How to Build Your First Online Community to 1000 Members (or More)

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Building an online community can be daunting at first. The internet is already so noisy. You can feel like your voice isn’t heard and that community building is futile. Fortunately, this is not the case!

Many of you know me through the Pangea Games Discord server I run (1,400 members at the time I write this) or the Pangea Games Facebook group (1,700 members). Both of these are active, engaged, friendly communities where board game developers and board game lovers get together to share ideas, commiserate in success, and improve upon failure.

Many have asked me how I’ve done this and how you can do the same. If you’re among them, it’s your lucky day! As it turns out, it’s not actually all that hard to build a community. It just takes a lot of work 🙂

 

Online community

 

First, let’s define an online community. As I see it, an online community is any place that people are actively engaged in conversation on the Internet. Actively engaged meaning that people check in regularly and talk to one another. It’s a simple definition, but you’ll notice that it specifically excludes online platforms where nobody ever engages. Engagement is key here.

With that in mind, let’s cover eight simple steps that I use to build online communities.

 

1. Choose the right gathering place for your online community.

Before you have a wedding, you need a venue. The venue will determine the decor, the number of guests you can have, and the general mood. Online communities are similar. There are many venues you can choose – your own website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, forums, subreddits, chat servers like Discord… You know what, grab a chair because this list can go on for a while.

Think deeply about what you are trying to accomplish by community building. Then choose one to designate as your gathering place. I chose to create a Discord server because Discord is a popular, free chat app for real-time discussion that’s targeted at gamers. Likewise, I chose to create a Facebook group because Facebook is the world’s water cooler and because groups are favored by Facebook’s algorithms (which prioritize active discussions).

I cannot give you a hard and fast rule to tell you which gathering place is right for you and your online community. You will need to use your best judgment.

 

2. Establish a theme and ground rules to ensure positive discussion.

Early on, you want to make sure your community has a clear theme. For my Discord server, the theme is simple: this is a place for board game developers to talk shop. The Facebook group is similar, however, the contests I use to promote it – more on that in a moment – make it friendly for both developers and hardcore gamers.

Once you have a theme, come up with some basic ground rules. Don’t overengineer it. Nobody will read super-legalistic community rules. For example, here is what I use on Facebook:

  1. Be excellent to each other.
  2. Don’t discriminate.
  3. Be classy about self-promotion. You’re allowed to self-promote – just be considerate!
  4. Don’t spam.
  5. Help others out any way you can.
  6. Invite whoever you want, as long as they’re chill.
  7. Don’t do or coordinate anything illegal here – your mom raised you better than that!

I start with a positive rule. “Thou shalt nots” will only get you so far. Rules 2, 4, and 7 are obvious ones – don’t be any kind of -ist or -phobic, don’t tell me how you made $87,122 working from home, and don’t talk about your illegal gambling den. Numbers 5 and 6 reiterate the positive rules, with 6 doubling as encouragement to invite.

The trickiest rule here is 3. Decide how you’re going to handle self-promotion. You can police it heavily by banning self-promotion or limiting it to a certain amount per week. Alternatively, you can allow it all (within reason) and let Facebook’s algorithm do the sorting. (Bad ideas get buried in active communities, so I don’t sweat it). No matter what you choose, be explicit about how you handle self-promotion.

 

3. Invite about 20 of your friends so the room’s not empty.

Before you can build a meaningfully engaged community, you need to establish a normal pace of conversation. Invite about 20 people who you already know. Start conversational topics on a daily basis and encourage them to comment. You don’t have to push extremely hard for engagement yet, you just need to make sure your community isn’t a ghost town when you really put your foot on the gas promoting it.

 

4. Establish norms.

Nobody cares about your rules. Perhaps 10% of people will read them and far fewer will remember them. Because of this, norms matter far more than rules. Setting good rules is part of setting good norms, but it’s not the most important part.

If you’re going for engagement, you need to make a point to ask an interesting question every day. Come up with hundreds of questions you can ask to start a conversation and schedule them in advance. When people start to respond to your questions, like their comments and reply as often as possible. If someone behaves in a negative or undesirable manner, gently nudge them in the right direction (or delete the comment).

