How to Build an Online Community

Whether you're starting an online community from scratch or ready to turn your audience into a connected, thriving network, here's everything you need to know to build a community in 2021.

The phrase “our community” gets thrown around a lot these days. 

When successful influencers or brands talk about “their community,” it can cover a lot of ground: Their social media followers, diehard fans, email list, website traffic, or other unconnected audiences they’re producing content to satisfy each and every day.

But here’s the thing. You’re probably not going to build the social media following of a Kardashian or the website traffic of Glossier by trying to “build an online community” in 2021. 

That’s not to say you can’t build something amazing. In fact, I want to offer a specific way of building an online community that anyone can accomplish, even if you’ve never thought about building an online community until a few hours ago when you Googled “how to build an online community.” 

In fact, it’s easy–and I’d dare say, fun–to create an online community today in this overwhelming media environment when you pay attention to this one thing: The power of making connections between people.

The real value of an online community

The #1 reason to build an online community right now is to generate the magical, life-affirming, brand-affirming, passion-affirming value each and every member of your online community gets from being a part of a thriving network of individuals coming together to master something interesting or important, together.

It’s also the single easiest way to make a new online community happen in a world of a zillion distractions where everyone is too busy to learn anything new, especially if you are starting from scratch.  

When you make this small shift to how you define what is and isn’t an online community, something important happens: You have a whole new way of thinking about approaching community building that instantly creates motivation or value for people to join you. 

The value of building an online community today is to connect people mastering something interesting or important, together. Let’s show you how to do it. 

What you need to know upfront about creating an online community

Here’s what we cover in this article:

  • What an online community does (and doesn’t do) well. 

  • 10 easy steps to building a successful online community from scratch today. 

  •  The pros and cons of using a Facebook Group or Slack Channel versus other platforms for community building out there.

Ready to get started?

Should you use a Facebook Group for your online community?

Pro:  it’s free and people are already on Facebook. For some kinds of communities, it makes a lot of sense.

Con: being on Facebook comes with a “distraction tax” with the noise, clutter, and high energy that gets prioritized in your Facebook newsfeed.

What does an online community do well?

You’re likely reading this because you know intuitively what makes a community valuable. We’ve each been a part of some amazing ones either growing up or today. 

But online communities today are being used to accomplish some pretty great things. Here are a few examples:

  • Bring people from all walks of life together to master something interesting or important to them…together. From sticking to a keto diet to learning how to use a product that enhances your market value or or asking for a raise in your industry, online communities are the single best way to delve deeply into a topic and come out the other side taking action informed by the stories and experiences of those on the same path.

  • Learn new skills and reinforce new habits. Just by being a member of an online community means a person is more likely to make the changes that they haven’t yet been able to make on their own. It turns out you can move faster and make a lasting change in your life by joining an online community.

  • Successfully deliver an online course that people actually finish. An online community is one of the  important factors in whether someone completes an online course they are motivated enough to start. This is extra true when that course is important to a person’s career, professional development, lifestyle, spiritual practice, health, or wellness they’ve had trouble seeing through on their own. 

  • Build new products, grow valuable services, and reinforce loyalty to the topics and brands we love. Online communities are the single best way for a digital small or medium business (also known as a “creator) to rapidly learn what their customers care about, where they’re curious, and what they need next from you to stay engaged and committed.  It’s crazy today to launch something new from content to online courses to a physical product without simultaneously investing in a thriving community of customers at the same time. Do so at your own risk. 

These new, incredibly valuable ways of using online communities don’t discount the other reasons people have been creating online communities since AOL chat rooms and dial-up modems: To meet other fans of their favorite teams; to talk to others about the TV shows, books, and podcasts we all love; or learn the latest and greatest updates from the people we care about most.

But these new online communities are also tied to membership subscriptions and paid online courses and they are starting to unlock hundreds of millions of dollars of new income for creators and brands around the world. 

Even if you never intend to generate income from building an online community, it’s an option that’s available today in a fresh way that’s worth remembering.

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When shouldn’t you create an online community?

This is an equally important question to tackle, especially for someone just getting started with an online community. 

Here’s when it doesn’t make sense to build an online community that connects people to each other:

  • When you just want to write and produce content for an audience. Granted, building an online community will present you with new stories, ideas, and experiences you can incorporate into your blog, your content marketing, your weekly email newsletters, the book you’re writing, or the online course you’re building. In fact, a community makes your own writing easier because it gives you more material.

But if you find the solidary practice of writing (followed by counting the open rates or page views) to be your happiest place, you may find building an online community doesn’t deliver the energy, joy, or inspiration to you in the same way as it delivers to other creators. 

That’s perfectly fine. In fact, it’s great to know this about yourself upfront. 

  • When you don’t like people that much. I’m not joking here. If it doesn’t sound motivating or inspiring to bring people together who are passionate or curious about the same topic, that’s okay. It’s not a requirement to build an online community, and an openness to people and their contributions will go a long way towards making your efforts successful. 

