How to build a community (and how not to)

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In our last piece, we discussed the differences between an audience and a community. To summarise, an audience exists separate from the brand. It is impersonal. Sculpted, predicted, analysed, detached. Interactions occur sequentially, as messages sent over great distances: a product is sold; a product is bought. Communities, meanwhile, recognise the individual. Individuals become more than a market segment, or a list of characteristics: age, gender, hobbies. They have a voice, and exert an influence. The conversation becomes bidirectional and dynamic, with the individual responding to the needs of the community, and the community to the needs of the individual.

For brands, the value of this is clear: sustained interest and strong evangelism produce return customers, and repeat behaviours. Community members are impassioned; they’ll pioneer products and even, should the need arise, defend the brand or products around which the community is rallied.

But how to build a community? What’s required of a brand to nurture the growth of a community, and elevate its audience? And equally, what are the pitfalls of community building, the tempting shortcuts that see the proverbial house rapidly built on sand?


Three ways to build a community:

1. Invest in conversations. Hire a community manager.

Community building requires investment. Some communities sprout organically. Most require careful nurturing, which requires initiation and reciprocity. This means responding to messages online; it means opening up support and discussion channels on Discord and elsewhere, and incentivising engagement. All relationships require work from both sides. A community manager and social media management can be one in the same; social media is where the majority of community building occurs, and all communications should be ideated as being parts of a conversation. We are what we say, and we attract (or not) accordingly.

2. Go to the conversation

Conversations don’t always occur on owned platforms. A community manager’s purview naturally extends beyond the company’s borders, reaching into alternative forums such as Reddit or Quora. To encourage and promote this community, and bring it into the fold, community managers should actively engage in discussions. This could mean taking over management of an unofficial Reddit, or more quotidian activities: responding to individual concerns, feedback, requests on Reddit. Sometimes, the best conversation isn’t that which you create, but that which you (or your product) inspires. Encouraging third-party contributions is the most valuable form of community building. Inspired community members will do a lot for you without being prompted; for your part, a little investment goes a long way.

3. Be personal. Be direct.

The best community engagement is personal. It’s direct. You can’t respond to everybody, but respond to enough and the majority will recognise and appreciate your efforts. They’ll feel listened to and acknowledged. 

You should also promote, if not incentivise, personal contributions from community members. This could mean activities or competitions with an output – designing an image, best photo, best message – relevant to your brand. The reward can be one of prestige, such as having the work showcased on your website, or monetary. The key is that the contribution is personal: an output unique to that individual, and unique to your brand. And to celebrate contributions is an opportunity to celebrate the individuals that produce them.


And two ways not to:

1. Don’t pay for a community

In emerging markets, such as Web-3, there’s an imminent pressure to grow a community. This is particularly true when a company’s success is tied to the support of its community: when its value is sustained primarily through the community’s belief, rather than a product. Growth based on speculation is becoming more and more common, propelled by the hysteria of FOMO (fear of missing out) and elusive promise of the ‘next big thing’.  

The seemingly easy solution to achieving this, and to meeting the associated marketing goals, is to heavily incentivise community participation, and pay for growth. These tactics are often self-defeating, however. A community purchased through incentivises, such as rewarding reshares, or promotion through influencer channels, may achieve short-term numbers, but often at the expense of long-term integrity.

Such community building is non-organic. The impulse for the participation is the incentive behind it, and not the brand or product. Interest, then, is shallow, and quickly disappears as the incentives do. What’s more, the shallowness of the community precludes more sincere and earnest participation, and creates a negative impression that inhibits future organic growth.

2. Don’t get overfamiliar (and avoid controversy)

We’ve said be direct. Be personal. But there’s a line. Some brands cross it deliberately (Ben & Jerry’s, for example) and some cross it accidentally, finding themselves amidst a sudden controversy. A squall of cultural rage. Community managers should be aware of being overly familiar. You’re fulfilling a role: you’re a mentor to an audience. A guide. You exist to help them thrive and feel validated in their investments, interest and contribution. But you’re not necessarily there to edify or educate.

Your presence should remain neutral. Not passive, exactly, but fluid. Your voice is present where it needs to be, and when it serves the community. It’s important to remember that communities are composed of divergent beliefs and points of voice. The support you receive from one half for expressing a view may be met with damnation from the other.

Communities can become echo chambers, and it’s helpful to retain some objectivity. To be able to see your community from the outside, as well as from within, so your efforts serve the community – and the company – and not the individual manager or moderator. A broader engagement strategy, paired with tone-of-voice guidelines, can help to establish and reaffirm these boundaries, and allow teams to communicate confidently.

For more information on how to build a healthy and productive community, and how communities feed into your broader digital marketing strategy, please contact us today.

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