At some point, you’ve probably thought about building an online community for your product. Especially if you sell information products or software, an online community can be a valuable part of your business.

But at the same time, you have questions:

  1. How do I start a community? What platform should I build it on?
  2. How do I make sure people actually engage in the community?
  3. What if no one joins?

Luckily, those questions have answers. In this post, we’ll cover:

  • The benefits of online communities
  • The business goals a community can help with
  • How to decide whether it’s worth building an online community
  • What kind of experience you should create for your customers
  • How to increase engagement in groups
  • What should go in your community guidelines
  • Which platform to build your community on

I’ve participated in and facilitated my share of communities, but to make this article as valuable as possible, I didn’t want to rely on my perspective alone
To bring in another point of view, I worked with online community strategist Diana Tower. She even put together a few resources—including an ultimate guide on creating an online community from scratch (on Facebook or Slack)—just for ActiveCampaign readers. You can check those out here.

Should you even build an online community in the first place?

There’s a lot of buzz around building an online community. I’ve even heard some people make the claim that you should build an online community before you build your email list (which I wouldn’t recommend).
Before you jump into learning the details of Facebook groups or trying to set up a forum, take a moment to ask the question: is building an online community even worth it?
Weigh your options

It’s important to weigh your options.

Understanding your goals is a crucial first step in building a community. When I asked Diana, she said “the most important thing is to ask yourself the reason you’re building a community in the first place.”

Benefits of online communities

When done well, online communities can be a powerful tool for your business. As you look at creating a community, it’s important to understand the overall benefits—and which specific benefits are most important for your business.
The benefits of developing an online community include:

  • Ability to provide fast customer support
  • Help users connect and network with each other
  • Spur discussion between users, and have users help each other
  • Access to an audience of your most engaged customers (for upsells and cross-sells)
  • Research on your customers’ needs, either through observation or direct questions

When you create your own online community, it can add another layer of value to your product. Access to a highly motivated community of like-minded people is a major benefit to your customers.
In his book Zero to One, entrepreneur Peter Thiel argues that network effects are one of the most important parts of a business’ success.
Zero to One Cover

Source: Amazon

Speaking generally, a network effect describes a specific phenomenon—the value of a network increasing as the size of a network grows.
If you can maintain engagement in your community as it grows, it may even become more valuable than the product itself!
There are major benefits to creating an online community, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you should jump right in to create one. First, you need to ask an important question.

What business goal do you want to achieve?

An online community can be a major business asset, but it’s also a major undertaking—not something you should begin lightly.
Before you start creating your community, you need to ask how the community is going to ultimately contribute to your business.
There are a few major business goals that an online community can help you work towards

  • Reduced churn. You can reduce refund requests and churn by adding value to your product and helping people find success with it.
  • Repeat business. The people most likely to buy from you are existing customers. Delivering value and engaging with them can help you spur repeat business.
  • First time customers. If you serve your community well, they will become word-of-mouth advocates. Having an engaged community is also a value-add that you can include in your marketing materials.
  • Research. Your community will include your most engaged customers. Knowing their needs can help you with your marketing and product creation.
  • Generate lift. If you’re trying to promote a speaking event, Q&A session, or just a piece of content, posting it in your community can give it a lift.

This list is hardly exhaustive, but it gives you a sense of how an online community might move the needle on key business metrics.
As you consider creating your community, ask yourself also: what value am I adding to my customers?
What value do you provide your community?

In other words—how will you help people achieve their goals?

If you focus solely on your goals, you are actually less likely to achieve them. An online community is built on direct contact with your audience—and interaction between audience members.
Your goals are inextricably tied to the value you provide your audience. So how can an online community add value?

  • A community of like-minded people. It can be hard to find real-world forums to ask specific questions. An online community of like-minded people is attractive, especially if it serves a specific, hard-to-find niche.
  • Access to you. You don’t want to make this a focus of your community (more on this later), but people are likely to join your community because they think that you will be able to provide answers to their questions directly.
  • Maximize value from your product. Subscription and info products are more valuable when people actually use them. The ability to ask questions and solve their problems helps people get the most out of what you offer.