Constantly encourage positive and meaningful engagement. Constantly discourage negative behavior. Again, this is before you start really promoting your community. Once you set good norms, people will start following that old monkey-see, monkey-do rule. Surrounded by smart and kind people, people will become themselves smart and kind.

 

5. Give people a reason to join your online community.

Once you have a month or two of engagement, you can create reasons for people to join your online community. They can be simple, such as individually crafted messages over social media. They can be flashy, like the board game giveaways I do twice monthly on the Facebook group. Either way, you need to give people a reason to join.

 

6. Push to 1000 members.

Early on with the Pangea Games Discord server, I hand messaged nearly 10,000 people on Twitter and Instagram. It took about 100 hours over weeks of effort. When I was done, I had just shy of 1,000 members in the community and it was actively engaged. It has remained active without sustained effort.

I don’t know what it is about 1,000 members specifically, but this seems to be the point at which communities are self-sustaining. There have been entire weeks where I’ve dropped out of Discord and barely been on Facebook, and the communities are still running. This should be your goal.

“Brandon, I don’t have thousands of followers or the time to message all of them.” Hey, that’s fair – there are many other options. For example, I use the blog – which pulls traffic primarily from search engines – to pull in new members to the Discord server. I use regularly scheduled giveaways of popular board games to encourage engagement on the Facebook group, as well as other related channels.

Of these, you may find giveaways to be the most accessible option. In that case, I recommend you check out Gleam.io for running contests. I’d also like to point out that these contests don’t have to be super-expensive. Often, a $50 prize is more than enough to get people’s attention and $25 in ads can go a long way toward further spreading the word of your contest. I’m a notorious tightwad and even still, the prospect of pulling in hundreds of people for around $100 per month is very attractive.

 

7. Listen to feedback to keep your online community healthy.

Once your community is self-sustaining, people will start conversations on their own, without your input. This is really good! Every once in a while, you’ll see criticism of your administration or even simply an expressed desire for new features. Listen carefully to what people are saying. You don’t have to cave to every demand, but the occasional incorporation of feedback into your methods goes a long way toward a healthy community.

 

8. Don’t overspecialize on one platform.

This is less of a community-building step, but more a necessary caution. If you’re hoping to build an online community, you are likely doing so because you’re building a business. That means your community is not merely a cool thing you do, but a lead generator for product sales, consulting, etc. It may also be a valuable part of your branding, too.

If you depend entirely upon a single platform like Facebook or Twitter to build a community, you become dependent on a company whose success has nothing to do with yours. Facebook changes their rules all the time. Twitter might get bought out. Discord could disappear tomorrow.

Sound conspiratorial? It’s not. Facebook tightened their rules for contests lately, which led to people – including me – changing the way they run their groups. In a naughtier example, Tumblr changed their service to prevent certain sorts of 18+ content from being posted. The change happened suddenly and was effective two weeks after the announcement, leaving many individuals whose content was not family-friendly high and dry. YouTube has a terrifying copyright strike system that can easily shut down movie reviewers for using copyrighted content.

My point here is simple: build a community on more than one platform. Our online channels are handled by very large corporations who can change the rules whenever they like. Don’t forget that.

 

Final Thoughts

Building an online community is a straightforward, repeatable process. It takes a lot of work, but it’s well worth it in the end. You’ll be able to generate leads, communicate directly with a larger audience, establish your brand presence, and figure out what people want. Not to mention, it’s a lot of fun.

Have any questions about building an online community? Let me know in the comments below 🙂

 

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Don’t Just Build a Board Game, Build a Business

Posted on 33 CommentsPosted in Behind the Scenes

Last week, I talked about Kickstarter, and how I could see that website changing in the near future. It occurred to me shortly after I wrote that article that many people approach board games with the intention of making money, but not necessarily making games as an end to itself. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this, and you can certainly make good money producing board games. The only trouble is that many of the people who see board games as a vehicle to get rich quick don’t realize that you have to build a business along the way.

 

Construction - Build a Business in Board Games

 

For those of you who get into board games because you’re seeking money or looking for something to do in your spare time, this is an article for you. If you’ve released a game and you’re staring down the yawning chasm of “what next,” this is an article for you, too. Those among us who want to test the waters for different industries like video games, RPGs, or toys – this is for you, too.

 

Think long-term.

