Building Online Communities

March 27, 2015

Imagine if every single time you had an idea, an opinion or a noteworthy story to tell you had a stadium full of people who were there to listen. What if you could mobilize the people in that stadium around your idea? Megaphone voice says: “Everyone pull out your phone and call your Member of Congress!” or, “Everyone go out and recruit five friends!”


To have hundreds of people spread your message.You can’t buy that kind of person-to-person advocacy, you have to build it.

The goal behind building an online community, in very broad strokes, is to grow an audience and engage it for a purpose or cause.

Online communities have had a big impact on politics and advocacy, dating back to the years immediately proceeding Howard Dean’s short-lived but impressive, people- and Internet-powered presidential run in 2003 and 2004. Since then, activists and technologists have been fascinated with this notion of building and mobilizing grassroots web communities for change. This fascination crystallized during the 2008 Obama campaign, where we saw the first example of a powerful online community rise up and shape the course of a nation.

Today, web communities are creating change in a host of different ways. These digital-first communities have altered our entire approach to democracy- from small groups of citizens banning together on local forums to pass laws that improve their cities and towns, to large, highly directed efforts by coalitions of organizations to drive action on national issues.

So the question becomes, what kind of an online community do you need to build to pursue your goals? The following are some basic guidelines designed to help you develop an online community around your cause:


Know your supporters

All of the different considerations, like demographics and interests, that go into a traditional media campaign also go into designing an online community. You are the expert on your issue or cause. You need to understand what type of people are most likely to get behind your mission and build an online campaign that caters to them.

Trying to reach influencers in politics and media? Maybe your campaign is more Twitter centric. Or maybe you really need buy-in from a women in their 30s and 40s, in which case you’d probably do better on Facebook.

Organizations building online communities should never limit themselves to one platform or one medium- but, knowing where your community typically “lives” online can make a huge difference in finding engaged supporters.

Similarly, you need to develop your content and messages with your audience in mind. Content is the fuel that feeds your digital fire; without it, there can be no community. Blog posts, videos, images, links, and commentary on relevant happenings focus eyes and attention on you and your mission. Some of those eyes will come back, comment, and get involved. Who were those people? What did they look like?

Forming online communities requires lots of cyclical activity. You design content based on who you think your audience is, and then you observe who actually engages with your campaign to develop more content based on what you’ve learned. The seats in the stadium fill up slowly, so you have time to decide how you will fill the remaining seats as you go.


Set some milestones you can rally the troops around and stick to them

Now that you’ve identified the prospective members of your community , you need a game plan. Your plan can and should involve communication to your audiences across multiple platforms and channels. While these kinds of tactical decisions can take many shapes, one thing you should be sure to incorporate is one or several seminal events or actions to organize your community around - here, we’re calling them milestone events.

Look at some of the most successful, recent online movements: Obama for America, Occupy Wall St., activism against SOPA/PIPA, the 2014 Climate March, all of these have one important thing in common: actions and events that people can organize and focus around.

When designing your online community to support your cause or idea, pull out a calendar and ask yourself what are some big happenings you can commit to and work backwards from. People need tangible milestones to realize what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. referred to as “the fierce urgency of now.”

Once you have laid out your big milestone events, it’s time to take to the digital space and begin to engage your community. Create blogs posts, calendar invites, social media graphics and landing pages. Email everyone you know, and then email them again. Tweet at people. Pick up the phone if you have to. Ask that organization you are friendly with, you know, the one with the big Facebook fan page, to share your blog post.

Rinse and repeat. Again, online organizing is based on cyclical activity. Be an observer of your own trends. Find the messages that worked and the audiences that reacted well to them. Look for the people who went above and beyond to spread your content and milestones among their own networks.


Set measurable goals and temper your expectations

Getting people to sign up for an email campaign, like a Facebook page, or follow a new Twitter account is hard. Getting them to really listen is even harder. Getting them to engage? The hardest.

To really foster a community online, you have to have something really exciting to offer; be bold, unique and amazing and you will succeed. Sadly, this will not always be enough - sometimes that spark can be elusive, even when your cause is important.

Depending on what the overarching goals and objectives of your campaign are, as well as the uniqueness of your message and content, your expectations for growth should be adjusted accordingly.

For tracking, hard numbers like email list size, number of fans/followers on social, website traffic, are all important but they are relative to the scope and scale of your overall goals. These numbers need to be measured side by side with engagement; if people aren’t engaging and spreading the word to others the numbers of likes and followers are meaningless. Make sure your goals and reporting is setup to tell the real story.


Build, scale, cultivate

So you already know who your people are and what types of messages you’re going to reach them with. You’ve already set up some milestone events that you’re building towards and organizing around. You have a plan in place to measure your progress. You are ready. Go forth, start a conversation; engage.

This is where things vary greatly case by case.

If you are starting from zero, you are probably launching a new website, setting up social media accounts, and cleaning up an old email list to blast. This is nothing but the shell of an online community; it’s the stadium waiting to be filled.

If this isn’t your first rodeo, then maybe you have an audience to work with, but that doesn’t mean it’s a community yet.

To build your community you have to take your engaged audience and ask them to do more than they are already doing. Ask them to take real, meaningful actions, like donating to your campaign or filling out a survey that you can actually learn something from.

Breakdown your next milestone event into actionable asks for your supporters. Are can the spread the word about the event on social media? Can they ask their friends to RSVP? Does the event require volunteers?

Next, make sure you are creating opportunities for members of your community to interact horizontally as well as vertically. Is there a Facebook group you can start and seed with some conversations? Are there task forces you can create to get you most engaged members working together?

You will recognize community when you see it. Once you do, remember to keep things cyclical; that doesn’t mean don’t try new things, but you should certainly take stock of what has worked and replicate. Measure your progress in incremental ways. Be sure to empower leaders within to continue to scale your collective.

Most importantly, always treat your community with respect, honesty and openness. Work hard and witness the change you seek become a reality.

Interested in hearing more about how Veracity Media can improve your organization’s reach? Fill out the form below, and one of our digital strategists will be in touch!

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