How To Build a Community Online

Building an audience is not the same as building a community. Read that sentence again.

When growing an audience — particularly one that lives on social media — you can easily lose yourself in the algorithm game, striving for followers rather than engagement. But when building a community, you create a space where real people discover answers to real problems.

On a recent episode of the Growth Machine Marketing Podcast, we spoke to Tim Stoddart about the key differences between building a community, versus building a following. Tim, writer and partner of Copyblogger and founder of Sober Nation, the leading global community for drug and alcohol recovery, always sought to create community first, following second. (Fun fact: When he created his first blog, he didn’t tell a soul about its existence.) 

Below, we explain how to build a community online, where a community takes place, and how to monetize your community (if that’s your goal).

What Is an Online Community? 

Before we explain how to build a community online, let’s revisit what an online community is

An online community is no different than a “real life” community away from your phone or computer. It’s a shared space where a group of people come together to share common interests, learn from one another, and find a sense of belonging. You may take part in a fitness community (group workouts or a running club), a work community (co-working space), or a hobby community (a writers’ meetup). 

In each of these communities, every person who takes part gets something out of it. If 15 people join together every Tuesday night for a local running group, every runner reaps the benefits of jogging five miles. 

This is what separates building a community from simply playing the algorithm game. 

When you strive for social media likes and follows, the conversation can become one-sided. If a social media influencer is compensated for posting, that compensation benefits the influencer alone, not the entire group. 

Tim noted this difference when he first started blogging in 2010. Ten years ago, many bloggers grew blogs to attract advertisers. Very few bloggers (and fewer companies) blogged simply to build quality content to answer consumer questions, thereby building an authentic audience. Therefore, when Tim began typing about his sobriety, he created a space for like-minded people to share their experiences — he laid the foundation for an online community.

At Growth Machine, we’ve sought to create a community where content markers can find answers to real questions. We launched our podcast, so you can listen to other like-minded content marketers and their strategies, and write content about content in the very blog you’re reading now.

How To Build an Online Community 

Building a community is nothing more than creating a space where community members can share similar experiences. So when you set out to build your community, keep the following things in mind.

1. Find Your Purpose 

When building your community, your focus should be finding ways to benefit community members — not benefiting yourself.

When Tim built Sober Nation, he wanted to create a place where people could get sober. He wrote about his experiences with drugs and alcohol and invited others to share their own. 

At Growth Machine, we teach brands to grow their website traffic through effective content marketing. Our blog, social channels, and podcast — i.e., our community — focus on conversations around SEO, email automation, content, and engagement. We answer questions regularly asked by Growth Machine clients and repurpose them into free online content for all writers and marketers to leverage.

2. Strive for Conversations Over Competition 

The internet is filled with fierce competition. Successful communities understand that there is a serious benefit to engaging (or even partnering) with their competition.

Tim learned this lesson when building Sober Nation. As a player in the healthcare field, Tim was quick to realize that healthcare was one of the single most competitive spaces online. Rather than trying to exclude or avoid his competition, he chose to lean into it. He realized that these conversations would take place regardless — it was just a question of whether they would take part on his platform.

Think about it: At Growth Machine, we are content marketers speaking to other content marketers. In some form or fashion, each of our readers could be a “competitor.” However, we believe we can add value to our industry by spearheading these conversations. 

Case in point: Tim is a content marketer (and partner) at Copyblogger. We could think of him as a competitor, but we see Tim as an ally. Tim interviewed our Head of Marketing, Amanda Natividad, on his show, the Tim Stodz Podcast, and we returned the favor by interviewing him here at Growth Machine. In both instances, we each benefited from the conversation and published episodes that helped our respective communities.

3. Stay Intentional Through Every Point of Contact 

Communities are built on real conversations. Carry those authentic conversations through every point of contact. 

Here are a few suggestions to build a strong community through every channel:

  • Podcasts: If you host a podcast, spend 30 minutes researching a potential guest before sending a cold email or messaging them through social media. Understand what makes them tick, and open with a personal statement about the individual.
  • Facebook groups: ​​​​Facebook groups can easily become saturated with large memberships whose posts feel a bit like spam. Assign community managers to moderate discussions, and invite new members to write a 1-2 sentence about themselves as an introduction.
  • Email newsletters: Too often, we get too caught up in the number of subscribers and disregard engagement. Send out a quarterly survey to your email list to ensure their community needs are being met.
  • Social networks: Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn are great places to start building a community — but it can't be a one-sided conversation. Respond to every [serious] question in your comments to add value and foster a sense of community.
  • Community forums: When building a brand community for the first time, you will be starting from scratch. Therefore, look for conversations already happening — such as Reddit, Quora, or other online forums — and take part.

Can You Monetize an Online Community? 

Short answer: Yes. 

Longer answer: Yes, but it shouldn't be your sole focus or goal — particularly when building a brand new community.

Community members are smart. They can sense when a conversation is inauthentic or becoming too one-sided. 

Once your community and respective value is established, monetization can be a goal. Tim monetized Copyblogger's community by launching Copyblogger Pro: a new membership service which offers a monthly masterclass and an exclusive community of content marketers. 

At Growth Machine, our content is strictly focused on building community. We offer a podcast, social channels, newsletter, case studies, and blog content for free to our community. This content helps us build trust with people.

Building an Online Community Starts With Authentic Conversations

Online communities offer a space where like-minded people can come together to learn, share, and grow together.

You can create an online community by launching a podcast, writing in a regular blog, or creating a community forum. Whichever medium you choose, all conversations should remain intentional and authentic — thereby adding value within your industry.

Building a community establishes you as a trusted thought leader within the industry, which can then lead sales. Or, you can choose to directly monetize your community by offering a paid-for membership tier. 

For more ideas on how to build an online community, listen to episode 12 of the Growth Machine podcast: The Key to Success is Being Specific.

And if you need help launching an effective content marketing strategy to boost your community, please contact us.

Kara McCartney

Kara McCartney is a writer for Growth Machine.
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