It takes a long time to build a business. The simple fact is that if you’re not a fortunate son starting out with tons of spare cash or hands-on mentorship from early in your life, you’re going to have to learn the hard way. It will most likely take three to five years to turn a profit, and if you’re working full-time or have a family, it could take longer.

There’s no shame in taking your time! It does mean, however, that you have to plan for five or ten years down the line. You can’t merely be a trend-chaser because trends change very fast. If your intent is merely to make beautiful board games as a creative endeavor, then you should do that and have fun doing so! However, if you want to make money and you have to build a business, you have to see gamers as customers.

When you build a business, you can’t simply give customers a new variation on something very old. That may be your end result, but you have to either go through a specific process where you figure out what they need and then make that or, you know, get really lucky. You have to find your target market, figure out what they need, and then figure out how to address them. In the end, you may do this through games, or you might do it through something else entirely!

 

Build a business by building a platform.

Let’s say you’re convinced by now that you need to think long-term. Your intention is to make money with board games being just one possible way to do that. With board games being difficult to make and the likelihood of success being several years away, how do you build a platform that can weather the storms? A lot of things can tear you down when you try to build a business – failed product launches, dried-up funding, personal crises. Even if you have some early successes, you may not be bringing in the kind of money you hope for. You need the ability to pivot and diversify into related businesses.

In short, you need to build a brand. This is one of those pieces of advice that gets passed around on the internet so often that it becomes meaningless. Here’s what this actually means: you need to encapsulate your intentions, your abilities, and your interests into a set of associations. Those associations include a name, logo, website, social media, mailing lists, etc. If you do this right, you can explore different areas in business without losing everything. If you do this really well, then over time, you can bring in income from lots of different sources, which would leave you free to be more creative in the long run.

 

Build a business by building a community.

Having a platform is one thing. Having a lot of people to talk to is something entirely different. Obviously, the marketing benefits of having a large community are numerous. You can generate more leads, market test ideas, and generally spread your ideas to a larger audience. Yet that’s not the only reason to build a community or network.

When you build a business, having a community can help you meet valuable contacts. Knowing the right people can help you know which opportunities to pursue. They can help steer you away from unprofitable or unenjoyable directions. What’s more, the people you meet may very well make fantastic teammates for future projects.

 

Create situations where you can fail and still try again.

Last but not least, some degree of failure is inevitable when you’re talking about time frames spanning multiple years. You need to be able to recover quickly when you fail. Yes, that is a when since the experimentation necessary to succeed will invariably lead you down some misguided path at some point. This is especially true early on.

For the first year or two, your goal is simple. Don’t get knocked out of business. Stay solvent on your debts and hope that by continuing to work, build a platform, and build a community, that better days will come. After that, your job is to use the resources you’ve gained – whether that’s some hard-earned cash or brand equity – and put it to good use by making something truly profitable.

 

Final Thoughts

When you realize that trends change as people find different ways to meet needs – which are themselves in flux – the whole context in which you build a business changes. The scope widens. You stop seeing things in terms of “the next board game I’m going to make.” You begin to see the next way to allow people to escape their problems. Games become one of many ways to provide an intellectual challenge. Your design becomes a way to bring communities together.

Focus on people’s needs and how you can meet them. If you can do this with your own platform and your own community in your own authentic voice, then you have a much better chance of long-term success. Kickstarter could go offline tomorrow, board games could become unpopular, and customers could flee to entirely different products. Then there you would be – still be standing there with another chance to succeed.

 

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Could Kickstarter Become a Board Game Store by 2020?

Posted on 1 CommentPosted in Behind the Scenes

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about the future of Kickstarter. Many of the game developers I work with have expressed hesitation about the platform that I didn’t see in 2015 or 2016. Anecdotally, the platform seems to be getting harder to succeed on. The great irony being that their whole claim to fame was that it would help creative small businesses get started. So what’s going on?

 

 

They say Kickstarter is not a store…

Kickstarter Is Not a Store. At least, that’s what this seven-year-old article on their blog says. The idea of Kickstarter is that they would help you raise, through backers, enough funding to make your creative project come to life. The subtext being that you wouldn’t be able to raise the funding without this very special crowdfunding site.

