How to Build an Online Community as a Small Business

As a small business, minimising expenses, boosting revenue, and gaining that competitive edge should rank high in your list of priorities. Nowadays, getting ahead of your competitors will require that you build an online community for your business. 

This also means having an active presence on social media platforms as well as industry-specific forums. 

There is this common misconception that building an online community is limited to having a social media presence alone. However, nothing can be farther from the truth. If you want to build an online community successfully, you need to cover all the bases. 

In other words, you should also consider forums, membership sites, and even the conventional meet ups to attract customers, promote your brand, and showcase your expertise.

Online Communities: How They Can Help Propel Your Business Forward

Online communities are considered one of the most effective ways to bring people (old customers and new prospects alike) together. With the drastic and rapid changes brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, more and more people are finding solace and familiarity through online communities. 

Even if you are only running a small business, building a community online is something you should not put on the back burner. While seemingly trivial, building a community online can help foster customer loyalty, establish brand credibility, and get you in front of your customers. And that is just for starters.

Online communities can also be a very potent tool for small businesses as they bring people with similar interests together to discuss your brand, products, and services. As you work on building a community online, it is also important to ensure you create one that gives your brand the ability to shine and stand out. 

Getting to Work: How to Build an Online Community for Your Business from Scratch

Here are a few simple and easy steps you can follow when building an online community from the ground up.

Start Small 

Do not expect your community to be huge in just a few weeks. If anything, the most successful online communities started as small friendly dinners, forum threads, and email lists. However, even if growth will take a bit of time, take consolation in the fact that your forum can grow into something significant as you learn more about its value and as some of your members become your autonomous ambassadors.

Ryan Hoover started Product Hunt as a small email list where he and his friends can share cool products they have found. To say Product Hunt has come a long way is an understatement. In March of 2015, Product Hunt saw its 1,000,000th upvote, and the small email list has now grown to 43,000 subscribers!

Action Plan: Pick a handful of people you can share your concepts and ideas with. Create a Slack channel, Facebook group, or an email list. 

Encourage an Ethos of Helpfulness

It is important to keep in mind that often, the primary goal of your community members is to be there for each other. After all, they are looking for a resource—a safe venue where they can connect over common interests and passions.

When you create an ethos of helpfulness, you are also creating an open environment, a space where your community members or customers can learn from one another. Once they learn from others, they are also encouraged to return the favour. 

Recently, Geckoboard created a community around helpfulness for developers who use their products. In less than a month, the community has gained massive traction. As a result, they were able to get a clear insight into how customers are using their products and the areas for improvement.

Action Plan: Provide value to your customers by creating a hub for relevant research and information.

Create a Layer of Exclusivity

Exclusivity is part of starting small. Many communities prefer to keep memberships low to retain high quality. Others, on the other hand, work on scaling the community without compromising quality. 

Let us go back to the Product Hunt example. When they first launched the site, they kept the community limited since they reckon it would be too overwhelming to manage if they opened it up to everyone. This made members feel special and made more people want to become members.

Action Plan: Invite a small (and exclusive) group to join your community and let them know they are the firsts and that you are keeping it exclusive (at least for the time being). Also, do not forget to highlight what is in it for them for good measure!

Establish Connections and Let Go

As the community creator and facilitator, it is your job to ensure that your members stay connected. In line with this, make sure you get the conversations going, then step away. When needed, you always have the option to chime in to answer queries, share announcements, or clear up any misunderstandings.

While more challenging with forums, Slack channels and Facebook groups are easier to manage as you can easily break the community off into smaller groups to discuss sub-topics and other areas of interest.

One great example of this is the #Nomads Slack community where more than 10,000 digital nomads gather to discuss various topics ranging from work, opportunities, travel, and many more.

Action Plan: Consider bringing in a few customers together in hangout and take it from there.

Spread the Word About Your Community

Once you have established a robust foundation, it is time to work on scaling your community. If you have been managing the community for some time, you probably already have a clear idea of what sparks engagement and what does not. It is also highly likely that you already have a good community guideline set in place.

To encourage more people to join your community, start by spreading word about your community. The following methods are considered effective:

  1. Referral programs
  2. Newsletters
  3. Tiered-invites
  4. Social channels
  5. Inviting influencers
  6. Targeted outreach

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Conclusion

When you build an online community for your business, it is not always a walk in the park. However, as long as you have a great strategy in place, you are already a step closer to building that online community your business can benefit from for many years to come!