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Building an Engaged Online Community

11 Tips for Building An Engaged Online Community

First, a little about myself…

I’ve been helping nonprofits with digital marketing for a decade plus. I’ve run brand awareness campaigns, fundraising initiatives, website redesigns, and everything in between.  

By far, building an engaged online community is one of the toughest, most elusive, and most time-consuming endeavors.

However, there are a few best practices that can help with building an engaged online community, strategies that I have personally used to double engagement rates, significantly deepened an organization’s impact, and create a group of passionate individuals that are ready to take collective action.

 

The Difference Between An Audience And A Community

The distinction I like to make off the bat is the difference between an audience versus a community, and the tools that it takes to build each:

Tools for Building an Audience

Listening

Engagement

Posting relevant content

Loyalty points

Gamification

Gifting economy

Giveaways

Messaging consistency

Tools for Building an Engaged Online Community

All of the tools for building an audience, PLUS….

Naming of the group, the events & the individuals

Using insider jargon

Having your own symbols

Developing a shared narrative

Having value systems

Rituals

Consensus building

Polling resources

After noting these differences, you’re probably asking yourself, “How do I know if I have an audience or a community?”

True communities live beyond the leader (think Trekkies). Would your online group continue without you, without your content, without your incentives?

If the answer is no, you most likely have an audience.  However, given the right amount time, dedication, and guidance, you can nurture this audience and begin building an engaged online community.

 

Tip #1 — Fulfill A Need

First and foremost, you cannot create community. You can only fulfill people’s need for community.

All communities fulfill a need. They help us stay informed about the world around us; they help us feel safe, or proud, or good about the world. They help us achieve bigger and bolder initiatives. And perhaps one of the most powerful needs: communities help us not feel alone in the world.

 

Tip #2 — Content Is Still King/Queen

content is king

You’ve heard that content is king/queen when it comes to building an audience, but it also applies to when you are attempting to convert that audience and start building an engaged online community.

Be sure to continue to produce stellar content that fuels the community–content that is educational, inspirational, or laugh-out-loud funny.  

Pro tip: When creating content, we recommend using the 80/20 rule and providing value and great content 80 percent of the time, while asking for something of someone only 20 percent of the time.

 

#3 — Join And Learn From Other Communities

One of the first things I do when starting on the path to building an engaged online community is researching the groups that already exist in that space.

I recommend joining 5-10 Facebook groups, Meetups, LinkedIn networks, SubReddits, and other support groups related to your cause. Read through people’s posts, look at what is resonating with its members, and take notes on the trends.

Pro tip: Once you get a decent understanding of the landscape, join the discussion and give recognition to fellow group members. When the time comes to build your own online community, you can reach back out to people and let them know about the group that you’re building.  


#4 — Celebrate Your Community Members & Leaders

celebrate community

One of the easiest ways to start building an engaged online community is by recognizing and celebrating your community leaders as well as your newest members.

Recognition goes a long way in life, especially if the individual is volunteering their time, expertise, resources, etc. Be sure to make time and space to recognize certain people in your community in a public manner–either in a Facebook post, an email, on your website, at an event, etc..

Pro tip: For your most valuable community members, consider writing a handwritten thank you note to show them how much they are appreciated.


#5 — Choose The Right Platform

There are literally thousands of tools and apps to choose from to build your online community. You could use a social media app like Facebook, a workplace tool like Slack, or a customizable software solution.

When choosing a platform, consider the following questions:

  • What platform and device are the majority of my community members already on?
  • Is the platform easy to access? (Single sign-on, part of an app the individual is already used to using, etc.)
  • Does the platform allow for someone to easily share content and interact with other community members?
  • Does the platform allow for push notifications (e.g. notices that pop up on a person’s phone) or text message integration?
  • Can you customize the platform to your liking (logo, colors, layouts, etc.)
  • Does the platform integrate with your CRM/database?

Pro tip: Use GetApp or Capterra to discover and compare apps and software for your community.


#6 — Create Daily/Weekly/Monthly Checklists For Yourself

checklist

Building an engaged online community requires consistent nurturing. We recommend creating daily, weekly, and monthly tasks for yourself or your team. Here are some suggestions:

Daily

  • Respond to group or individual comments.
  • Respond to any direct messages or emails from community members.
  • Research stories in the news for relevant topics to discuss in your community.

Weekly

  • Schedule your posts and communications for the week.
  • Look at basic post and communication metrics.
  • Check in on the other communities that you are a part of and take notes on what kind of content or messages are trending and consider using for your own community.
  • Communicate with your core members about what is coming up for the week and how they can help.
  • Create personal content for your community (stories, vlogs, etc.)

Monthly

  • Conduct more thorough post and communications analyses (engagement, reach, etc.).
  • Create and maintain your content calendar.
  • Communicate with all of your community members (via email, website, social, DMs, etc.) giving them a quick update, highlight for the month, and vision for the next month.

 

#7 — Hire The Right Community Manager

When building an engaged online community, not only do you need at least one full-time staff to manage the community, but you need the right full-time staff.

Here are some characteristics that we recommend when looking for a dedicated community manager:

  • Passionate about your cause and willing to put in the extra hours (nights and weekends) if necessary.
  • Proactive by nature, i.e. someone who can track down an answer to a question, and/or see and address problems within the community before they arise.
  • Equipped with strong people skills, i.e. personable, patient, and willing to bend over backward to help a member of the community.
  • Creative and fun, i.e. someone who can develop an innovative way to recognize someone as a member of the community–beyond a Facebook post–that is fun and meaningful.

 

#8 — Set The Tone Right Out Of The Gate

set the tone

As soon as someone joins your community, they should know three things off the bat:

  1. Understand the purpose of your community;
  2. Understand the rules of engagement;
  3. Feel empowered and excited to contribute to the group.

Be sure to post these messages prominently on your social media pages, in welcome emails, on your website, etc.–at the top of your pages and consistently within your communications.

 

#9 — Foster A Unique Community Culture & Purpose

In order to create a deep sense of community, we recommend creating a unique community culture.

On a broad level, this could be as simple as tapping into the kind of language that your community members use – the slang, the jargon, the identifiers, even the inside jokes.

On a deeper level, this involves developing a community-led platform or belief statement. It requires developing an action plan and goals that are driven by the needs of the community.

 

#10 — Track & Measure Everything

track and measure

If you’ve worked with us before, you know how obsessed we are with data. Data can be a powerful tool to inform decisions on things like messaging, tone, imagery, communications frequency, and more.

Be sure to track metrics that are tailored to the goals of your community (e.g. engagement rates, participation rates, comments, etc.), as well as check in with your community often with surveys, meetings, and calls.


#11 — Bring It IRL

One of the best ways to solidify and strengthen your online community is to bring people together in real life — “I.R.L.”.  

Events like community service projects, meetups, happy hours, walks/runs, etc. are excellent ways to deepen your online community.

At each event, remember to remind folks of your shared community values, highlight what makes your community unique, and celebrate your new members and community leaders.


Want more digital pro tips? Follow us on Twitter @MediaCause. Looking for support in building an engaged online community for your organization? Get in touch.

Ian Gardiner

ian@mediacause.org

Ian has ten years of experience in nonprofit marketing and communications with a focus on digital strategy. Most recently, Ian worked as the digital strategist for Boys & Girls Clubs of San Francisco, where he developed and implemented online brand awareness and fundraising initiatives.