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 🙂
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:
- Be excellent to each other.
- Don’t discriminate.
- Be classy about self-promotion. You’re allowed to self-promote – just be considerate!
- Don’t spam.
- Help others out any way you can.
- Invite whoever you want, as long as they’re chill.
- 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.
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 🙂