How to build communities online

Matej
Matej Trajkovski
@whiletrueburn
Updated: 19/03/2019
community
somewhere to belong

As it is inevitable for every founder, hustler, entrepreneur or solopreneur, and everyone launching their own business, there will come a time when you will need to, well, launch your business. Even though the big and planned launches are not always that useful and rarely achieve their goals, whether that's going viral or getting new signups or raising awareness for moose kidnappings, it can be easily agreed upon that the bigger the launch, the better. It's also worthy to note that even after the initial launch, the people interested in your brand or product will continue to interact with your brand or product, and they will form your first communities.

The launch itself might go either way since it's a big world and there are many variables far outside our control, but the residues of the launch should be as permanent as possible and continue to serve as sources of leads and customers even after the big launch itself. After one week, it won't really matter how many upvotes you had on ProductHunt, but it will matter if online communities and bloggers actively discuss your product. For the sake of brevity, let's say that the period between starting to aggressively announce your product to the world, and the day you decide to decrease your time spent on marketing, so you can go back on product development and figuring out what to do with all that user feedback, is called the launch period. The goal of your launch is to bring you your first set of loyal users/customers/clients/players/2 year olds with tablets and busy parents/stoners aimlessly wandering online (but hoping to accidentally land on some weird tentacle anime thing). If you're lucky, these people will start loving your product so fiercely that their devotion will make them stand out and look distinct from people not caring about your product. So, the goal of the launch is to see the initial traces of your community.

If you're reading this, especially if you're reading this before 2020, it probably means that you're a hard-working one man or woman team perpetually strapped for cash. Your entire marketing budget might be less than $500, and all of it might be allocated just for the launch. Mine is $0 for the entire marketing process and $0 for the launch. To make up for that position of ridiculous lack of financial means (called poverty), we are forced to be creative and find other ways to promote our startups. Usually, the lack of money can be compensated with the optimal use of time and energy.

improvise
improvisation - the poor man's way out since the dawn of time

In the case of launching a product and building a community, that means talking to people.

I've recently been active a lot on a number of smaller online communities. In my attempts to find as many ways to promote HustleCool with as little money spent and as little people annoyed in the process, I've discovered that a lot can be achieved by being active in forums and other online locales where people of certain niches gather and trade war stories around the campfire.

The invisible benefit you enjoy when participating in these communities is that you learn a lot, even when you think you're not. People often join these communities so that they can get help on something they're stuck on. By reading their expressions of these problems, you gather valuable knowledge on problems worth solving, problems that real people have and would even pay money to have solved. Sometimes you will be the one with a struggle, or you will notice that you have the same struggle as someone else. Often that problem will be addressed, and you will get advice. For free. Sure, there are spammers in all communities, but they're not that difficult to notice. If they're offering a product as the solution, just open their profile. If they've been a member for less than a week and have never posted anything not related to their product, they are most likely spammers. There are some plainly unhelpful people looking for meaningless debates too. It is useful to engage them every once in a while, that helps increase your visibility and your stats. Don’t get emotionally drawn in though, their primary goal in the forum (and possible in life) is to argue, yours isn’t.

heated argument
If it is, go ahead and indulge

That's the bonus however. The real reason you join a community is to see if there's a subcommunity in there where you might fit in. In a way, that's the reason everyone joins these things.

While some people just want to belong in these communities and give value without seeking anything in return, most of the members have something they want to accomplish. Don't worry, that's how capitalism works, and it is the best economic system we've come up so far. By cooperating and exchanging value but also competing, every member in the community will win. Non-participants basically get punished, cheaters get either rewarded or punished depending on how smart they are. Best bet? Play, and play to win.

Which means you will have to offer value. That's right, you will have to get in there. Well, you're not spending money, what did you expect?

My advice is to relax. Find some communities, join them, look around. Breathe. If you're new to these things, it may seem a little overwhelming at first, many posts, many comments... don't worry, they'll get smaller in time. Most of these communities have from a few hundred to a few thousand members, and even though that's not a little, it's not a lot as well. Unlike Facebook groups, where even if the group has 20.000 members and yet nobody comments on the posts, in these communities every post tends to be addressed.

