In this week’s masterclass Spot.IM’s Nadav Shoval explores five ways to master your online community. 

We’ve heard that ‘no man is an island,’ and that ‘it takes a village’ to raise a child, but it’s equally true that building an organised community of connected people online is also key to a business or brand’s success today. I’ve written elsewhere on PerformanceIN that social networks have taught us that people tend to stay where they can be social, and with Facebook taking the lion’s share of internet traffic – that’s become only more true. But while we’ve learned how to connect with our target audience online, we haven’t yet truly cracked how to connect our target audience with each other. Below are five key tips for successfully building an online community.

1. Use what you already have

The vastness of the internet, not to mention the exponential popularity and globalising impact of social media, has made a millions-strong community seem an achievable goal for any brand or publisher. But while it might sound counter-intuitive, trying to build a massive community may not actually serve your best business interests. We aren’t primarily attempting to connect to every user possible – we’re trying to build stronger ties between people who already know you and your brand, and create an environment for newer audiences to get to know you better. In order to do this, the first place to start is looking at your current website traffic and then to spend time understanding who exactly your website visitors are, and how they typically behave online. Building a strong base will make it much easier to expand and grow that community later on, and create the type of community that attracts new members to join.

2. Enable contextual conversations

The second step to building a community is enabling conversation. This doesn’t mean just allowing users to comment, like or share content, but about allowing them to truly talk to each other in a dynamic, real-time way that as far as possible approximates the way people chat to each other about things they love in real life. In order for conversation to be meaningful, however, it also has to have context. This is the great challenge of Twitter, which provides a wildly dynamic and fast moving ‘conversation,’ but which equally puts people off precisely because the conversation moves so fast people often lose the thread.  Make sure that the interactions on your site are organised around topics, or implement some kind of live feed that gives an overview of what conversations are going on at any given point in time.

3. Make it lively

Like any place of business, the livelier a space is, the more apt people are to want to be part of it – just think of a restaurant or a bar. In order to entice website visitors to join your community, it’s important to demonstrate that it’s a vibrant space with a lot going on. Running live content ‘events’ on your site is a great way to tempt visitors to get involved, and has the added bonus of building an atmosphere of activity and excitement on your site. Have live chats with key members from your team and even try luring some heavy hitters from your industry to create exciting opportunities for your community. Equally, think of adding a ‘what’s trending’ or ‘hot topics’ section to the site so that visitors are constantly reminded of all the conversations going on around them.

4. Be authentic and provide real value

This is something that comes up a lot when people talk about succeeding on social media, and it’s no less true when it comes to acting and interacting with your own community on-site. If members feel that the goal behind every interaction is sales-oriented, they will be less interested in choosing to have real interactions on your site. While communities can be powerful tools for marketing or sales, and can ultimately serve to help your business succeed, they won’t work as such if there is an ulterior motive at play. If you want visitors to be drawn to your site as the place where they connect with others over things they are interested in, you need to be sincere in your interactions with them and provide real value in the content you post.

5. Reward and empower committed members

Like any community in the real world, successful online communities grow, evolve and mature over time. If you want to make sure that yours do so as well, you need to empower your community members to take responsibility and an active role in how the community behaves and develops. While you can retain overall supervision, if you hand over some power to your own members, their level of vestedness and loyalty to the community in specific and your brand as a whole will only grow. On the micro level you can encourage members and build loyalty by incorporating a rewards system into the community – giving points to members who add a lot of value to the discussion as an incentive for them to keep doing so. On a macro level, it means you have to acknowledge that your website visitors are your partners in building a community, and treat them as such, giving them the chance to have a say in how things work.