminate information that aligns with your missions and goals and provides value to new and old members.
  • Encourage others to be visible online. Come up with ways to engage different types of users to help build a vibrant community.
  • Enable access to tools and resources. Provide members a place not only to learn from other people and share their experiences but also to recommend valuable resources to expedite others’ growth and success.

These key roles of moderators, along with other best practices, help build an online community that connects users both to each other and your brand.

Benefits of building an online community for business

A branded online community can benefit your business in several ways:

  • Easier, quicker connections with customers and, therefore, better customer service
  • Bolstered social media presence on X (formerly known as Twitter), Facebook, Instagram and other major social media sites
  • Identification of top-level customers as brand advocates who can use their social media presence to promote your business
  • Access to ideas from loyal customers on how to improve your business, products and services
  • Faster routes to potential new customers and a higher likelihood of retaining current customers
  • Increased cross-sell, upsell and add-on revenue

Jennifer Dublino and Christopher Jan Benitez contributed to the reporting and writing in this article.

author image
Max Freedman, Senior Analyst & Expert on Business Operations
For almost a decade, Max Freedman has been a trusted advisor for entrepreneurs and business owners, providing practical insights to kickstart and elevate their ventures. With hands-on experience in small business management, he offers authentic perspectives on crucial business areas that run the gamut from marketing strategies to employee health insurance. Freedman's guidance is grounded in the real world and based on his years working in and leading operations for small business workplaces. Whether advising on financial statements, retirement plans or e-commerce tactics, his expertise and genuine passion for empowering business owners make him an invaluable resource in the entrepreneurial landscape.
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