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In this article, you’ll learn…

  • The benefits of building an online community
  • Four steps to building and managing a strong community

You’ve been told your whole life that talking about others is a bad thing. (In all honesty, that rumor you started about your frenemy’s torrid affair with David Hasselhoff was probably just mean.)

In the right context, however, gossiping about others can be beneficial to them. If you can get people talking about your company and its website, for example, half of your marketing will be done for you. And the best way to attract that kind of attention is to start a community around the content on your site.

Building a community around your specialty is time-consuming and intensive. What perks do you gain from investing such an effort?

Retention.Communities keep users on your site longer. Once they have a stake in the conversations taking place on your website, users will also return to stay involved in the developing discussion.

Traffic growth.Communities aren’t situational; they provide a viral aspect that makes it easy for readers to invite their friends to join the conversation. Your traffic will grow if you keep your regulars entertained.

User-generated content.The more content your site has, the better. Search engines will lock on to your site faster, and users will have more opportunities to disseminate your content. Users will generate content on your site via comments, and the ambitious ones may even participate as guest bloggers. That reduces the amount of work you have to put into continually creating new content.

Loyalty.Communities lend a layer of depth to your relationship with your customers. They’ll feel loyalty toward you and they’ll be some of the biggest advocates for your success.

Managing Your Community

As the owner of your community, you do have some responsibilities. You need to make the community easy to use. Keep your site clean and easy to navigate. Your users should be able to find your community as easily as though they’d bookmarked it. (Hopefully, most of them will do that, anyway.) In addition, enable users to invite others to join. And don’t make users jump through hoops just to use your site (such as requiring usernames and passwords to post comments).

Perhaps your most difficult task will be keeping your readers on topic. If your community is focused on career advice, for example, limit the conversations about Tiger Woods. (Although Tiger Woods has done some interesting things with his career in the last couple of years…)

Furthermore, improve your existing communities. Check out your competition—those who offer communities on similar topics—to understand what’s considered typical for your industry and pinpoint opportunities your competitors have missed. You should offer something that isn’t available in the marketplace.

Who is a part of your community is almost as important as what your community represents. If you’re building a community for authors, for example, having Stephen King join your community would be monumental. If he mentions joining your community on Facebook or Twitter, millions of fans and followers will see his message. A big fish such as King won’t likely be reeled in when you’re first starting out, but targeting a few lesser-known “influencers” (people with large followings) can lead to a desired snowball effect. Don’t be shy about inviting people you admire to join your group.

Four Steps to Success

How can you ensure your success as a community leader? To build a strong community, take the following four steps.

1. Set an appropriate launch date

Avoid launching your community over a holiday or during a busy season for your sector. Don’t launch a community for accountants in early April, right before taxes are due, for example. Who will be around to read your posts?

2. Get the word out early

People will get excited when they sense your excitement. Building anticipation is part of that process. Alert your users—well in advance— and convey your enthusiasm for the project. You’ll pique their curiosity, and they’ll check out your project.

3. Create content early on

Develop a strategic plan for the content you want to provide. Create a significant amount of that content prior to your launch so the conversation already feels active. Many people are afraid to be the first one in the buffet line at the office party; the same mentality applies here.

4. Engage users

Don’t start a conversation and then leave users hanging! Doing so will leave a void and turn readers off. Respond to the comments users leave, which will provoke others to do the same. Getting users to respond to others’ comments will create a true feeling of community, more so than any responses to your content could.

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If you’re willing to invest the effort in starting an online community, your community will find you. Before long, you’ll be the one people are talking about. And unless you’re Tiger Woods, that’s not a bad position to be in.