To what end can one create a social media following? Is the cost justified? To help you take advantage of this effective strategy, we enlisted the help of professionals in the fields of online community management and community-building.
Creators and marketers alike are beginning to recognize the potential power of cultivating communities, and there is a good reason for this trend.
The cultivation of deeper connections with and between your followers can inspire brand loyalty and boost brand awareness, engagement, growth, and reach. In addition, it feels really great to bring people who have similar perspectives and values together in the service of a common goal.
So tell me, how do you go about it? Is it really worth it in the end? We asked online community experts as well as people who specialize in building communities to share their knowledge with us so that you can take advantage of this powerful strategy.
What is a community?
However, experts in the field of online communities are quick to point out that merely having an audience (or following) does not make a community.
Community Consultant Alex Angel, formerly of Nike and Reddit, defines a community as “a group of people who share common interests and want to connect with other people around those interests.”
The ability to “connect with other people” is a crucial part of the equation. Fostering community on social media entails encouraging the people who are already connected to you to connect with each other.
Adrian Speyer, vice president of marketing and community at the Community Leaders Institute, identifies four pillars of a strong community.
- A communal area where people can meet and talk to one another.
- There is a commonality of jargon, customs, interests, or passions among these people.
- In this area, people freely give and receive items from one another.
- They enjoy being a part of this community and look forward to helping one another out, sharing what they know, and picking each other’s brains.
Please indulge me while I delve further into the social sciences (spoiler alert: it involves Taylor Swift).
Audience vs. Community
Your community may include some of your audience, but your audience as a whole may not. Relationship dynamics and patterns of interaction are central to this contrast.
The relationship between a primary voice (a brand, creator, or celebrity) and their fans or followers is typically broadcast in one direction.
Relationships in a community are typically many-to-many (not only between the central figurehead and the followers, but also amongst the followers themselves). This results in a two-way exchange of data.
“I think the important thing that distinguishes fans [or audience] and actual community, as most social scientists will see it, is the mutual sharing amongst themselves,” says Adrian.
He gives Taylor Swift as an example of the divergence. Fans of hers listen to her music and follow her on social media, but they rarely communicate with one another. But beneath the surface of that fandom is a tight-knit community of people who meet up at concerts and fan conventions, share stories, and give each other friendship bracelets.
“Rather than an interest uniting them, it’s a specific individual,” he says, “they have a sense of belonging to one another.”
Why should you think about building a community?
Despite the many upsides to fostering a creative community, it’s important to remember that it’s a two-way street.
Community is never of the sole benefit of the creator, Adrian says. “The benefit is for your members, to have a deeper connection to one another and foster a way for them to meet, connect, and support one another. This is a key mindset shift.”
The “how” will be explained in the following section. First, though, let me explain why forming a community might be the best option for you.
Marketing through word of mouth
Building a dedicated following on social media is a lot like fostering support from loyal customers. Connecting with your audience on a personal level increases the likelihood that they will interact with your content, buy your product, and spread the word about it to others. Overall better results in terms of exposure, customer loyalty, and monetary gain.
Feedback is easily accessible
Whether you’re looking to enhance your product offering or simply gain insight into what your most engaged followers want to see more of, cultivating a core group of people who you can easily ask for feedback or input can be incredibly helpful.
This content comes in a wide variety, much like user-generated content (UGC) in the marketing world. This could involve soliciting feedback from the community in order to shape future content, allowing members to collaborate on content creation, or even promoting other members’ work on the site (with their consent, of course).
This can ease the pressure on brands and creators to come up with all the content the algorithm needs.
Alex has observed this phenomenon repeatedly in her professional life: people join communities for the value promised (typically, content and resources they feel they need), but they end up staying for the relationships they have with other members rather than the content or resources themselves.
It’s the interconnectedness of the information that helps people remember it, she says. As one expert put it, “It’s what we build towards as professionals: if people become invested in other people in the space, they are so much more likely to stick around.”
It simply feels wonderful
There’s a good reason why belongingness is so high up on Maslow’s list of needs. A lack of connection is felt in the same part of the brain as physical pain, and one study found that this desire to belong is as strong as the desire for food.
Tracey-Lee Lusty, a full-time Instagram creator, has spent the past few years building a relationship with her audience.
Personally, she says, it’s been “amazing” to have such a “engaged community” behind her efforts. Not only does it keep me honest, but it gives me great pleasure to see other people grow in confidence and self-love as a result of my own efforts to encourage them. I think we have a great relationship that benefits both of us.
How to encourage community building on social media
Engaging in your community necessitates effort on the part of your members; doing so should provide them with tangible benefits. Here are some effective methods for achieving this objective.
Clarify your purpose
Our mission at Buffer is to help creators and small businesses launch and grow. Regardless of size, Tracey’s helps other women feel comfortable in their own skin.
You should have a purpose that extends beyond sharing snippets of your life or selling your product; ideally, it should be something that your community can identify with and rally around.
Be genuine and transparent
Relationships are the foundation upon which communities are constructed. Building relationships on trust. Alex asserts, “It’s incredibly difficult to build trust and incredibly easy to lose it.” Transparency and authenticity promote trust and make it easier to build relationships more quickly.
