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If You Build It, They Will Come... Right?

It started with the whisper of a promise and an incredible vision. So you created an online community. You plowed down the corn field – so to speak – and built yourself a respectable ball diamond.

It’s about this time you find yourself staring into the fading Iowa light, waiting for your starting lineup to materialize out of the mist.

If you build it, they will come – right?

I suspect things only happen that easily when you’re Kevin Costner, but attracting community membership needn’t be intimidating or difficult for us average folks. And luckily, it relies very little on blind faith or magic.

Most community models require a certain population size to function properly—and ultimately to create momentum for continued growth and vitality. Combined with a sufficient quantity of quality content, this population will help you achieve a level of activity that gives members a reason to sign up and, more importantly, to keep coming back.

In a fantasy world, your community would effortlessly attract droves of active and engaged users. With the right (i.e. purpose-driven) concept in place and consistent quality content, your community should provide inherent value, but you’ll still need to get people there to experience it.

You need a recruitment strategy – and the optimal time to develop one is at the very beginning of your community planning. Or right now, whichever comes first.

You can employ a number of tactics to recruit new community members and meet your business objectives. If you’ve tried to grow a community in the past and struck out, or if you’re currently struggling with low membership or engagement, it may simply be that you haven’t selected or properly implemented the right mix of tactics. The right starting rotation is everything.

But first – you need a recruitment strategy – and the optimal time to develop one is at the very beginning of your community planning. Or right now, whichever comes first.

What’s your dream team?

Take some time to think about who you really want in your community. If you know what the goals and objectives of your community are (hint: you should) you should also know the type of people you want to attract.

Read More: 6 Community Management Tips 

These personas will help you secure founding members who, in turn, attract others like them. It’s wise to carefully curate these first members because they’ll set the standard of quality and the tone for everyone else who follows and – effectively – for the whole community. If you can manage to identify thought leaders, influencers and other individuals with clout, all the better. You want these heavy hitters on your team. They’re your Shoeless Joe Jacksons who like what you’ve built and bring all the other legends out to play.

There are three types of recruitment: owned, earned and paid tactics. Creating personas or detailed profiles for a few ideal community members will also help you decide which tactics to incorporate into your recruitment strategy. Ideally, you’ll implement a healthy mix from all three categories.

Owned

These are usually the most obvious tactics because they’re the things you already have and, thus, shouldn’t need to shell out any extra money on. Owned tactics are all about converting the right people from your existing passive audience(s) into active community members.

Your organization probably already has a mailing list or existing database of leads, customers and other existing contacts. If you have a regular newsletter, you can use it to announce the launch of your community and to post regular highlights and updates. Even if you don’t send out a regular newsletter, there’s no reason you can’t send out a special announcement (or two, or ten) to publicize your community.

Your social media followers are also on deck. They already know your brand and have self-selected to keep up with what you’re up to. You will want to announce the community and regularly share great posts from the community across all your social channels. When you launch a ‘challenge’ or other particularly exciting or high-value activity, you should consider sharing it with your social channels, as these interesting ‘things to do’ act as magnets for community growth. If you have the budget and inclination, short intro videos specifically designed for social media will help this recruitment tactic perform especially well.

Linking to your community from your website’s main navigation or home page is also pretty much a no-brainer. If people are interested enough to visit your site, they may also be interested in checking out your community, especially if you make it as easy as possible for them to do so.

Lastly, don’t forget about real life interactions like conferences, trade shows, speaking engagements, AGMs, open houses and store openings. Your community is made up of humans, not algorithms or search bots—so talk to them. All of the events you or your team attend are opportunities to chat with people and chat up your community. Don’t just stop at an invitation: try enhancing the event with a community component where people can participate and engage with your brand through the community at the event. Edmonton Economic Development, a Canadian civic institution, recently used a community to add conversation and interaction to an economic summit, and then kept community members engaged in the weeks and months following the event.

