Build an Online Community That’s Off the Hook

A headshot of Leisa Northcott

by Leisa Northcott

Colourful cartoon illustration of a group of people enjoying a party with drinks, balloons, and party hats.

Summer always reminds me just how much we humans love to party. From backyard barbecues to Burning Man, people from all walks of life like to get together with a bunch of good people for whatever comprises their version of a good time. But let me ask you this: have you ever been to a bad party? You know the kind. A guest list seemingly generated at random. Awkward silences. A nap-inducing playlist. An absentee host. Too much harsh lighting and not nearly enough ice. Pro tip: you can never have too much ice—but that’s an article for another day.

Whether you’re planning an intimate dinner party or an epic kegger, if you don’t put some serious thought, planning and effort into it, it’ll bomb harder than Fyre Festival. In this way, an online community is a lot like a party. When it’s a good one, spirits are high, people are fluidly mixing and meshing, and the energy just keeps building. If you’re lucky, people call their friends over and the neighbours drop by to see what all the buzz is about.

A maxim of party planning is that 90% of the success of an event is determined before the doors open.

Every party planner worth their salt (i.e. not Billy McFarland) knows that proper preparation is key. Purpose and planning may not be the most freewheeling, rock ‘n’ roll concepts, but they are essential to creating THE most happening place to be—offline or on.

If you’re thinking about creating an online community, here are some of the core principles that will set you up for success. 

Colourful cartoon illustration of a party hat, bottle of wine, and wine glass.

1. A commitment of time and resources

Those bowls of chips don’t fill themselves, am I right? Well neither do forums, message boards and knowledge bases. Before you do anything else, you’ll need to embrace the fact that building and growing a community requires a significant investment. This includes the hard costs of physically implementing a platform, but also the softer costs of building relationships, creating and delivering valuable content and managing interactions. A thriving community doesn’t materialize overnight—most communities start small and grow incrementally, gaining momentum over time.

A maxim of party planning is that 90% of the success of an event is determined before the doors open. The same is true of online communities—but your hosting duties are ongoing too. Just as you wouldn’t invite company over and then put yourself to bed, you won’t be leaving your community to flounder on its own. Budget for several people and teams to be involved in the planning and preparation phases and at least one dedicated community manager to keep things going smoothly for the long haul.  

2. A clear purpose

What’s your why? There are plenty of compelling reasons to start an online community to support business functions like customer support and service, marketing, sales, and product development and innovation. Done well, a community can enrich the employeecustomer and partner experience and become an integral part of your organization’s identity and brand experience. Having a clear intention from the get-go will help differentiate your community and make it much more useful.  

Colourful cartoon illustration of inflated balloons floating with their strings hanging down.

Ask yourself at least these two critical questions: “Why are we doing this?” and “Why is it important?” Every time you reach a deeper reason, ask “why” again. A few rounds of this will help you drill down to the most authentic reason your community should exist. This will sharpen your community focus to what is most meaningful and worthwhile, and you’ll also be less likely to waste time and effort on things that fall outside of that purpose-driven scope. 

3. Realistic goals

If you’re a corporate nine-to-fiver, you wouldn’t invite your coworkers to a spur-of-the-moment rager at 4 o’clock on a Tuesday and expect dozens of them to show up—let alone party all night. It’s just not realistic. If you – or your leadership team – are expecting thousands of new users, sold-out events, a new product launch and a return on investment in the first month, it’s time to pull those expectations out of the clouds and back down to earth where they belong.

As you plan a new online community, you’ll need to manage your expectations – and those of your leadership team – and work together to set realistic goals. The more specific, the better. This is likely to take some time as you work from vague concepts like “building customer loyalty” to the exact way your organization will define and derive value from said customer loyalty. Using this example, you might set metrics based on increased retention rates, advocacy, or increased sales. Other good, measurable goals could include things like reducing customer service costs, acquiring new customers, developing marketing content, increasing employee abilities, delivering a new product or reducing recruitment costs. This goal-defining part can be tricky, and you may want to seek help from experts who will work with you at the outset to identify your goals along with the key performance indicators (KPIs) you can use to measure progress.

4. A good starting group

With very few exceptions, even the massive (and massively successful) communities you see today started small. Ryan Hoover started Product Hunt in 2013 as a small email newsletter for his friends to share and geek out about cool new tech products and gadgets they were digging. Just three years later, it had upwards of 43,000 subscribers and was rumoured to have sold to AngelList for $20 million.

