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The Social Media Clarity Podcast

Apr 22, 2015

Best Practices: Starting Enthusiast Communities - Episode 22

Photo taken at OCTribe

With this episode we embark on a series of "Best Practices" looking at the entire online community lifecycle - from ideation to creation though early growth to maturation|transition|transformation and even on to end-of-life.

It's a big, hairy, ambitious goal - so let us know what you think by leaving feedback at

- This episode is for people starting an online community based on an existing group, family, friends, team, club, fans, church, guild, or hobby enthusiast - We are going to help you establish your online community’ purpose, goals and initial members. - When we are done, you’ll be in a better position to launch and keep the momentum of your new online community.

TT;DR - The Questions you need to answer before starting your community are:

  • What is your community's purpose?
  • What are you and your members' goals?
  • Who are your potential members and how will you reach them?


Hi I’m Lucy Bartlet the co-organizer of San Francisco Community Manager Group and the girl behind ForumCon another VIGLink marketing things and I love the Social Media Clarity podcast.

Randy: The vast majority of new online communities die in their first days, weeks or months. It's not because of a lack of initial enthusiasm but because the creators didn't stop and consider the nature of the work they were about to undertake. It is a lot of work that falls in the shoulders of the group founder, who usually creates a group page on a social media site by just filling in some fields and then thinks, "What's next?"

Randy: Welcome to the Social Media Clarity Podcast. 15 minutes of concentrated analysis and advice about social media in platform and product design.

Randy: Welcome to the Social Media Clarity Podcast. I'm Randy Farmer.

Scott: I'm Scott Moore.

Scott: Today we're starting a series of best practices for establishing and curating a new virtual home for an online community.

Scott: For our first chapter of this series, we'll focus on smaller online communities. We're talking about an online place for your family, friends, team, club, church, guild, clan or your neighborhood. The main idea is that the community provides value primarily to its members not to a company, brand or an institution.

Randy: The vast majority of new online communities die in their first days, weeks, or months. It's not because of a lack of initial enthusiasm but because the creators didn't stop and consider the nature of the work they were about to undertake. It is a lot of work that falls in the shoulders of the group founder, who usually creates a group page on a social media site by just filling in some fields and then thinks, "What's next?"

Scott: We're going to talk about identifying and establishing your communities purpose: why people gather will gather in your community, your communities goals, what you're trying to achieve as a group and how do you know your community is successful and your initial members, who's going to help you seed your community and make it a vibrant place to gather and how do you grow a membership from there. These are the critical success factors to get your community started and keep the momentum going so you can increase its chance of success online.

Randy: As we go through these three big questions, we'll be using a specific example to show how they are applied. Let's consider our example: Drone photography of miniature terrain. This combines two hobbies, drone photography and miniature terrain building. This could mean everything, from drones taking impossible to get pictures of Legoland, to building remote booms to go inside small-scale model buildings. Our founder, Kasey, is an amateur, skilled at building miniature terrain of all types and is a gadget freak and is excited about the possibilities of remote cameras with her main hobby.

You should state your communities purpose clearly For example, mainstream drone photography doesn't pay enough attention to alternate uses such as: smaller scale, indoor flight, and even non-flying drones.

Scott: The first thing to establish is your community purpose–your central theme. What is it all about? The reason we do this is, a share tense of purpose helps people build relationships which makes stronger communities and that makes the work easier. The other reason is that, people are busy and so are your future members. Adding another source of social input had better provide more benefits than it cost. That is, your theme has to be compelling enough to overcome handling invitations, registering the overhead of demand on your members' time to read and to post.

Randy: So Kasey wants to describe her community as the home for model builders, photographers and drone aficionados, to share about terrain and drones, building hacking and photography. Oh and did I say photos? Lots of photos.

Scott: Once you've stated your community purpose, you will need goals to understand if you're accomplishing that purpose. Goals break up into several types. There are goals for the whole community; there's goals for the members of your community; there's goals for yourself; and there's goals for people who are visiting the community but haven't quite joined yet.

We'll start with group goals. And these are what the entire community contributes to, as a whole, to help the community achieve its purpose. The way to think about goals for the group is to imagine what the community success would look like; that you have enough members who are helping each other; that your members are improving on some skill set; and that your members are solving their problems whether they're small of huge. Once you identified these goals, you need to measure your progress and accomplishing them and some might be easy to measure. Many platforms have traffic or participation stats built right in. Some are harder to measure and so simply asking your member, by surveys, or encouraging them to give feedback about the kind of successes they're having from your community can be helpful; and some are really hard or they're too big to be able to measure, and so, you might use proxies or break them down to smaller pieces.