  • When connecting your customers or audience to each other won’t help you make better decisions or reach your immediate goals faster. If you can’t connect building an online community to an immediate goal you have right now, that’s okay. It’s always better to focus on the goal and build a plan that evolves from the objective. If an email list or a social media post will get you what you need faster, by all means, do that.

10 Steps To Building An Online Community

Step #1: Define your motivation for creating an online community

If you stopped and wrote down your motivation for creating your online community above, you’re already tackled the first step to building your online community. If you haven’t, there’s no time like the present. 

Still unsure what concrete goals are motivating you to build an online community? Here are a few bonus ones to pick from:

  1. Learn faster what your customers want or need from you (so that you can build the most valuable product possible without wasting time or energy).

  2. Drive retention. When you connect your customers to each other, they’re more likely to stick with your program or product. 

  3. Generate great case studies, fantastic testimonials, or other marketing resources more easily.

  4. Lower support costs or staff you need to hire. When people are helping each other in a community, a lot of great stuff gets taken care of on its own without any more work from you.

The clearer you are about what an online community is going to bring to you and your members, the better. And there’s no easier way to make your goals a reality once you start building your community than by writing them down upfront.

Step #2: Choose your community’s “Big Purpose”

While step 1 covers your reasons for creating a community, a “Big Purpose” is why your members will join and participate in your online community. A Big Purpose is captured in a single sentence with 3 simple parts. It’s CRITICAL to have your Big Purpose before moving forward with anything else. 

Here’s your Big Purpose sentence:

| I/we bring together _ to _, so that we can _, _, and _.|

As you can see, this is a simple sentence. It’s designed to be. Knowing a few things up front, will make it even more powerful once you start using it: 

  • It’s not your marketing sentence, so make it long and detailed.  The more details and specifics you add to your Big Purpose, the better. When you aim for brevity, you’ll tend to miss the details that will differentiate your community from others. Initially, it’s just for you, so don’t worry too much about wordsmithing it. 

  • Pick a specific person at a specific life stage to bring together first. The narrower you are in defining who your community serves, the greater chance it has to achieve liftoff. Even when the concept, program, or online course you’re creating is relevant to nearly everyone on the planet, you’ll increase your odds of success by starting with one segment first, then expanding to adjacent people as you go. If you’re building something for everybody, the sad truth is that you’re building it for nobody. 

  • Make it clear what you’re going to master together in the community. The part of your Big Purpose sentence that starts with “to _” is the place where you make clear what exactly your sound engineers, youth ministers, goddesses, or user experience designers are going to master together. This may include mastering the skills needed to get promoted in your field, the meditation techniques that will bring your calm and focus under stress, or the knowledge you need to live with a newly-diagnosed chronic disease in the best way possible.  

  • Capture exciting benefits that will come from being in your community. Lastly and most importantly, you want to give people a clear picture of the rewards that are possible for them once they’ve mastered your topic in a supportive community. This may be as concrete as increasing someone’s chances of getting a raise or as hard to quantify as living with a greater peace and staying fully present more often in an increasingly hectic world. You want the rewards of your community to be clear and aspirational in what someone will get for being a contributing member.  

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Step #3: Use your own story to support your Big Purpose

Your own story (or your company’s story) plays an important role in setting up your community for success. It’s not about your years of experience or particular area of expertise, it’s about how you discovered your own passion or focus on the focus area of your community and why it matters to you.

The most compelling stories of community leaders are those that are accessible to the person motivated to join you but intimidated by whether they could actually master this topic themselves. That’s where you as their mentor and your own story of discovering and mastering this topic comes in. 

If you can lead with “I was once in your spot, knowing I wanted to do this but not knowing how to get started” or could share, “through trial and error, I finally found my way to taking on more responsibility as a user experience designer and have a way for you to avoid my mistakes,” both are powerful ways of using your own story to recruit new people to join you.  

Step #4: Define your ideal member

We touched on this step in your Big Purpose. Narrowly focusing your initial online community efforts on one or two ideal kinds of members will be the single best thing you can do to set your community up for success. 

To refine your ideal member, start by doing 30-minute interviews of a handful of people who represent folks you want to serve in your community. Ask them to tell you about their goals and motivations around your topic, as well as their fears. Try to understand the things they’ve attempted to do on their own to master your interest or create their own results and why they failed. The more that you listen for the language they use and the things they care about, the better you’ll be able to build an online community around what’s most important to them. 

If you’re having difficulty choosing just one kind of person to serve, just remember that you are going to be able to add more kinds of people once you’ve got your community off the ground. This is a momentary focus that will increase your chances of success long term. 

Step #5: Have a 12-month “a year in the life” plan of your community

Here’s a little secret. The more of your ideal members you can speak with live and details you can crystalize about your future community that you write down on paper, the higher the likelihood is that you’ll end up with that thriving world in practice. Therefore, look out a year and capture in detail what you want your community to deliver to its members. 