Companies like CMON go to Kickstarter, raise funding for games they would be able to make even without the platform, and use the site in a way that’s very close to a pre-order system. Granted, that’s not quite pre-ordering since they are raising manufacturing costs, but there’s a degree of certainty to it that really small businesses can’t provide or compete with. Now, while this may go against the spirit of Kickstarter, I still consider this fair game. CMON makes pretty good games, and it’s hard to complain about that.

What I find a lot more alarming – at least for first-time game developers – is that, yes, some campaigns on Kickstarter actually have started taking pre-orders. That means the games already physically exist and people are effectively buying them from Kickstarter as if it were a store. If larger companies on Kickstarter follow suit and raise the standards to where manufacturing must be complete prior to Kickstarter, then that’s it. It becomes a de facto store.

 

Kickstarter has good reasons to become a store.

“But that’s against the whole spirit of Kickstarter, Brandon, why would they become a store?” The simple fact is that Kickstarter has a ton of really compelling reasons to become a store. First of all, Kickstarter gets paid 5% of every successful campaign’s funding. They get paid more when people succeed. You’ll notice that the most successful campaigns tend to be ones that aren’t risky. They tend to come from people who know what they’re doing. Kickstarter could absolutely lean into this and only accept finished products for campaigns.

Kickstarter has come a long way since 2009, and many successful projects are nearly complete once the campaign starts. When a campaign is successful, pages wind up looking pretty close to storefronts. Aesthetically and functionally, Kickstarter is creeping toward being a traditional online store like Amazon.

Kickstarter doesn’t have to change much to become a store either. They can either amend their rules to allow people to sell already-created goods as rewards or they can simply stop enforcing their moratorium on pre-orders which, by the way, they’ve already begun to do.

 

Negative reinforcement is a factor, too.

Consider also that our favorite crowdfunding has a lot of negative aspects to it that would go away if it became a more traditional store. At the end of 2015, nearly 10% of campaigns did not even fulfill their rewards at all. If you only had a 90% chance of receiving a product after purchasing it from Amazon or eBay, you wouldn’t purchase it! Simple as that!

On top of that, in late 2012, as many as 84% of projects shipped late. If we consider this separate from the 10% that don’t fulfill at all, that leaves a mere 6% of campaigns that arrive on-time. That’s an awful user experience, and you have to wonder exactly what compels people to keep coming back. Is it really about helping creators bring their projects to life any more, since Kickstarter has been regularly creeping toward becoming a store? Or rather, is it about purchasing things that fit into a certain “indie/creative” niche that Kickstarter covers better than anyone else. If it’s the latter, our favorite crowdfunding site could better serve that market need by becoming a store.

Did you know Kickstarter is illegal in Finland? That is because they have consumer protection laws in place that are intended to protect their citizens from websites that, I don’t know, fail to meet basic business standards 94% of the time. Honestly, it’s not hard to imagine these kinds of consumer protection laws taking hold in the US or EU. As much as I love crowdfunded board games, I get the logic behind these laws.

On top of that, I’ve seen a more negative attitude lately on social media toward Kickstarter. I know this anecdotal and personal. Nevertheless, I’m seeing people with “Kickstarter ennui” in far greater frequency than what I saw in 2015 or 2016. It could be because I’m confirming my own biases, but I really don’t think that’s the case.

 

What does this mean for first-time game developers?

First and foremost, everything I’ve said in this article is pure theory. Kickstarter hasn’t publicly announced an intention to become a traditional store. I still think crowdfunding is a viable path to publishing for a lot of game developers, especially those with the foresight to work in a team.

Furthermore, I don’t think a world in which our favorite crowdfunding site becomes a traditional store is actually all that different. It’s expensive to make games already, and manufacturing is just one of many expenses that you’ll run into. No matter what, you have to make products with product-market fit and build an audience. Our favorite crowdfunding website is nothing more than the venue. You’re bringing literally everything else yourself. You still have to build a business.

My final thought on this matter is simple. Don’t rely solely on the existence of a single website for your success. Kickstarter may or may not be around in its current form in five years. The world is a wild place and it continues to surprise us. As such, you need to make sure your business is strong enough to stand on its own feet.

If 2020 comes and the news breaks saying “Kickstarter has officially become a store,” you shouldn’t be in a position where that would scare you. You should be able to look at your computer, finish the article, and say “who cares? I have start-up capital, I have an audience, and I have a platform of my own. I don’t need their site.”