How to launch and grow a community that adds value
Many publishers – consumer and B2b – are considering launching an online community to bring their audience together. But how can you build engagement and establish an active community from scratch? How can you tackle the challenges of an unruly group? And how do you measure the business value of a community to justify the investment in time and resource?
I moderated a panel at the Publishing Show that brought together four community managers, across consumer and professional audiences, to share some highly practical tips on growing and nurturing a successful community.
Who’s on the panel?
Mark Alker, publisher of Singletrack, for mountain biking enthusiasts. Their forum started over twenty years ago, and now has 700k visitors, driving traffic to their editorial content and subscribers to their print magazine.
Victoria Hart, community manager at Mark Allen Group (MAG). The SEND Network was launched a few months ago, linked to their TES SEND Show, and already has 1300 members.
Olivia Minnock, formerly Editor at FinTech Alliance, a paid-for community of 250 FinTech companies and over 5000 individuals, and now working in a partnerships role, building an ecosystem within a FinTech startup.
Thirza Loffeld, community manager for WildHub community, a group of 3000 global conservation professionals connected to charity WildTeam UK.
What is the business value of a community?
Communities take time to establish, so how can you justify the investment? Each community creates business value in different ways.
- Traffic and a marketing funnel. A community that is open to all to join can drive brand awareness and enable sales of subscriptions, event tickets and merchandise. Singletrack is no longer on the newsstand – all print subs are sold via the website – people find out about the magazine because of the forum.
- Adding value to existing customers. The charity behind WildHub offers training and the community helps recent learners to connect with each other and with experts to continue their professional development. MAG wanted to strengthen relationships with attendees at the TES SEND Show all year round.
- Paid for membership. FinTech Alliance community was for businesses which paid on a tiered model based on their size. It was also open for free to individuals who had limited access.
- Research, insights and content. The SEND Network has provided insights into topics of interest, which inform decisions about programming at events. WildHub’s mentoring programme has generated valuable content through learners interviewing experts. Singletrack surveys forum members regularly.
How to grow engagement in a community?
Just inviting people to a community is not enough to get them talking. You need a dedicated community host/manager and a clear strategy. Some practical advice from our panelists:
- Set up an advisory group of experts. SEND Network created a group of six experts/ advocates who would share content and prompt discussions.
- Get your editorial team involved. Singletrack asked ed team to post regularly
- Invite influencers in your sector. A common problem is “chicken and egg” in a B2B community where companies want to be connected with the most valuable partners possible. Olivia would suggest inviting experts, influencers and “big players” into the community at the outset – even if you offer them free membership for a time.
- Keep scope simple. Avoid creating too many rooms or topics as you spread contributors too thinly.
- Create connections. WildHub run a mentoring scheme that connects learners with experts. The learners interview the experts and write up their learnings. This raises profile of both and creates valuable content
- Run live (or virtual) events. In B2B communities, people take time to build up trust before sharing problems or issues. Small group panels or round tables provide safer spaces and establish connections. If you don’t have the budget for a solo in person event, try a “fringe” dinner or drinks next to an established event.
- Offer direct messages. 90% of community members don’t post in public threads, they just lurk and read. But if you have a member directory and a DM function, they may connect 1-1.
What are the challenges with community?
As a community takes off, it develops a mind of its own, and can be hard to manage. More practical advice on how to tackle the challenges.
- Beware the vocal minority. In most communities, 1% initiate posts and 9% reply. So a few individuals can look like they have a loud voice. Mark advised using surveys to check whether views are widely held. And creating a team of volunteer moderators from the community has been transformational in policing threads that get out of hand. On Singletrack they are unpaid but treated like VIPs.
- Scalability. A lone host or moderator can’t manage a larger community. So establishing an advisory group, or advocates, or volunteer moderators spreads the load. Ideally you want community members to answer each others’ questions before you have to get involved. This is as much a benefit to customers and partners.
- Advertiser sensitivity. Communities may comment negatively on an advertiser or sponsor in a negative light. Avoid the rush to delete a post, as it will pop up again. Encourage the advertiser to join in, acknowledge the feedback and put their point of view. Of course, you may have to delete a post if it is libelous or for other legal reasons.
- Divergence of objectives. Communities can pull in a different direction to the company strategy. As a community manager you have to find ways to keep both masters happy. One way of making sure that business strategy and community objectives are aligned is by using a Community Led Growth model. An example of this model can be found in a community of Community Managers run by Zapnito (community.zapnito.com).
How to measure the health of your community?
Start with the number of members and how frequently they sign in. Posts are a useful metric but only the tip of the iceberg – given that 90% of members are quite happy to read and lurk. But posts can indicate how many have had questions answered or have shared new content. Track the number of DMs for side connections off the main thread. Regular surveys asking about what people value are helpful. Also anecdotes about connections and collaborations that happened offline as a result of connecting through the community.
If you are considering setting up a community to connect your audience, do get in touch for an informal chat on your strategy.
And if you are a specialist publisher or media business, you may qualify to join the Speciall Media Group, an online community of 240 media leaders that I run to swap best practice and ideas.
About the author
Carolyn Morgan has acquired, launched, built, and sold specialist media businesses in print, digital and events. She now advises niche consumer and B2B publishers on developing new products and digital revenue streams as a consultant and NED.