Over the past year, we’ve seen a major shift when it comes to the importance of building social communities.
And, as of 2023, 90% of social media marketers say building an active online community is crucial to a successful social strategy.
Active social communities can help your prospects and customers connect with each other; find more value from your products or services; and see your brand as an industry expert.
But understanding the importance of online communities and successfully building one are two different things. Here, I spoke with six social media marketers and creators at Vimeo, HubSpot, The Product Boss, Success Story, and Online Marketing Made Easy to learn their biggest tips for building and maintaining effective online communities.
Let’s dive in.
1. Make sure your community-building tactics are unique to each platform.
Alexis Nash, Vimeo’s Social Media Lead, believes that tightly-knit communities should be built across each platform your brand uses — as she puts it, “communities put the ‘social’ in social media!”
However, to effectively build strong communities on each platform, you need to adhere to the best practices of each individual channel.
Nash says, “[Adhering to the best practices of each channel] yields a nuanced experience reflecting audiences’ natural behavior on each network. For example, we’re amplifying user-generated content with TikTok’s Duets feature this year. We post question stickers on Instagram Stories and repost answers, sparking reciprocal dialogue. And, in 2023, we’re considering rewarding our most engaged followers by sharing exclusive material through Instagram’s ‘Close Friends’ feature.”
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Jacqueline and Minna of The Product Boss, a top-rated podcast that provides strategies and tips for product entrepreneurs, have cultivated more than 50,000 followers on Instagram alone, and they agree that one of the most critical components of building and maintaining a successful online community is by diversifying your content for each platform to fulfill the needs of that audience.
As they put it, “We’re really proud to say we’ve built a really strong global community of product bosses around us. We love to show up socially in different ways. We keep it pretty dynamic, whether it’s LIVE’s, IG stories, Reels, FB Group posts and events, and above all, we encourage them to show up WITH us and often thank them for doing so. We are generous in our information and conversations, so we make it a fun, relatable, positive community to be a part of.”
Mat Cruz, Community Management & Growth Specialist for the HubSpot Social Media team, agrees with this sentiment. As he puts it, “You would never try to grow a plant in an environment that does not suit it. Similar to plants, communities grow best when they are nurtured in environments where connection is easy and needs are not only met, but exceeded.”
Take the time to evaluate what types of content perform best on each platform, and what types of conversations happen on each.
Over time, you’ll want to create community-building strategies that are unique for each platform — or, if you don’t have the resources to dedicate to each platform, instead identify one platform you’d like to go all in on when it comes to cultivating a strong community.
2. Inspire your community through valuable content.
Amy Porterfield is a consultant for entrepreneurs, as well as the host of Online Marketing Made Easy, a top-ranking business podcast, and author of Two Weeks Notice. She’s also built a strong, loyal social following — in fact, her Instagram alone has over 330,000 followers.
Porterfield believes the most important component of building a strong online community is good content.
As Porterfield told me, “When building your online community, your goal is always to leave your followers thinking, ‘If this is what they offer for free, I wonder what their paid content is like?’ So don’t be afraid to give your best stuff away for free.”
Porterfield continues, “It’s important to inspire your community to dream big, then consistently offer them irresistible free value to help support them in making progress on their dreams.”
For instance, you might post a video on Facebook and ask your community to weigh in with their own opinions. Alternatively, you might test out polls on Instagram to get your audience engaged in a quick and easy way.
Or, consider how Porterfield offers free Masterclasses to her social followers, like the one posted below:
Without grounding your community in truly valuable, thought-provoking content, it won’t be easy to compel them to stick around.
3. Get to know your community and identify what purpose your online community aims to serve.
A few years ago, I joined a yoga workshop because I wanted to connect with like-minded people who also enjoyed practicing yoga.
In other words: I wanted to find a community centered around my interests.
Similarly, people join online communities to connect with people who share their passions or goals. So, to effectively cultivate an online community, Cruz recommends marketers take the time to understand their audiences’ interests and the goal(s) of your community.
Cruz told me, “You’ll want to ask yourself what purpose your online community aims to serve. Is it to entertain? To educate? To engage in conversation? Knowing who and why you’re crafting connections helps you determine the next key decision — where to plant your community’s seeds.”
He adds, “For example, if you have a community of artists looking to share their work with other creatives, Instagram might be best. Whether you’re sharing a tutorial via Instagram Reels or your latest collection through a carousel, Instagram’s platform has users primed to expect and engage with such content. On the other hand, if you are looking to host events and connect large groups of people, Facebook may be a better place to grow since its tools and features make it easy to create events, form groups, and host conversations.”
It’s up to you to identify the interests of your audience, and how those interests might tie back to your business’ products or services. But it’s a vital component of building the right kind of online community for your brand.
Nash agrees that conducting research is an important step to take when building online communities. She says, “At Vimeo, we’ve launched polls and asked questions on social to assess our users’ demographic makeup, needs, and behavior patterns. Use this data to nurture relationships with your existing community and provide value.”
