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If you build it, they will not come. Creating a thriving online community takes a lot of effort, listening and strategy. But it’s incredibly rewarding.
More than mere traffic, an online community has a personality and momentum all its own. It’s a place people come to share and express their passion. Because people feel so strongly about the activity or topic the community is built around, it’s difficult to get their buy-in and easy to alienate them along the way.
Here are a few steps on one possible path to building a community that people are proud to be a part of, and in which they’re eager to invest their time and energy.
Really know who you’re serving
If you’re thinking about creating an online community, you’re probably already part of the community you’ll be serving, or at least adjacent to it. You may think you know a lot about your target users and that no further research is needed. You’re wrong.
Even if this community is already a huge part of your life and you’re looking to take it online, your point of view is limited. You need a range of perspectives to build an online community with broad appeal.
Long, detailed interactions, where you ask a lot of questions and otherwise don’t say much, are the best way to get a real understanding of how your future community members think. This is a big ask, so you’ll likely have to compensate people for their time.
In the very early days of The Dyrt, we would take REI gift cards to campgrounds and have long conversations about how people decide where to camp. We also conducted contextual inquiries where we went to campers’ houses and watched, or even filmed, as they researched campgrounds online.
It was tedious, time-consuming work that took place alongside the technology development of The Dyrt in our early years. But the information we got was invaluable. We confirmed what we suspected: Not all campers approached camping the same way we did. And we needed to create a community for all campers.
Adopt early adopters
Hands-on research continues once your online community is up and running. I’ll never forget the thrill when the first person I didn’t know wrote a review of a campground on The Dyrt. Who were they? How did they find us? What did they like and dislike about the product so far?
I called them up and asked those questions and many more. I personally contacted many of the first people who posted reviews who weren’t our friends and family. Many of these users have remained prominent figures in the community as it has grown exponentially.
This type of one-on-one communication may not come naturally to younger entrepreneurs who are digital natives. There’s going to be an impulse to automate everything using surveys or tracking tools. That information is very useful. But as you’re building your community, personal interaction is key. It leads to creativity and insights that you just can’t get purely from form submissions and tools.
Know the 1:9:90 rule
When user-generated content began to take over the internet in the mid aughts, the 1:9:90 rule (also known as 90/9/1 or other variants) began to emerge, and it continues to apply to online communities today. The rule states that on average 1% of users will create content, 9% of users will engage with that content (such as likes or upvotes) and 90% of users will view content without contributing.
Odds are, your community will conform to this rule as it grows. Sometimes, entrepreneurs get frustrated with the number of lurkers on their platform. Set realistic expectations. Lurkers are great. Having a lot of lurkers is healthy growth.
However, while they may represent the vast majority of users, do not give in to the temptation to design for lurkers. A strong community designs for the 1% of superusers. Please them, and the rest will follow.
Grow with the community
To maintain sustained growth and morale in your online community, you must relinquish some control over time.
In the beginning, the community was your vision alone. You processed information from your research and created something people love. Now those people have a stake in it too, and in order to keep them and their extremely valuable contributions in the community, you have to avoid disrupting their experience too significantly.
Your features become part of people’s lives. While you’ll have to sunset features, do it with tact and take care to protect what people have created on your platform. While it’s clunkier for you and your team to manage, it’s okay to have new features overlap with old ones temporarily if it creates a smoother transition for your users.
Because without your users, you are nothing.