Recently Alex from How Do You Marketing got in touch with me and asked if he could interview me about the 4am Project and how I built and manage an online community. So, here are my tips for building and sustaining an online community!
1. The point
The point of the community has to come first. Why should people join you? There are likely countless niche communities operating in exactly the same way as you. But, if you offer something different, there’s no reason why your community shouldn’t find an audience.
KS: “Having a community is vital for the 4am Project. It’s objective is to invite a global community playing a part in building a picture of the world at magical time of 4am. The project attracts lots of different people, from professional and amateur photographers, to those that like to try something different and unique. People think it’s a little bit crazy and like knowing that there are others people up and out with their cameras at the same time as them.
2. The platform
You have a decision to make: do you build a platform on your website, do you have a separate URL for the community? Or do you build it on ready made platforms like Facebook, Flickr or Twitter?
KS: “The first step I took when getting the project online was to build a website. I wanted a dedicated space for it online and a place to showcase the images and have a blog to make updates. Having said that, I wouldn’t rule out using only ready made platforms depending on the nature of the idea. The 4am Project has a website, but also, just as importantly, uses ready made platforms such as twitter, flickr and facebook. This helps participants who use these mediums to take part and it also expands the reach of the project.
3. Where are your members
This should probably have come before two. You need to know where your members are going to come from. So use listening tools like Google Alerts, Yahoo Pipes and Social Mention – they’ll tell you where your audience are. This is vital research.
KS:”Twitter played a huge part in finding the 4am Project’s audience. It is what I used initially to build a following. I searched on twitter for people that were interested in photography and made contact with them. My twitter followers tell their friends and with word of month, the 4am Project has grown it’s audience. I have also reached out to the online flickr community, and used traditional methods of publicity such as newspapers and magazines.
How are you going to attract members? If you’re lucky and you have a really nice hook that people latch on to the buzz alone will be sufficient for people to start flocking to engage with you and your community. But most people need some gentle pursusion.
KS: “The 4am Project is a unique concept and having done some research I couldn’t see anything similar, so having an original idea will attract people. Participants gets excited about taking part in the project, and tell their friends, and blog about it and the excitement is spread around the world.
5. Make it easy
You’ll want to make sure it’s really easy for people to get involved, so (if you’re building something outside Facebook) commenting is essential. Think about how you’re going to order the dialogue. We’ve all hit forums that are so full of information – and not easily searchable – that we’ve turned around and walked out again. In Karen’s case, her community submits pictures, people can comment and that’s pretty much it.
KS: “I wanted to make it as easy as possible for anyone to take part in the project. I didn’t want to put barriers in the way. Not everyone is internet savvy and I didn’t want to put anyone off by making things over complicated. I have giving instructions on the website and I’m always at hand to give one to one advice if needed.
1. Simply does it
Just like the build. You’ll want to keep things simple. Users want to be able to plug-in-and-play with the minimum of fuss. Make sure the purpose of the community is really clearly communicated the minute they hit your page so they know why they’re there. Consider whether you need registration at all – barriers to entry are not good. Ideally they should be able to get stuck in right away.
KS: “Yes, I totally agree about not putting barriers in the way as it can be off putting. With regards to the 4am Project there have been things that have brought to light the benefits of having a sign up system with terms and conditions however. I haven’t decided if I will go ahead with that. The project works fine as it is. I have to weigh up the benefits of people signing up against how people will participate and if it will put them off.
A community deserves respect. Don’t bury it somewhere on your site. Have content on the homepage so that users know you’re serious. It’ll drive engagement too. Most important of all, let them know you’re there. Listen to them. Talk to them. Get stuck in. be wary of over moderation – censorship is your enemy. Create a feeling of real value and do not sell to your community.
KS: “I have been very lucky with the project in that it has required minimum moderation. People have been very respectful and co-operative with other participants.
3. Soft launch
If you sent out an email blast to your database before the community has had some organic growth you’d be wasting everyone’s time. Invite a selected few that you trust – ask them to help test things for you. You may even want to make it invite only, which also has the added benefit of drumming up a little intrigue, especially if your idea’s a good one.
KS: “Ah yes! Isn’t hindsight a wonderful thing! I didn’t soft launch the 4am Project at all. Naturally the website was tested first, but other than that it was all systems go. I guess you could put that down to enthusiasm and over excitement! Luckily that work out fine.
4. What’s the plan?
You need some rules of engagement. You’ll need to know how to deal with people who are aggressive, those who abuse the community and those that are massive contributors. Managing these people is a careful balancing act which takes time and skill. Make sure your guidelines are visible so that everyone knows where they stand.
KS: “Yes, it can be tricky managing a big online community, even a very well behaved one like the 4am Project’s community. Because it’s grown so much I don’t have the time to devote to keeping in touch with people individually on twitter for example. I like to interact and get involved and not just send my message out.
Recognise those that contribute to the community. Thank them where appropriate. Share content. Be helpful. These are all things communities expect – and this is where their value comes from. You want to be a destination where some value can be found.
KS: “That’s one of the reasons I got some great prizes for participants. I wanted to say thank to people for taking part and show my appreciation. I try to help as many people as I can along the way, and I’ve had so much fantastic feedback.
6. Be in it for the long haul
Make no mistake, your community’s unlikely to be an over night success. It could take years to build a following. Some community projects are abandoned too soon. Dedicate time to it and you’ll succeed eventually.
KS: “It’s not only building your community but sustaining it too. I was very lucky that the reaction to the 4am Project exceeded my expectations and grew very quickly and was much larger than I anticipated. Yes, if you have an online community based project it can take up a lot of time. I wish that is something I had more help with. It really could be a full time job to be able to do the project justice.
I hope you enjoyed the interview and picked up a tip or two. Any tips you would like to share?1 Comment