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How and Why to Nurture Online Communities on Websites

Sam Hollis is a web designer, dad and serial networker

‘I’m always happy to chat and advice is always free’

Hello, and season’s greetings!

Sinatra once sang that Christmas is a time when “Faithful friends who are dear to us,
Gather near to us once more.”

So, in this blog I’m thinking about how the festive season brings people together and makes us consider the value of being close to family and friends. Tight-nit communities and groups are great and valuable things, and it seems like a good time for me as a web expert to look at how to nurture online communities.

 

The perfect time for online community

Couple on laptop

Being physically near to eachother may be a little harder now than it once was with social distancing, lockdowns and travel restrictions. That doesn’t mean we can’t come together virtually for work or fun. Online communities allow that to happened more and more easily and effectively every year. Sam Hollis Web Design is one such place – In fact we’ve just organised to meet up remotely for our annual Christmas drinks. We may be in different countries, but that doesn’t stop us enjoying the festive season!

In this blog I’m going to give a few tips on how to create a close-knit online community that has value for its members. Apart from being a joyful thing to engage in, online communities can have a lot of value for businesses and charities. They keep the people involved loyal and active, as well as encouraging valuable interactions and feedback.

A website can become a community. Just think of Facebook or LinkedIn or one of the many millions of interest groups online, not to mention gaming communities.

Before I tell you how to build a sense of community though, lets look at which sites can benefit from a community.

 

Websites that get major benefit from becoming communities

Almost all websites and companies can benefit from building a community around themselves, but some get more benefit than others.

Most sites get good returns

Whatever type of site you run, creating a sense of community around it brings good returns. Once you’ve put the effort into enabling the community, it will keep providing value to customers with minimal maintenance.

Membership and subscription websites

Membership websites are almost natural communities … almost: Communities all have members, but not all memberships have a sense of community. Encouraging a feeling of togetherness is important for membership offerings though as it provides a huge amount of extra value to members and gives them an extra reason to keep subscribing.

Services requiring emotional investment

Investing yourself in something emotionally is always easier when supported by a group of peers. This is the truth that creators of Peloton realised when they added remote group video interaction to their bikes and hit on huge success (It’s now worth $12.5 billion on writing). It’s a fact that everyone from personal trainers to complimentary therapists can benefit from. Just be careful to maintain confidentiality and data security in these situations.

Niche businesses whose target customers have a lot in common

Have you ever walked past a Warhammer shop? The business sells small models for playing games. Unlike most game shops though, there’s usually a big table in the middle often surrounded by people playing. This is because all the customers enjoy tabletop gaming, sci-fi, fantasy and many other common interests. They come together at the shop, share these interests and then buy more products. Warhammer is something of an online community success story, too. If your customers have a lot of shared interests like theirs, encouraging community can draw them in to share and enjoy.

Educational websites

Any schoolteacher or university professor will tell you students engage and learn better in a supportive community. Just remember how much you socialised at school and university. It’s always true that the most successful online educators are the ones who create a good community around their learning.

 

How to build a community on your website

Although a successful community is an intangible thing, there are some pretty solid ways to ensure you’re enabling one. We’re going to look at four of the main things online communities need and how to provide these.

  1. The basics – Value and Promotion
  2. Interaction
  3. High-level engagement
  4. Responsivity

 

1.      Value and Promotion

This isn’t specific to community websites, but it is important. Every website and business needs to provide value and promote itself. Communities don’t start until people have a reason and a way to come together in a particular place: London started in Roman times because it was on a river close to the continent, fitness clubs start because people want to get fit, and our community drinks gatherings started because we all make websites together.

Fortunately, adding and advertising value should be quite easy for most businesspeople or anyone else used to marketing. Content, education, downloads and literal financial value are good things to offer to add value. I’m not going to go into detail here as adding value is a pretty fundamental and varied process. Take a look at my blog on membership sites to learn how to do this for a group site.

 

2.      Interaction

The first thing that happens in any new group is that members are introduced to eachother. They start to interact and the more they do, the more they become a community. The same is true online. It’s your job as the owner or manager of the site to help people to interact. There are a few big ways to do this:

Contributions – Via email and blogs

Allowing and encouraging contributions from website visitors, associates and customers is the easiest way to start a sense of community developing. These can be comments, blogs, videos or even downloads (more on this below). Make it easy for people to contribute, credit them and thank them. You can even introduce contributors and say a little about them as a person to help community members relate. At a simple level, you can ask people to email in contributions, then publish them in your blog along with a bio.