For example, what can a member do in a year that they can’t do today? How did they achieve this result or transformation? What kinds of steps did the community motivate them to take? What did they learn over the course of 12 months that they didn’t know on the day they joined? How does all of this tie back to your ideal member interviews and what your people are seeking to accomplish that they’ve not been able to achieve on their own?

Once you’ve written down these specific, vivid details about your members after a year in your community, then you can work backward. What would be relevant “themes” that someone on this path would be interested in exploring? What are the weekly or daily habits that would ensure that your members have achieved their goals?

This “year in the life” is the foundation that you’ll use to come up with the calendar of activities for your community we’ll talk about next. 

Step #6: Organize a weekly calendar and monthly themes

One of the best ways to ensure engagement in a community (especially without you having to do a lot of work) is to schedule a regular weekly calendar. It’s simple. Do less work with better results by doing the same 2-3 things at the same time on the same days every week. With most community software today, you can even schedule these weekly events ahead of time. 

When you have a weekly calendar, you and your members will get into a rhythm, which also means that you’re more likely to build your community into a habit among your members. Then, you can use the novelty of monthly themes to keep your community interesting and moving forward, feeding the theme of the month into your weekly calendar activities to strike the right balance of habit and excitement that characterizes the best communities today. 

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Step #7: Choose a platform

Now that you’ve got the strategy behind building your online community written down, it’s time to turn to picking a community platform. Over the past decade, many people chose to launch their community on a Facebook group. While Facebook groups can be good for very small friend groups or very broad fanbases–hello, LA Clippers, or Stanford University class of 2004!– they’ve become increasingly hard for influencers, creators, or anyone who cares about their brand to build a thriving online community.

Today, a new crop of community platforms have emerged expressly designed to put a creator or brand front and center, with no algorithms standing in the way of communicating with members, with more features from online courses to payments built in directly, and even the ability to offer the entire package of community, courses, content, and payments under your own brand across every platform, including your own native mobile apps and spot in the app store.     

There’s never been a better time to look at building your online community on a new platform built for modern creators. For an increasing number of creators and the people they serve, a Facebook group or even a Slack team just doesn’t cut it. 

Step #8: Share your community with the world

You’ve now got everything you need to share your online community with your ideal members. If you’re starting with an existing email list, online course, or group, recruit a small team of 1-3 people to help you share it with the right initial people. Once you’ve got your squad, pick a day that you’ll officially open your community to your founding members by scheduling a live “kick-off: video event on Zoom or Crowdcast where your members can meet each other. 

Then, work backward 2-3 weeks from your kick-off event to announce your community to your initial members and begin the share period where for those 2 to 3 weeks you shout about your community from the rooftops. 

Does the idea of shouting about your community from the rooftops make you a bit nervous? You’re not alone. That’s why you’ve recruited a squad to help you share your community, and why we created our own community of creators just like you learning how to build an online community at Mighty Hosts. When you realize that you’re launching your community in a supportive spot with others just like you, something magical happens. There’s no reason to do this on your own. 

Step #9: Face your fears and reframe problems as they come

At this point, you have everything you need to build your own thriving online community. But the knowledge of how to build an online community may still not be enough to actually build an online community. 

For many, this a potentially nerve-wracking proposition! Some of the most common hesitations we hear are:

  • What if I share my community and no one joins?

  • What if it’s too much work for me?

  • What if people are too busy or don’t want to try something off Facebook?

It’s normal to have some fear around offering a new community. It makes you human. But here’s what we’ve learned watching hundreds of thousands of successful online communities thrive: the probability that any of these will happen is low. If anything, with the right strategy and software platform in your corner, you can create a community so valuable you can charge for it and so well-designed it essentially runs itself. 

The key things upfront are to embrace experimentation, stay curious, and reframe your fears into a fun puzzle to solve. There isn’t a single thing you’ll be doing in building your online community that someone else hasn’t faced before you and overcome. 

Your mindset will make all the difference. 

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Step #10: Keep going and keep trying things

Not getting initial members to join? Ask yourself if there is another profile of people who would be more motivated by your Big Purpose. Then, start over again with ideal member interviews of this new group. Repeat the process. 

Not seeing enough engagement from your initial members? Go back and test whether people know what awesome results they’ll get from being a part of your community. Then, make sure that as you deliver your weekly calendar the ways your members are expected to contribute is as clear as possible. Sometimes, people aren’t actually busy. They just don’t know what to do next (even when you think it’s crystal clear). 

The point here is that when you build an online community, there’s always something new to try and discover. People may be messy, but they are also amazing. 

It may take you a bit of tweaking as you zero in on a Big Purpose that’s the most exciting to the right set of initial members, and then build the most compelling weekly calendar and monthly themes to deliver on the promise of your community to them.

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Creating an online community is simply putting together the right pieces in the right format to unlock something magical. 

You now have all the pieces at your fingertips. 

Take the first step for free. 

Build your online community now

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