Building a community around your brand can help you create a customer base that’s truly engaged. And with so many online tools and social platforms, building a community online is more possible than ever.
Justin Auciello knows first-hand what it takes to build an online community. He’s the force behind Jersey Shore Hurricane News, an online resource for sharing local weather and news. Auciello has grown the community to include more than 225,000 members on Facebook with followings on Twitter and Instagram too.
If you’re interested in building an engaged community like Jersey Shore Hurricane News, take a look at the community building tips below.
Offer Something Valuable
If you want people to join and get involved with your community, you need to give them a reason. You could offer some helpful information, exclusive discounts or other benefits. It just needs to be something that gives value to the people you’d like to join your community.
Have a Clear Plan
Before you even start your group or community, you need to know what kind of information, resources or benefit you’re going to offer. You also need to think about the people you want to be included and the platform(s) you are going to use.
Focus on What You Know
When deciding on a focus for your community, it’s best to choose a topic that you’re already familiar with and comfortable talking about regularly. It’s difficult to fake being the leader of a community when you know nothing about the subject matter.
Have a Target Audience in Mind
It’s also difficult to build a community if you don’t know who to invite. Just as with any business venture, you need to think about the type(s) of people to target for your new community. For Jersey Shore Hurricane News, the target is those who live in that geographic area. But you can also use various interests or demographic information to define your target audience.
Create Something Different
All of these different factors will have an impact on the overall feel and purpose of your community. But whether it’s through your target audience, subject matter, or another factor, you have to make sure your community stands out in some way. If it’s the same as other online communities, then people will have no incentive to join.
Use the Platform(s) Your Target Audience Uses
There are plenty of different platform options for building an online community. You can focus on adding community features to your own website, or stick with social sites like Facebook and Twitter. Jersey Shore Hurricane News mainly uses Facebook, since it’s a platform that most of the community members already use. There are some other reasons that Auciello chose Facebook, like the ability to share multimedia content. But finding out which platform(s) your target audience already uses is essential.
Don’t be Afraid to Branch Out
But there’s no rule that says you have to stick to just one platform. Once Jersey Shore Hurricane News started gaining traction on Facebook, Auciello expanded the community to include Twitter and Instagram as well. While Facebook is still the main focus, having those other accounts allows even more people to access the community and the information it provides.
Make Your Role Clear from the Beginning
Just signing up for a Facebook page or Twitter account doesn’t mean you have an actual online community. You need to actually get people involved to do that. With so many businesses and individuals just shouting into a void, you need to ensure that your community members know that their input, questions and participation is welcome and encouraged.
Ask for Contributions
The best way to get people to get involved is to simply ask them. If you want people to submit photos for a specific promotion, tell them so. If, like Jersey Shore Hurricane News, you want people to share updates whenever something newsworthy happens, make sure they know that.
Respond to People
When people do share information, photos or questions, it’s important that you respond. When someone joins a community it’s usually because they want to interact with people, not just shout into a void of their own.
Have Real Conversations
The best thing you can do when interacting with other members of your community is to be genuine. Ask real questions, care about what people have to say, and spark conversations that are of interest to you and your community members.
Be a Part of the Community
That means that you need to look at yourself as an actual member of your community in addition to its leader. Don’t just interact in a leader to followers sort of way.
See Community Members as Equals
Make sure your community members know that they are equal to you in the whole process of building your community.
Auciello says, “You can’t put yourself on a pedastal. It’s not about me, It’s about the Jersey Shore Hurricane News community as a whole. So you have to put ego aside and make it about everyone else in the community as well.”
Monitor Posts to Ensure Accuracy
However, there are some different things that go into being the leader of a group or community. If you want people to gravitate toward your community, you have to make sure that all of the posts and information shared are relevant and accurate.
Post Timely Updates
Another way to ensure that your community is seen as a valuable resource for members is to post relevant information quickly. If your group has anything to do with breaking news or updates, you need to try and post that information as quickly as possible or people will get that information elsewhere.
Use Hashtags for Easy Sharing
If your community uses platforms like Twitter and Instagram, hashtags can be a valuable tool for building your community. Encourage people to use a dedicated hashtag or set of hashtags to share photos or other posts that have to do with your community. Then you can repost or interact with their original posts.
People don’t normally join communities just to share or receive updates sporadically. Even for something like Jersey Shore Hurricane News, which shares updates about major weather events that only happen on occasion, regular updating has been important to growth. Auciello estimates that the community grew from about 25 thousand to 66 thousand members between Hurricane Irene and Hurricane Sandy, since he still posted about more minor events and weather during that time.
Learn About SEO
Another part of Jersey Shore Hurricane News’s growth is search traffic. The name is fairly straightforward, and the information shared all fits under the community’s main focus. So if people are looking for information about hurricanes and similar events near the Jersey Shore, they’re likely to come across Jersey Shore Hurricane News.
Be Patient When it Comes to Growth
But even if you have a great idea, trusted sources and the best SEO, real growth takes time. You have to be willing to start small and allow some organic growth over time.
Let Members do Some of the Work
Part of that growth is likely to be from your community members, rather than your own efforts. When people share or interact with a post on Facebook or similar platforms, other people in their network are likely to see it. So when you encourage comments or other engagement, you’re more likely to get your posts or information in front of even more people. You can also encourage your community members to share your posts or updates with their relevant connections.
Build a Level of Trust
One of the things you always have to keep in mind when building and communicating with your community is trust. Community members need to be able to trust that the information you share is accurate and that what they share will be used in the way you outlined to them.
All of this means that you have to spend a significant amount of time responding to and conversing with people. A real community takes more nurturing than a simple social account where you just post links to your products.
Take Care of Yourself
However, Auciello cautions against allowing an online community to take over your life.
He says, “I’m always getting questions about what’s happening in a particular area. I’ve gotten a little better at not responding as quickly. Because you have to find time for yourself too. And I have a full time job as well, so it’s been a challenge, but it’s so rewarding if you really enjoy the work.”
Bring Offline Conversations Online
In general terms, online communities should have a lot of the same qualities as offline ones like genuine interest and real conversations. It can help to think of it in that way to ensure that you offer real value to the members of your community.
Overall, the best thing you can do for your online community is to be authentic. People can tell when you’re just interacting with them to make sales. If you have genuine interest in the topic and like having conversations about it, people will be more likely to see value in your community.
Image: Facebook, Jersey Shore Hurricane News
I think the difficult part is creating something different and valuable. I guess this is where creativity kicks in because it is where you think of something unique to fulfill the needs of your target market.
You definitely need to think of something unique, but also something that you’re really a part of so that you can naturally interact with the other people in your community. It has to be a balance.
The reason JSHN has grown and endured is that Auciello didn’t set out to create an online news community. He was filling an immediate and desperate need in his community. His creativity and hard work (and savvy) have fueled the project, but the idea works because it wasn’t hatched by someone looking for a market opportunity. It’s authentic and organic. I think that’s the lesson for anyone looking to build and grow an online community.
Great points, Shannon! thanks so much!