Once you’ve got your community off the ground, the discussion is flowing more freely, and both you and your members are settling into a rhythm, it’s time to think about extending the reach of your group.

As with any website, app, or social media account, unfortunately, it’s not a simple case of ‘build it and they will come’.

When it comes to growing your online community, in order to attract people into your fold, they must first be made aware of it, and second, be convinced they have something to gain by joining.

Here are some practical ways to keep a steady stream of new members trickling in:

The personal touch

A personal message from an individual is always going to garner the best response rate.

We’re all met with hundreds of marketing communications every day, but a direct message from someone in your industry is likely to cut through, and more importantly, make people feel wanted. There’s an element of flattery at play; the idea of being individually sought out because someone feels you could add value to their community is very appealing. It goes hand in hand with the very concept of community, sparking the relationship off with a human element and leaning into that sense of belonging.

Think about the different types of people you could reach out to and consider contacting people on different platforms to see what’s most effective, adapting your message depending on your audience and platform. For example, if we were contacting people on LinkedIn, we might mention how Guild is less noisy and a better space for building valuable relationships. If we were approaching people on WhatsApp, we might lead with privacy and security.

Empower your members to reach out

When you search online for a new product or service, who are you more likely to believe, the company promoting themselves, or the customers doing it for them?

The same is true of your community.

Whilst you might not be asking people to part with their money, you are asking them to invest their time and energy, so an endorsement that your community is worthy of this from someone they trust is more powerful than anything you could say about yourself.

This also enables you to grow much faster. Members reaching out to a handful of relevant contacts, who then delve into their own networks, has a snowball effect.

Beyond logistics though, it simply helps your members to feel like they’re playing an important role in the growth of your group. As we’ve mentioned before, the most successful communities feel like they are ‘owned’ by the community itself. Frequently engaging with members helps them become more personally invested in the success of your group, in turn making them more likely to invite those from their own contact list.

It’s worth having a conversation with members about the types of people best suited to your community to ensure it continues to maintain the right culture, and delivers high-quality and relevant content to its existing members.

Invite influential guests for Q&As

Regardless of the industry you sit within, or the size of your group, networking is at the heart of any community - forging meaningful connections with people who can add value to your career and vice versa. It makes sense then that influential figures are likely to attract more people to your group, and an easy way to achieve this is by inviting guests to host Q&A sessions.

You’re not asking for a huge commitment from the individual, but by being associated with these authoritative people, you’re adding credibility to your group, whilst also building excitement and engagement among existing users.

Uncover their passion

As you get to know your audience, you’ll be able to uncover their passions. Whether that’s their work, changing the world, or fulfilling a dream. Understanding what gets them out of bed in the morning will give ideas for your community.

The Red Bull Cliff Diving Series is a good example of this. It’s not directly linked to selling Red Bull drinks. Instead, it taps into the audience’s passion for adrenaline sports. This relates well with Red Bull’s “It gives you wings” tagline, plus it’s interesting to its core audience of young males.

Uniting people with a common interest is a surefire way to increase engagement in your community. Members are more likely to post about things that they are invested in. Particularly if they cannot get the same content or experience anywhere else.

Offer exclusive perks

An even more specialised community can be found in HOG - a place for Harley-Davidson enthusiasts to gather. HOG is an interesting example, as participants gain access to it by purchasing a Harley-Davidson through the company. It’s a global network, with a range of exclusive benefits offered. Members get early-bird deals on new bikes, advice on their current model, merchandise and invites to real-world events. The community resources bridge both the online and offline worlds. It builds exclusivity through a special card that members can flash to show they’re part of the group. Membership is lifelong and currently has more than 1 million active members.

Giving your members something unique is a vital part of attracting people to your community. As seen with HOG, there are many offers that are specific to members. Anyone outside the community will feel like they are missing out when told about it, which is compounded by HOG’s bright orange membership card.

Unite for charity

Another tactic is to find a common cause. For organisations, arranging a charity community could fulfil CSR goals and foster a strong customer network.