Good conversation – WordPress comments and forums

Goo conversation is the difference between a group of strangers and a group of friends. Enabling people to talk with each other on your site will help to build the meaningful relationships that are so important to a friendly community. This can be started simply by allowing space for comments on things you post. WordPress does this by default.

You can turn post comments off and on by going to the dashboard ‘Discussion’ box and checking or unchecking ‘Allow comments’. There is also a comments button on the WordPress dashboard allowing you to view, approve and manage all comments on your site – each comment needs approval before it’s published. Remember to ask for comments in your blogs and to reply when you get them.

To take things a step further, you can create a forum where site members can converse in writing. There are several WordPress plugins that allow you to do this. A forum can be hard to get going, but it can become a centre of hustle and bustle on a good community site.

Conversation – video chats

Video chats are the ultimate way to bring people together, allowing them to see and hear each other in person (see below). Modern video communication tools like Zoom and Google Meet allow you to easily schedule a meeting and create a link to it. Once that’s done, simply announce the meeting on your website and include the link.

These video chats can become regular events tying the community together. Recording the meeting and uploading it for viewing on your site can add value and let members who missed the date get involved. Just make sure you get permission to record from those taking part.

Social media

Social media platforms are the ultimate community sites, and they offer great community-building tools for your website. Start by creating an account for your community and using it to discuss and link to important and interesting things. Then take it to the next level by republishing member contributions and comments socially.

You can even bring bits of most social media platforms into your own site using plugins. Do this easily on your dashboard by choosing ‘Plugins’ from the left menu, click ‘Add new’ at the top, then searching for the name of the social media platform. You might be surprised by what you can do. As well as adding functions to your site, these tools encourage users to make the jump from social media to your website’s community.

 

3.      High-level engagement

To build a strong community, you need to encourage community members to engage with eachother at a high level. This doesn’t mean talking about philosophy and the meaning of life, it means engaging in a way that involves more senses and emotions.

I text my friends all the time, about all kinds of things. When I want to have an important conversation though, I ask if they have time for a phone call, or even a coffee and chat. That’s because text conversations are low-level engagement. It doesn’t encourage strong emotional bonding and it’s not memorable. Speaking to people is mid-level engagement. You can have a pretty deep conversation on the phone. The highest-level engagement you can achieve online is via a video though. Does anyone remember crying at ET, or laughing their heads off at Friends? That’s because you were engaged in the medium. Although a great book can artistically engage our emotions in the same way, we don’t build relationships with the writers of messages in the same way as we do with people we talk to on screen.

This brings us to another aspect of high-level engagement: It must be interactive. It must be a conversation, rather than a monologue or broadcast.

The best way to build strong online communities is to allow people to converse with eachother on video. This is high-level bidirectional interaction. Do it by scheduling video chats and uploading recorded videos.

 

4.      Responsivity

Finally, when your community are bubbly, active and chatty, you need to listen and react to what they’re saying. There are several ways to do this.

  • Be present as a member of the community.
  • Track popular topics and create blogs and videos on them.
  • Respond to feedback in word and action. Especially where complaints are involved.
  • Always be positive in interactions and don’t risk personal opinions damaging the community. This goes double for business communities.
  • Recognise the value of the community and particularly committed, helpful members. Giveaways can be a good way to do this, but simple mentions go a long way, too.

One secret strategy to building strong online communities – No, really!

There are a lot of ‘One secret strategy’ promises out there on the web. Unusually though, this one actually works. It’s a simple question that you should ask yourself whenever you’re deciding how to serve your community.

That question is: “What would I do if they were my friends?”

If you look back at all the advice above, it’s all stuff you’d do for your friends. You’d try to be present and responsive for them, try to be there in a meaningful way, not just by text, and more too.

Asking yourself this question will ensure you build a meaningful, relatable community for your members. It’s motivating and it prevents some of the cold commercial decision-making that has harmed online communities like Facebook in recent years.

With this in your mind, you should be well on your way to creating an engaging community that’s valuable to you and all the online members. Until then, in the words of Frankie, have yourself a merry little Christmas and let your heart be light.

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