7 strategies for growing an online community

Over the past few years, a lot of attention has been paid to companies’ growing followers and marketing on social-media channels.

But the best kind of engagement involves building a real online community. Online communities that a company curates and grows can help it reach influencers, power brand recognition, increase website traffic, receive user feedback and connect with new potential customers.

My company’s LinkedIn Group offers my business a platform for reaching out to professionals, facilitating discussion and communicating with a massive group of people: Started in 2007, the group has more than 650,000 members, with 5,000 of them added just last week.

It’s a real-time forum: Every day, my staff participate in the group by sharing content and moderating discussions with members from around the world.

For best practices in social-media community management, large companies offer inspiration. Examine how Whole Foods uses Facebook to drive issue awareness and field customer concerns and the way Boston Consulting Group enlists LinkedIn to drive thought leadership.

Large companies have realized the importance of social-media outreach and engagement. But you don’t have to have a large organization to develop a successful social-media presence or cultivate an online community.

Here are seven strategies based on my experience:

1. Start early.

New social networks (such as Pinterest, Snapchat, Ello and Instagram) pop up all the time. Be an early adopter of new platforms to catch the spike in traffic and interest.

You can still achieve great success with established platforms like LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook. But don’t miss the chance to build on new, rapidly growing social networks in the future. Invest time with current networks, but be on the lookout for fresh opportunities at the ground floor.

2. Match the platform.

Match the style and interests of your platform. Tailor your message, discussions and engagement to the expectations that your members have for this particular platform.

If you’re forming a LinkedIn Group, for example, your content should be professional in nature and about careers or business.

CNN is customizing specialized content to reach Snapchat’s audience. It’s a departure for CNN to delve into such ephemeral content, but the company is making a special effort to reach Snapchat’s audience.

3. Promote the group.

Some people might think that online communities on social-media platforms should be used to direct users to the company’s own website. But directing people away from a group is like leaving your windows open in the winter: All the energy escapes.

Instead, channel people into the group, inviting them by email and promoting the community on your owned properties. Drive active participation in this community using any and all resources at your disposal. If you promote the community actively over time, it will begin to grow on its own.

Recruiter.com staffers regularly invite people to connect with the company on major social networks engage users with questions on these platforms and solicits responses from newsletter subscribers and the corporate website’s visitors.

4. Plan to contribute.

One of the hardest decisions you’ll make is determining how much time to spend on developing content for the online community. Spending valuable resources on a platform that you don’t own can seem like a foolish endeavor.

But either commit energy to building actual value in your group or watch it stagnate and die a slow death. My company has staff dedicated to social-media participation, outreach and moderation. Even without dedicated staff, an entrepreneur can carve out a few minutes each day to participate.

5. Build partnerships.

The importance of third-party sites and groups for promoting a company’s community cannot be overstated. Network with other group owners and active forum moderators on a platform like LinkedIn to cross promote one another’s communities.

Reach out to the news media and influential bloggers to get your online community named on “best of” and “top 50” style lists.

Such efforts can boost membership. Invite users to talk about your online community, link to the platform and highlight discussions of interest.

6. Tap advocates.

Don’t forget about your real-world relationships and connections when trying to grow a company Facebook page, Ning site or LinkedIn group.

What worked for me was encoraging people I knew to participate. This creates a strong center for the new community based on existing relationships. Such advocates might include current customers, users, colleagues, influencers and even relatives. Ask people to not only participate but also advocate on your behalf by inviting their connections.

7. Go for the long haul.

Online-community engagement via social media does not have a specific end date like a marketing campaign might. Develop a strategy that you can sustain over the long term.

Consider using dedicated, focused staff or a professional social-media consulting firm. When you begin to see traction, redouble your efforts to compound your success.