Innocent runs The Big Knit every year to support older people during winter. It works with partners such as Age UK to recruit knitting volunteers and offers knitting resources on a dedicated website. There’s also a Facebook group with over 3000 members exchanging tips and photos of their creations. Every winter, the miniature hats are placed on Innocent smoothies and for every bottle sold, 25p is donated to Age UK. Since launch, the community has produced 7.5 million hats and raised £2.5 million.

Working on a social cause taps into a lot of current consumer concerns and motivations. Plastic waste and climate change are two areas where organisations are increasingly being held to account. Business leaders are expected to improve society. 71% of employees and 76% of consumers want to see CEOs stepping up to take action on issues like climate change.

Find your niche

A community will be successful when it fulfils a specific need in the market. This could be directly linked to your services or product (like Salesforce Trailblazers) or catering to a niche interest.

Developing a community based on a product or service is advantageous on many fronts. Not only does it foster a loyal network and build trust in your product, it can also inform product development and aid customer service. Salesforce Trailblazers is an online community that helps Salesforce customers use the tool and troubleshoot problems. This takes the pressure off the customer service team and helps people find solutions more rapidly.

Don’t do it alone

This ties into the final characteristic of strong communities: they share the work. Ideally, a community should get to a point where it is largely self-sufficient.

Members engage with each other, post original content, and arrange meetings and an organisation is left to oversee and implement changes. This requires a few members who are willing to contribute their time and expertise to grow the community with you.

You can encourage these members with VIP status and other perks. Some may do it for the credibility offered, as is the case with Salesforce Trailblazers. Those that contribute the most are featured on the front page of the community.

Keep experimenting

A community evolves with the times. As an audience changes, so too must the community. Regular reviews will tell you if member desires or needs have changed and whether your community must adapt to them. If a community isn’t constantly improving, then it’s likely in decline. There is no steady state for it.

Start now, and reap the benefits for years

Communities provide an alternate means of connecting with your audience. The best ones are built on authenticity and trust - helping to create genuine interactions between a brand and its customers. In doing so, you can grow deep customer loyalty that will last for years. As it becomes harder for businesses to attract and retain customers, community building will become vital. It’s worth starting now, as a strong community takes time to develop.

Like Rome, communities cannot be built in a day. Setting up a community is often the easiest step – nurturing and growing that community is the long-term challenge. However, your hard work will eventually pay off, as communities are a key component in the longevity and success of a business.

When it comes to numbers, don’t feel pressured to chase huge volumes. The reason many choose to create an online community is to enable them to get closer to people and have meaningful conversations, and this can get lost as groups expand. A community of between 15-1,500 people is considered to be optimal. Too far beyond this point, and your community could risk becoming fragmented, impersonal or noisy.

Market it

Just because you might not be monetising your community, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be marketing it, after all, you need awareness among your target audience to make it a success.

The same principles, therefore, apply to your community as they would any service or product you're promoting, it’s simply the message that might be a little softer. Consider where your ideal members are, what they’re using, what they’re looking for, and what they care about.

It’s now time to promote your new community and ensure a steady stream of newcomers and start growing engagement.

Invite people established in your industry or area of interest to promote the community benefits. They can invite their own network which helps reach potential members who will match your ideal participant.

If you already have a large network, you can tell them why joining the community will help them with their own goals. Thanks to social media, such messaging can fan out fast and wide.

Once you have a base of existing active members, you can set up a referral program. This involves members inviting contacts of theirs to join. You might offer discounts or prizes to do so. Matching this with a review process will help avoid a glut of ill-matched participants.

Finally, working with your marketing team will ensure the community gains visibility and perceived value. This will lead to greater levels of signups. If your purpose is clearly defined, it can be communicated as part of the organisation’s value proposition. Your community can be an added benefit of the standard range of products and services.

Beyond the usual digital channels you might draw upon to grow an online community, it’s also just about making it as easy to find as possible. Make sure people can click through to your community group from your website, include a link in your email signature, as well as within your other social profiles, particularly within the platforms your ideal audience is already frequenting.

Having a succinct plan in place or locating the right people and persuading them of the merit of your group will be pivotal to its success.

Photo by Avel Chuklanov on Unsplash

Read the other articles in this series on creating and growing an online community:
How to create an online community
Building an online community
How to manage your community

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