Earned

Earned strategies are unpaid opportunities for your community to gain exposure on relevant platforms. They are free, but you do have to literally earn them by working for them a little bit. The upshot is that they can be more persuasive because they are not ‘bought’.

Where do your target personas go now to learn about topics related to your product, service, or industry? Once you figure out where your would-be community members spend time online, your reputation may be able to earn you an article or two related to your community on these websites or blogs. Reach out and offer editorial teams special access and interviews. Podcasts are an increasingly popular medium and an emerging channel for community promotion. There’s something intrinsically human and relatable about listening to a person’s voice, especially when they are talking about something that excites them. A senior team member speaking about the community in a personal and authentic way is a great introduction to the purpose and spirit of your community. Reach out to the podcast host or company, introduce yourself, and make your pitch!

What we're listening to: Community Signal

Lastly, look for those who can give you a stamp of approval. Over the years, you and your team may have built a friendly network of external partners or advocates who’d be happy to give you a thumbs-up. The endorsement of a respected, independent party who likes what you’re doing can provide a vital credibility boost and encourage fence-sitters or even outright skeptics to join the community.

Paid

Paid advertising tactics can be effective without blowing your budget. Paid social is highly targeted, allowing you to get your ads in front of those who fit your specific criteria such as geographic location, interests, job titles, age range and other demographics. Ad platforms like Facebook and LinkedIn allow you to serve targeted community recruitment advertising to ideal community members who are not already following your social channels. If you have created an introductory or ‘teaser’ video, YouTube presents a particularly effective digital advertising channel. You can choose to serve the video ad before relevant topical videos, essentially guaranteeing that the audience fits your target personas.  

Make sure your messaging clearly communicates the value that members will get from your community, and don’t be afraid to play around with your ads to get the best results. Most platforms will allow you to switch up your imagery, message, keywords, targets, and categories throughout your campaign. Use this flexibility as an opportunity to test different things out and find out what performs best. You can also experiment with your payment options. Depending on the social platform, you may have the opportunity to choose a pay-per-click, or pay-per-impression campaign. Advertising during topical podcasts is another way to capitalize on the authentic, personable nature of the media format. Try to incentivize the advertisement with something for new recruits to do, so that the call to action is more than a basic ‘join the community’. This could be a call to submit an entry to a particular challenge, or an interesting question they can answer for a chance to win a prize.

When Rust-Oleum launched the Creator's Studio they had notable bloggers writing regular articles during the launch phase of their community and cross-promoting their contributions across their regular channels. This added a significant boost to the brand’s recruitment activities.

Another proven recruitment tactic is the paid influencer approach. Find individuals who have made a name for themselves in the field, topic or industry that your community caters to, then work with them to develop an authentic partnership. The best influencer campaigns have been those where the influencer participates in the community for an extended period of time. For an example of the worst kind of ‘pay to influence’ strategy, please refer to the 1919 Chicago White Sox.

Like Ray Kinsella, you have to go the distance.

Building a thriving community is part art and part science. It requires forethought, careful planning and a peaceful acceptance that your work will probably never be done—especially if things go well. The tips in this article can help you grow your community better, smarter and faster, but don’t confuse faster with ‘overnight’. Even the most winning major league franchises have rebuilding years where they are focused not on immediate wins, but on developing a roster and perfecting a formula that will ensure a sustainable and competitive team for years down the road.

Read More: How Social Media Differs From Social Community, and Why it Matters

Give your community the benefit of your effort but also your patience and the time it may need to really take off. Success and failure are both relative terms. Some will feel they’ve been unsuccessful because of unrealistic expectations. The oft-referenced ‘90-9-1 rule’ states that in most online communities, 90% of users are lurkers who never contribute, 9% of users contribute a little, and 1% are ‘power users’ who account for almost all the action. Nurture the right kind of power users and work slowly towards a critical mass of membership that generates real ROI from customer engagement. 


One day you’ll find yourself asking, “is this heaven?” Nope. It’s your thriving online community that’s supporting business functions and enriching your customer, employee and partner experience. Or maybe it is heaven.

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