So how are we going to pick out success for Kasey? Let's pick out photos- lots of photos. So one goal can be, to appear on the first page on the google image search if somebody types in drone or miniature terrain. Another to goal to measure can be the number of uploads to photographs to Kasey's site as compared to uploads of some other site related to drone or miniature photography.

Randy: After the community goals, it's important to remember that every individual member comes with their own goals. How they interact with you really depends on how you want to specify the community. Do you want your community to be a friendly, welcoming, place? Helpful, collaborative, argumentative or spirited or even downright competitive. Communities can display a whole range of behaviors and you can influence the overall character of the community by determining which member goals are important. For example, if your community is about mutual support, consider that you have experts analysis and you might need technology to support questions and answers. Think early about what motivates your potential experts and you will support them.

Some members want recognition for their contributions from other members or from staff. Make sure the contributions that support the community purpose are the ones you recognize. Considering our example, the member goals are not perfectly aligned with the community goals but support them nonetheless. We're going to support social feedback, in the form of likes, so that community members can provide feedback to each other about the content that they think is best, for we're not likely to create a point system or leaderboard to compare them to each other. We like to support expert's analysis in the form of a moderator-granted helpful badge, as a way to recognize long term contributors.

Scott: Let's take a moment to talk about you as the community creator and why you're doing this and knowing what you want out of it is really important when considering how much effort is going to be required. Managing a community is a job in itself and it can take time away from the thing you're actually interested in and why you started the community, and if you're not happy, then nobody can be happy.

At first, it will feel as if you're doing everything- posting, welcoming, all of the moderation- and you are doing everything. And don't be disheartened; it can take months, even a year, for a community to gel. And we'll give you some tips on how to make it easier little bit later in the show.

The reason it's so important to think about what you need out of the community is because there are three broad outcomes that can happen if you don't think about this.

That is the bad, which means that you focus on the community so much that you become resentful about losing time you're spending on the topic.

Then there's worse, and that's focusing on the topic but then the community is suffering because you're not paying much attention to them.

The way to reconcile this and get the good outcome is to accept your role in the community and get help from other people who are in your community. I have a few tips on how to do that:

First of all, be honest with yourself and your community about the your role and your goals. At first it's all about you to get it started, but as time goes on it will be more and more about them.

Ultimately, you're starting a community for a reason and if the community isn't getting what they need, you're not getting what you need. So it's somewhat symbiotic. The more people who come into the community, the more your personal goals will wind up taking a backseat through sheer inertia.

Next, the objective. Realize that community platforms give you the community creator power that others' members in your community don't have, so be conscious and be careful about what you say and what you do. In the rough and tumble of community, it can sometimes feel personal, it can sometimes get personal, and that can get in the way of the community, as a whole, being successful.

Then it's important to be flexible. Anything can happen in the community- everyday could be different- and being flexible about working with your community rather than reacting to your community, can make things so much easier on you.

One way to make it really easy is to get help. You might already have volunteers who are helping you with managing the community or you can lean on the whole community for help. I've done this with the past with identifying spam rather than me solely trying to find every piece of spam that exist. I just let everyone know, "If you see it, let me know" and then it took care of itself.

And in asking help from your volunteers in your community, you're also setting up the future of the community if, for whatever reason, you might need to leave. If you are leaning on them more, they become less dependent upon you and overall this good for a community.

Back to our example, Kasey has identified what her needs are and she understands that she's in it for the networking with other drone makers and other miniature terrain builders and photographers.

She's also in it a bit for the revenue to support herself, to support the community, so she's upfront with herself about this and upfront with the community. Nobody's surprised if ads are going to be on the site.

And she has a separate goal. she understands that this could grow very big and she's going to share the load so she needs to find people who are going to be able to be capable of helping her with the community moving forward, but she want to do that within the next six months.

Randy: Finally, we want to consider visitors and their goals. Visitors are non-members often called read-only users and they often arrive at your site by external pointers such as invitations and shares- the most commonly, Google search. Visitors are the hidden factor in online communities. Their goals are typically short-term, either fulfillment of a Google search or checking out something specifically shared with them.

When setting the goals for your site relating to your visitors, you need to consider what benefits the community gains for having visitors in exchange for what benefits are granted to the visitors.

If you have a closed-door community for example, people could only arrive with the invitations. If you want a lot of random visitors, then the ability to read or maybe even download content would be key.

In some cases, you may even wish to allow visitors, non-members, to contribute in the form of likes or comments. You should keep your visitor goals in alignment with your community goals and if you want to increase membership, consider what would encourage them to join.

And for Kasey- in fact, she wants to encourage visitors- so she wants to make sure that visitors can find read and share the content on her site and actively encourages the recruitment of contributing members but won't allow posting without membership, in the hopes that it will encourage conversion.

Scott: Now that you have your purpose and goals together, you want to think about how you're going to attract your first members. Even the best plan community needs to attract his first 40th or 4000th member.

