How to Grow an Online Community

A headshot of Chad Neufeld

by Chad Neufeld

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In order to successfully grow an online community, there are three key areas you need to address. This article covers each of these areas, providing examples along the way, to ensure you have what you need to consistently grow membership in your community. But first, let’s start with the basics: Marketing 101.

Marketing 101: Why, Who, What

Before we get tactical and talk about practical ways you can grow your community, you need to have a solid grasp on these three things: why your community exists, who it exists for, and what happens in your community.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Why does your community exist? Why do you deserve to have members? Why is your community a better place to be than the other places they could spend their time?
  • Who are these folks? Who is your community meant for? What are your ideal member profiles?
  • What are you going to fill your community with in order to deliver on your why for your target market? How are you going to make it easy for your members to get the value they are looking for?
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Once you’ve got the answers to those big questions, you’ve given yourself a really strong starting point. 

If you think about community growth in terms of advertising, then the ‘why’ is your headline, the ‘what’ is your body copy, and the ‘who’ is your target audience.

Example: 'Steyelish'

Let’s pretend we’re building a community for an eyeglass company, we'll call it 'Steyelish'. Your community ‘why’ is to help people feel confident in their new glasses or shades.

Your headline: Stylish glasses for every face

What are you giving people? You’re giving them help picking the right frames for their face - online friends helping you pick the perfect pair. 

Who is your target audience? Let’s say it’s young professionals buying their first pair with their first health spending account at their first job, so folks in their early to mid twenties. 

You know what problem you’re solving, you know how you’re solving it, and you know who you’re solving it for. 

Alright, now that we've covered the marketing basics, let’s talk about how you’re going to grow your community. 

Growth Channels

There are three general growth channels: Owned, Earned & Paid

1. Owned

Owned growth channels are the places that you own. These are things like your company’s main website, your social channels, your newsletter, your products, your physical locations, your events, the list goes on. Often, owned channels are free to use, but that does not mean they are necessarily easy to execute. 

You need to build relationships with your colleagues who control access to these different owned channels and earn space in as many owned channels as possible. 

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Start by building an exhaustive list of all your company’s properties. When you’ve got the list, add the owners of each property. Then brainstorm the value the community will bring to each owner. It will be a lot easier to win support internally when you can show that the community will make people’s jobs easier, or create value for them. 

A successful owned channel strategy will take time, and you should never set it and forget it. Make sure you are setting up regular check-ins with each owner and you are working collaboratively to add value for one another. 

Often, owned social media properties are the most effective growth channels. That means that you should be a part of the social media planning process, the social team should be promoting the community, and the community itself should be generating content for mainstream social channels. 

2. Earned

An earned growth channel is one where people outside your organization talk about, share or cover the community. These people might be the media, industry leaders, or just members of the public. 

It’s called earned because you can’t buy it, you have to generate it creatively, or by adding value in an interesting or novel way. 

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Often, using a community that brings people together to solve a problem is still considered novel. Talk to your communications team and put together a press release or media pitch about your community. 

Think about your target audience. Where do they look for the kind of advice you want to provide them? Your reputation might be enough to earn you an article or a video, as long as you have something interesting and relevant to say. ‘Gen Z strangers help each other pick glasses’ might be an interesting headline for the right publication or blog.

3. Paid

There is no shortage of opportunities to spend money in order to build awareness. The key is to focus your spend in the places that will allow you to connect with your audience in authentic ways. 

At the end of the day, you aren’t selling a transaction in the way that Best Buy is trying to sell  a new Playstation. You are trying to grow a community, which means you want to get in front of people who care about your topic and want to participate in an online gathering space dedicated to the topic. 

This could mean serving ads on social channels like Instagram or Pinterest or Reddit, this could mean doing audio ads in podcasts or on Spotify, or maybe it could be sponsoring a month’s worth of newsletters that are read by your audience. 

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Another effective paid tactic is the use of influencers. What we find most effective is engaging the right influencers who are willing to do more than post one image or video, but are actually open to contributing to the community itself over a week, a month or even longer. This might cost more, but it is also likely to be more effective in generating long-term participation among the target audience.

When you are running any paid media, it is important to build in metrics that will allow you to compare tactics with one another. If you spent a thousand dollars in two different channels, which one generated the most new members?

That's All!

So there you have it: tips for using owned, earned and paid channels to grow your online community. The key with community growth is consistency. Make sure you have a community growth plan and that you are always executing on it.

Just like everything in community building, and in life, it’s all a big experiment, so keep trying things until you find a system that works for you, visit our channel and stay tuned for more community growth tips from us.

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