Try and have a good time at first. Read things, upvote what you like, comment if you can. Forget about your product for a while. In fact, it is probably a great idea to not mention anything about your product for the first month, unless directly asked. Just help with advice, experience, and creativity. Give your take, your two cents. You will be wrong maybe, but it's not that big a deal. Try to talk about things that you're at least familiar with, the more you know about a topic the better. When what you have is only an opinion, it is smart to emphasize that in some way. Don’t state your opinions as facts. It's not that they'll ban you if you speak out of your ass, but you might lose credibility, and that's the exact opposite of what you're trying to accomplish. Still, genuine efforts of providing help are usually well received, people appreciate honest attempts even if all you have is a little or no experience. Say what you think and what you know, someone might learn something or get inspired.

Make sure your profile is as complete as possible. Many of these sites allow for a logo and a website link to be added, so do that. Every time you write something, people will see your logo. Every time you write something of high quality, people will open your profile, and maybe click your link.

Some people might look like experts to you, or they may have a lot of previous answers and posts. Don't fear them, they're usually friendly and welcoming to new genuine community members, no need to look at them as they're cops or something. They usually have an authority role assumed, they take care of the community since they're long time members and don't want to see it spoiled or turned into garbage, so they might do some parenting here and there. If you stay within the guidelines, these people are seasoned experts who've been through the brochure a few times and you should try and learn as much from them as you can.

The more you participate, the more you'll notice that your approach is changing as well. Your voice will start to develop, especially if you haven't really written or blogged much before. Your writing style will improve, and more importantly, your understanding of the market and your target audience will improve too. There are so many articles on that, it must be important, right? When you get that right, your copy writes itself, and your material and your design speak to your audience. As you learn the lingo, the common issues everyone's facing, and the way they solve them, both your marketing and your development reap the benefits.

If you're building a product, chances are you've had your own itch to scratch as well, so you already have a thing in common to begin with. Building relationships and networks based on those commonalities is easier. Instead of begging strangers to try your product, you are introducing your comrades to better tools and processes. It makes a hell of a difference. Often these relationships will transcend the initial platform, and your early adopters will interact and recommend your brand on other platforms as well, both online and offline. While the numbers of users obtained from these communities will tend to be low, they will usually make up for with passion and brand advocacy. These passion users often have little networks of their own, and their word has a lot of weight in those mini networks. That's how virality works, it starts with the early adopters. Being a good community member, you will continue to offer value to these power users, and they will usually return favours, favours you can easily and comfortably ask for and have the full confidence you've earned them.

The wisest step for your business would be to ask all of the various community members you've engaged with from the different platforms to join a community of your own. You're not asking for a complete migration, the members of these things usually belong to more than one online community already so checking out one more shouldn't be an issue. Don't be afraid to be a little assertive, but also don't bother people. Whatever way you choose to implement your community should be fine, though I would lean more towards a platform you have full control over. A social media group could work, but then you're in the social network's pocket and completelly at the mercy of their monetization strategy and algos.

As mentioned earlier, your not spending a dime here comes at a different cost - the cost of time and energy. Building a network is hard. There will be lots of unanswered comments, lots of posts of your own with no commenters. Things will take time, that's for sure. One month is probably not enough, so start planning and scanning those communities.

Also, being useful isn't easy. It does get easier the more you do it, but it is never easy. Creating useful content takes time and energy. You will have to devote a certain number of hours in your day to nurturing your communities. On the other hand, there will be days when you can't come up with anything and all the new questions simply don't inspire even a bad answer from you. That's just how the game is, don't think too much about it, you'll do better tomorrow. The point is, it is not easy, patience and resilience are words of interest here.

But the good news outweighs the bad. Communities last. They often outstand the test of time, algorithm updates, or sometimes, regime changes. All that is needed for them to form and grow is you to show some respect and creativity. The users acquired through niche communities will be your first and loudest users, they will tell stories about your product and your leadership. They will often ignore your competitors even if they have a superior offer to yours. Building them costs nothing, but what you get is something money can't buy.

Make the job of connecting to people easier by using all the power of HustleCool for free.