Tracey’s community-building strategy is predicated on her genuine appearance, according to her. “More than anything else, my community has been built by sharing collective and relatable experiences, by being vulnerable, and by presenting myself as a normal person with normal good and bad days,” she explains.
“Speaking one’s truth is such a powerful connector, and it allows the community to feel a part of something bigger.”
Show that you appreciate people’s participation in the community
Participation in a community’s development is a two-way street. When compared to communities, fandoms only require one-way communication.
Tracey places a premium on being involved in the local community. She makes an extra effort to interact with others by responding to every direct message and comment she receives.
She repeatedly exclaims, “Engage!” This is the first piece of advice I give to any business that wants to build brand loyalty and establish itself as a trusted online community.
Start a conversation
You can help facilitate two-way communication and strengthen relationships among your members by encouraging them to engage in group discussions.
It could be as easy as replying with a tag to a member who made a relevant comment, creating a creative hashtag to help others follow the conversation, or starting a private chat when necessary.
Usually, this has something to do with your common goal. What bonds you together as a group will also bind your members.
Raise your team’s profile
Use your platform to celebrate your members, whether by sharing their content or highlighting their achievements, and you’ll be providing a powerful piece of connective tissue for your group.
Feel Good Friday is a series by Instagram user and content creator Em Clarkson in which she encourages her audience to share something positive about themselves or their lives. She spends several hours each week posting to Instagram Stories about her friends’ and family members’ successes (such as pregnancies, promotions, births, engagements, and recoveries from illness) while dancing to celebratory music.
Connect members who share a meaningful characteristic. If your content resonates so strongly with both of them, there is likely considerable overlap between them. Again, this could be as simple as a private chat, or you could take it a step further, as Tracey did.
She organized a support group for individuals in her area who have undergone or are contemplating bariatric surgery to share their experiences and offer one another encouragement.
Surprising and delightful
Giving away gifts and swag is a great way to show your members how much you value them. If you have branded merchandise, you might want to give a small gift to your most active members. (As a bonus, they’ll be sure to share your brand on their own social channels.)
If not, you can use a coupon from another store. Anything from a bag full of free stuff to a coupon for coffee will have the same effect.
The way Buffer handles community
Over the years, Buffer’s community has taken many shapes and forms. We’ve had BufferChat, our Slack, and our Mobilize space for customers, all of which we’ve written about on our Open Blog.
At Buffer, there are several places where people can interact with each other:
- A Discord server
- Social media channels
- Blog comments
- Buffer Suggestions
We share news and resources through our social channels and blogs and get feedback in return. During our last Build Week, we made a shiny new suggestions board where users can post their top feature requests and vote for those of other users.
We see these places as places where the Buffer team and our customers and audience can get to know each other better.
Then there’s our Discord, which is a place where our customers and audience can talk to each other. We have a lot of channels where they can share information and resources about Buffer or something else.
When your community should move to a private hub
So far, we’ve discussed what it takes to build a community among your followers on your preferred platform(s). But there may come a time when comments and direct messages are insufficient.
Large creators, influencers, and celebrities frequently create separate spaces for their highly engaged fans to interact. In 2022, Paris Hilton, for instance, established her own thriving community on Discord. While Paris herself is not a regular participant, her fans come together to discuss fashion, beauty, their pets, and of course, their adoration for Paris.
This strategy is also favored by game designers. For instance, YouTube gaming creator Eeowna created a Discord community so that her subscribers could play their favorite multiplayer games with her and each other when she was unavailable.
Her primary objective in creating the Discord server was to connect her subscribers with one another, rather than to expand her own audience (though she does post links to all of her new videos and her Twitch streaming schedule).
How can you determine if it’s time to create a private space on Slack, Discord, LinkedIn Group, Facebook Group, or one of the numerous forums? Alex suggests that if you are unable to solve a particular problem for your members on your current platform, it may be time to move. Examples include the following:
- Getting regular, more nuanced feedback
- Deeper conversations between small groups
- Organizing virtual or in-person meet-ups
- A dedicated space for members-only perks or exclusive content
- A way for members to make connections organically
Alex says that social networks are more for building fan bases than for building communities. Most platforms don’t have many features that help with the above activities, and the ones that do have them are often busy with other things.
“So when your members log into their social media accounts, they’re not thinking, ‘OK, I’m a part of this community, and I’m contributing with these people.'”
If you want to build a strong community, it might be a good idea to give your members a space that makes it easier for them to get to know each other.
She says that before you jump in, you should think about how you’ll get your members to join you outside of the social platform. “I would tell people to start by sending personalized invitations to a small group. You’ll have a much better chance of getting people to join and be interested.”
All of this is to say that if you remember only one thing from this article, remember that building a community means giving your members something of value. I’ll end with a few more wise words from Adrian:
“The goal of community is to build connections based on empathy. This can’t be easily made in a lab, but it can be grown.”
“If you start with the idea of helping your audience find each other and connect, you’ll see the value it brings. In the end, you’ll feel good about making spaces that help people find people who share their interests and passions.