As Nash puts it, “Many teams hyper-fixate on growing their follower numbers, alienating their existing community.”
Take a look at how Vimeo cleverly uses Twitter to ask targeted questions and build a more comprehensive view of their Twitter audience:
4. Provoke thoughtful debate, and be unique.
Scott Clary, host of Success Story podcast, has cultivated more than 85,000 subscribers on his YouTube channel, and he encourages marketers to provoke thoughtful discussions with their online communities.
He told me, “This means challenging the status quo and encouraging your audience to think differently. Give them something to question, something to debate, and something to challenge their existing beliefs. That way, they will be more likely to remember you, even if they disagree with you. This can also mean giving them a forum to debate important topics around your area of expertise.”
Clary also recommends marketers embrace contrarianism. He says, “Not everyone is going to love what you have to say, and that’s okay. In fact, it’s healthy. If you try to please everyone, you’ll only end up pleasing no one. Be bold, be unique, and don’t be afraid to turn some people off. Your true fans will be all the more loyal for it.”
While it’s important your brand remain empathetic, inclusive, and kind, it’s equally vital for you to provide expertise or a thought leadership perspective to your community, and that might mean creating content that demonstrates your own brand’s stance on industry challenges and best practices.
5. Cultivate a vulnerable, genuine space for people to be themselves.
Finally, it’s vital to practice authenticity in your community. Humans join communities to connect with other humans. So to cultivate a strong community, it’s your job as the community leader to foster a genuine, open space for people to be their full selves.
As Jacqueline and Minna of The Product Boss put it, “You have to show up often, but imperfectly, and most importantly, genuinely — we ask them to stay, we ask them to follow us. We ask them to interact and lean on each other, as we equip them on how to build their businesses. Asking and inviting them, and taking care of their needs, helps build a bond in your community.”
They add, “And, above all, be yourself — the right people for your community will gravitate towards you and the wrong people will be repelled, and that’s truly a good thing.”
For instance, take a look at one of The Product Boss’ recent Instagram post about the real struggles behind entrepreneurship. Most importantly, pay attention to the comments, filled with people who feel validated, heard, and understood.
Vimeo’s Nash agrees. As she puts it, “Think about LinkedIn’s evolution from a buttoned-up networking space to a true social platform. Users discuss everything including mental health, family life, funny interactions they had that morning, and more. As LinkedIn communities let their hair down, brands may benefit from matching that vulnerability.”
She continues, “No matter what community-building tactics you choose, lead with humanity. Social marketers must tap into their empathy to make their audiences feel heard, improve their daily lives, and cultivate lasting relationships.”
Examples of How Sephora, Google, and Twitch Built Strong Brand Communities
1. Google invests in Labs.
At Google, community success comes in the form of collaborative groups, or what Google calls “Labs.”
Each Google Lab brings together approximately 100 thought leaders, in specific industries, to tackle some of today’s most pressing issues. Google Labs foster mutual respect and concern among members, which spawn conversations, collaborations, and opportunities that were never possible before. It’s part of what keeps Google at the top of every “most innovative” company list today.
For example, Google’s Food Lab focuses on the production, purchase, and presentation of food. Its members take on top food challenges, from “How do we move our culture to a plant-forward diet?” to “How do we eliminate waste in our food system?”
2. Twitch succeeds with local groups.
Twitch attracts over 2 million people per month to watch and livestream digital video broadcasts. Their approach is built on a two-sided marketplace: they need to attract broadcasters, as well as audience members. Local community groups help them succeed.
Twitch has built a worldwide team to support over 40 local, city-based groups, each of which hosts real-life and virtual events that foster genuine friendships and deep relationships between local Twitch members. However, local groups (and their leaders) must demonstrate how well they can bring members together, first.
These local groups allow Twitch to transform online interactions — which can often feel transactional — into connections that have real meaning. Members return again and again to the brand, and recruit others to participate, because Twitch is a space where authentic emotional investments happen.
3. Sephora says “yes” to beauty enthusiasts.
Sephora — one of the largest beauty retailers in the world — has invested in building a makeup enthusiast community that is both accessible on mobile devices and integrated into the shopping experience.
Inside the community, members can discuss a variety of beauty products and methods, regardless of whether they’re related to Sephora products or not. Within the community, Sephora enables members to follow interesting topics and connect with fellow members, keep up with trends and chat with brands, and score access to exclusive events.
Community members can also gain access to beauty techniques and product information, engage with beauty company founders, and experience an affirming space with others who love the fun, play, and transformation of makeup.
Ultimately, cultivating a strong online community takes time and effort, but it will pay-off in the long-run by enabling your brand to create effective, meaningful connections with your audience.
Ready to get started with your own online community? Take a look at How to Launch a Successful Online Community: A Step-by-Step Guide.