If you still think that creating an online community for collaboration makes sense for your business, there’s another question that needs answering.

How much are you willing to invest in creating a community?

Build it and they will come, right?
Unfortunately, this isn’t Field of Dreams. You aren’t Kevin Costner, and your audience isn’t Shoeless Joe Jackson.
(But Kevin, if it is you reading this, feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn).
In truth, building an online community takes work. Diana Tower argues that a lot of people underestimate how much work setting up an engaged community is:

diana tower

“A lot of people go to build a community and just sort of say ‘ok, I’m going to create a place for people to engage. It’ll be awesome! People will come together,’ and magically turn into raving fans or get results.”

When you create a community, it’s an enduring investment—it isn’t something you can set up once and then forget.
These are just a few of the things that you’ll need to do to maintain your community:

  • Welcome new members
  • Start discussion threads
  • Reply to comments and questions
  • Solve customer problems
  • Enforce community guidelines
  • Encourage more people to join

If that doesn’t seem like a lot, consider that “online community manager” is literally a job title. Creating an engaged community takes time and effort.
Let’s say you’ve decided that it’s worth it (and in many cases, it is). How can you make sure that your community is more than just crickets?

How to create active online communities that start conversations

Imagine an online community that practically runs itself.
People ask questions—and other members of the community give in-depth answers. Every post is high quality. The community is so effective that its members are even starting to connect offline.
Those communities exist, but they’re rare. The biggest fear of anyone starting a community is that no one will talk in the group. That, and that no one will join (which we’ll tackle later).
Community engagement is hard, but it’s also doable. The problem is that most communities approach engagement wrong.
Effective community engagement requires three things:

  • A deep understanding of the experience you want to give your customers
  • The right balance of engagement posts and community discussion
  • Rigidly enforced group guidelines

How do you want people to feel when they come into your group?

When I asked Diana for her thoughts on this topic, her answer was a little bit surprising.

“With a community, you’re actually triggering emotions in everything you do.

In the cover image, or the group description, the pinned post, the way that you interact with people, the tone of the group. Everything should be focused on triggering specific emotions. So you need to know which emotions your members want and need to be feeling.”

This is a little different from how most people approach online communities, right?
Most people start by thinking very tactically. “Oh, I need this list of 43 questions to get engagement,” and “I need to pin this post here” and “what should I write in my group description.”
The brilliance of Diana’s answer is that it takes a step back. It asks a broader question: how do you want people to feel?
Emotion in Online Communities

Decide on the emotional tone of your community

When people come into your community, they want to feel supported. They might feel confused and overwhelmed, and be looking for answers. They might be excited—and you can work to build on that excitement.
When you think about the experience you want to give your customers, you don’t need to stress out about setting up each individual tactic or how you’ll get “engagement.” What does “engagement” even mean anyway?
Once you understand your customers’ experience—then you can focus on how each tactic contributes.
Let’s say that you have a sense of what people need to get from your community. How do you go about getting “engagement?”

How to build an online community: 4 ways to increase community engagement

Ok, we’re finally to the engagement section.
When you create an online community, part of your goal is probably to have people talk to each other.
But if you’ve ever been a member of an online community, you know that this doesn’t always go that smoothly. A lot of the time, the owner of a group just asks questions over and over.
And there’s silence in response.
You want to avoid that fate and create a community that can generate its own discussions without your help. Here’s how to build online community engagement in four ways .

1. Encourage engagement using your other platforms

Your community isn’t your only point of contacts with your customers. That means you have other channels where you can prompt people to participate in the community.
When you post an especially interesting question, why not email customers and ask them to respond in the group?
include calls to action to participate in the community in other materials, like:

  • Written guides
  • Videos
  • Membership website

Check out the subtle nudge on this ActiveCampaign video:

how to build an online community

Here’s where you can actually check our ActiveCampaign Instagram.

These steps are incredibly simple, but they’re also underused. Some business owners feel uncomfortable constantly asking people to contribute.
But you need to ask! At least a little. How can people participate in a group they’ve never heard of or forgot about?

2. Lead with something interesting

Imagine two identical online communities, related to a productivity info product. In one, the owner posts this question:

“What’s your favorite productivity habit?”