We're going to focus on the first 25. So, you're going to help you seed the community, who's going to get things started. What you should do is name 25 people that you think would be very active in your new online community; they might be from your local group; they might be from other online communities that you're already a part of: forums, social media; they might be blogging themselves where they might have their own podcast.

The next step, once you have your 25 people named, is to tell them about the community you're starting and personally ask them to help you by sharing their knowledge and experience. If you know them well, it's pretty easy. Contact them personally by email, by phone or in person and simply tell them about what you're starting and ask them to help, share. If you don't know someone well, participate where they are participating so you have a common foundation from which you can ask them eventually.

It's very important not to broadcast or poach from other online communities. You can quickly earn a bad reputation from the members and from the people who are hosting those communities. It's far better in a long run, to work in parallel with existing communities. That way people who come to your community and decide to stay with your community will actually be a stronger foundation for you.

Even after you asked people to join your community, it's important that you set the example. You need to create content in the form that you want emulated. If you want a site with lots of pictures of miniature terrain, you better start by taking and uploading lots of pictures miniature terrain to your community.

You will also want to establish the kind of behaviors that you want and here's a couple of recommendations for or things to start establishing early:

  • Welcome people who post for the very first time in your community and encourage others to also welcome first-timers. This takes the burden out of you and it builds a culture of welcoming.
  • Also, don't feel compelled to answer every question. Ask someone who likely knows the answer to help that person out. This gives reason to help out and it sets an example of asking others to help. Keep in mind that your initial members will be doing a lot of work for you upfront, so give them special support, special handling and special motivation.
  • First of all, honor their time and effort. Thank them a lot, publicly and privately. Publicly, you can offer badges or titles that recognize your initial members as founders or as pioneers of you community. You can also have a regular celebration about your opening of community. It might be about your first 30 days, your first six months or your first year. Privately, you can send in a message within the community platform or social media but also keep in mind a handwritten thank you note. Even if you take a picture of a handwritten thank you note and send it to someone, can mean a lot that person.
  • Keep in mind that in recognizing the people who are helping you out, to not hand them too much stuff, especially at first. There's a danger where you can replace the initial motivation of desire of giving with an expectation that they're receiving in exchange of helping you out.
  • Give your seeders privilege access to you if they need special help. They're giving you time and effort so take the time and effort to help them out if they have any special problems working in your community.

What about everybody else?

Let's start with additional creators and contributors to your community. These are folks who are like your initial 25, are knowledgeable and supportive. The way to find additional creators and contributors to your community is a many version of what I outline for the 25. Seek out people on online forums or on social media, follow them or participate in the forums, compliment them or be helpful to them in some way and introduce yourself in your new community. Any marketing strategy you make towards these particular group of creators are best around sharing supporting, being heard and being appreciated for what they know and what they've done.

You will also want to attract seekers, sharers and the curious to your community. These are the folks who're seeking answers, support and share your community purpose. Some ideas on finding these folks include, encouraging your community to spread the word, either by sharing links or posts or content or by referring specific people to your community. And obviously, search engines are your friend. Allow your community to be indexed by search engines. This is really good for niche communities especially as they grow, because they tend to attract people using the same terms as your community.

Like finds like. And the marketing messages to this group can be more broad. My advice is to talk about what the community is doing. Aspire to describe your community without using the word "community" or the phrase "join our community." It can be tough but if you use action verbs such as "share," "learn," "grow," "get," then you can avoid ambiguity around the broad-term community.

Randy: So let's try our example. Where will we find our potential members for our drone photography and miniature terrain group. Kasey is already a member of several email groups and participates in message boards, both for drone photography and for miniature terrain. She knows several people who are actually using drones to take pictures and she talks to them frequently about using drones on the smaller scale, and she asked them if they will interested in helping her by posting their pictures to her community.

Kasey decides even to post a flyer at her friendly local gaming store with a URL and some drone photos of her own miniature terrain. Besides the invitations, Kasey gets her initial members from the maker and D.I.Y. communities, that she's a member of, again, forums and groups.

After getting those initial members and priming our community with a dozen or so photos, highlighting the intersection of these two hobby communities. She shares those photos targeted to communities she participates in, on Pinterest, Instagram, Flickr, Tumblr and even Facebook.

Good luck Kasey.

There you have it. Three big questions to help you start on your journey to setup your online community:

  • What is your community's purpose?
  • What are you and your members' goals?
  • Who are your potential members and how will you reach them?

The next step will be to choose a platform. Now, we don’t have time for that today, but we've linked some resources in the show notes that will help with that such as my recent paper: Five Questions for Selecting an Online Community Platform.

Scott: And if you would like personal help, I am available for consulting to get you started. You can email me at:

Randy: For links, transcripts and more episodes from the thanks for listening.