Communities that give people the opportunity to be thought-leaders, advocates and experts often see great success.

This isn’t a typical growth trajectory, but it does go to show that you don’t need thousands of users just to get started. Like any good host, it makes sense to put your guests (aka members) first. People want to be a part of groups that make them feel valued and included. They want to learn, share, grow and be entertained while feeling heard and valued. Keep your intended community members top of mind, concentrating on their core emotional and social needs. What do they want? What do they need? How will your community serve those wants and needs?

Read More: The LEGO Ideas story: How brands can take a page out of LEGO’s co-creation and innovation playbook 

Communities that give people the opportunity to be thought-leaders, advocates and experts often see great success. For example, LEGO Ideas brings passionate fans together from around the world to imagine, iterate, and evaluate ideas for new LEGO kits. Over 1.8 million members have submitted over 36,000 new kit concepts. This open innovation community has reduced the time to market for new LEGO kits from 2 years to 6 months. In just over 6 years, 36 new LEGO kits were developed from the Ideas community, with 90% selling out on their first release. All because the company empowered their biggest fans to show off and share their mad skills.

5 female-lego characters with their toy arms raised standing on a NASA logo.

Your community may one day have hundreds of thousands of members, but start by focusing on serving and getting to know your first 50, then 100 and so on. A community can grow exponentially even by adding just 5 or 10 new members a day in the beginning.

5. An inclusive (or exclusive) atmosphere

It sounds contradictory, but there should either be no friction to joining and inviting others to a community—or A LOT of friction. It’s fun to go to a casual get-together where you just walk right in, kick off your shoes and grab a beer out of your friend’s fridge. Online, this might look like Rust-Oleum’s ‘Creator’s Studio’ where an internet connection and an interest in DIY projects are the only credentials you need to be welcomed on board to share ideas, participate in activities and get support.

On the flip side, it’s also really fun to earn exclusive VIP access to a hot, members-only club with a huge line and a bigger reputation. HTC replicated this online by creating a private, invite-only community for superfans. To gain entry, you have to email or tweet HTC, explaining why you are “HTC’s most passionate fan”. Members benefit from tons of perks like early access to product updates, the latest product news, access to exclusive events, giveaways and the opportunity to take part in user trials.

You’ll have to decide if an open-door policy or a virtual velvet rope is the way to go for the kind of community you’re hoping to create. Once you’ve decided, do whatever it takes to make joining and participating either the easiest thing in the world—or the most rewardingly exclusive.  

Slow your roll (before you rock)

We know that when you’ve got your dancing shoes on and you’re raring to go, it’s hard to pull back and slow down. We get it. It’s true that with a big enough budget you might be able to generate sufficient buzz to get a community off the ground through prizes, swag and paid influencers or members. But let’s not forget about our friend Billy and his ill-fated festival.

Thanks to slick marketing and promotion by top models and Instagram influencers, thousands of people bought into the hype and spent thousands of dollars on Fyre Festival tickets. Instead of mass fun, guests were greeted with mass chaos and FEMA tents. The disappointment was harder to swallow than the cheese sandwiches that were served, and people couldn’t get off the island fast enough.

Colourful cartoon illustration of an open-faced sandwich in a styrofoam container.

Presumably, you’re looking for a better outcome for your efforts in creating an online community—and with a little more smarts (and humility) than Billy, it’s yours for the having. For an inspiring example from the party world, look to the evolution of Burning Man from its early days on a small beach in San Francisco through its metamorphosis into a bustling temporary metropolis of 70,000+ people and the sprawling worldwide movement that Burning Man has become today.

Tellingly, their official website is quick to point out that Burning Man is NOT a festival. They say instead, “it’s a city wherein almost everything that happens is created entirely by its citizens, who are active participants in the experience.”

I’d be hard pressed to write a better description of a thriving online community than that. Of course, this social phenomenon didn’t just rise from the desert through sheer luck or imagination. It’s a 33-year-old work in progress that takes an incredible amount of philosophizing, planning, preparation and good old-fashioned sweat.

Building and nurturing your online community takes work too, but the rewards and benefits of creating an interactive experience that connects people and resonates with your audience in a deeply personal way are unparalleled. Just remember to put in the prep time before you pop the champagne and make sure you grab some extra ice – you’ll really never regret it. 

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