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Building an Online Community Strategy: How to Acquire and Engage Your First Prospective Members

Written by Katie Bapple | on March 12, 2015 at 8:30 AM

Building an Online Community Strategy: Finding Your Initial Members

One of the biggest concerns organizations tend to have when launching a private online community is whether their target audience will actually participate. How do you start from zero?

It's an understandable concern—who would want to make the upfront investment of creating a community only to see the space go unused? The good news is that, if you've properly vetted for your online community thus far, you're already off to a great start.

Remember when you were determining the viability of your online community by having conversations with your target audience? From this activity you gained two critical assets:

  1.       Personal, honest feedback, suggestions and insights
  2.       Rapport with highly engaged people

The insights gathered should provide invaluable information about how to create a solution that will directly address your audience's needs. How you illustrate that solution in your online community is your value proposition – the reason people will want to be part of the online community.

How to Find Your Online Community's Initial Members

The people who provided that data and insight when you assessed whether your target audience will engage in your community are your first prospective members. After all, they have laid out the building blocks of what will make your online community viable. In a way, they have also begun establishing a culture of active participation by agreeing to dedicate time to topically-aligned conversations. They are the grassroots of your community. These people will help create qualitative value for others.

Getting buy-in won't be easy. These people aren't likely to step into the role without some motivation and encouragement on your part. It's imperative they understand the personal benefits for dedicating time to this new endeavor. Luckily, we have a few suggestions for engaging your first prospective members that can make launching your online community a more seamless process.

4 Steps for Engaging the Founding Members of Your Online Community

Step 1) Reach Out Directly

Capitalize on the relationships that you started to establish when you interviewed and/or surveyed members of your target audience. Since they've already had a hand in shaping the community's purpose, they will likely be more inclined to participate on a regular basis.

Identify a group of at least 60 contacts to count for attrition. Contact these individuals directly to let them know you'll be launching your online community soon. Be sure to note that their feedback had a significant impact on the community's final shape and purpose; as a result, you'd like to ask them to continue their integral role by being among an exclusive group of beta members.

Step 2) Do a Soft Launch

Before publicly launching your online community, give your first members time to interact with one another and provide feedback.

Make sure they understand how valuable their feedback will be during this time and be transparent about how you're using it. Then take their thoughts into account to work out the kinks before your community is made available to other members. Making these individuals feel valued and important will strengthen their loyalty to the community.

An important benefit to a soft launch is enabling these users to create genuine user-generated content before the community goes live.

Step 3) Develop Positive Behaviors

Once you have come to know this core group personally, offer special opportunities to promote their individual areas of expertise by asking them to author a blog article or lead a discussion.

Seed content and connect with key members, asking for their opinions and insights. When it comes time to launch the online community to a wider audience, use this content as part of the initial promotions by highlighting the conversations and article created by through this process.

Step 4) Offer Special Programs

Even if your initial members are incredibly passionate about the topic of your online community, it's important to constantly reinforce what's in it for them.

Continue to provide opportunities for these key members to feel important by developing special programs, such as feedback councils or recognition plans. Delegating power to key members will not only build loyalty, but help you scale community building efforts over time.

Creating an active members base in new online communities takes a great deal of patience, dedication, and persistence. Don't rush the process and don't give up. Building relationships by reinforcing sentiments of belonging and importance is key for community adoption. Make direct member engagement a priority early on to drive participation and create a vibrant online community.

Topics: Online Community Management

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