THE BLOG
01/20/2015 03:14 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

How to Build Your Startup's Online Community and Why That Matters

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There is no shortage of noise in the global startup ecosystem and it's becoming increasingly more difficult for entrepreneurs to build velocity behind their brands and gain industry recognition. At the same time, social media proliferation and the emergence of content marketing platforms like Medium.com present shifting paradigms for newcomers looking to establish their reputation. As a result, there are more and more companies fighting for reduced dispensable spending directed by decision-makers with shorter attention spans. In this context, being able to capture the elusive brand loyalty of today's over-stimulated consumer and business influencer has become as difficult as catching lightening in a bottle for many bootstrapped startups.

Building online brand communities that allow customers to engage, share their feedback, ask questions, and establish real touch points with the business can help startups overcome marketing fatigue. Here are some universal tenets of effective community building.

Frame it as a Learning Center
-- A number of great marketing companies like MailChimp and HubSpot have recognized the benefits of providing useful, add-on resources for their users to draw them into deeper brand engagement. Offering guides, lessons learned, actionable advice, strategies, research and other educational materials is a great way to attract and retain early users.

Admittedly, developing and posting original content is time-consuming for startups with limited resources. To that end, many early stage companies rely on curating industry resources. Free curation services like Scoop.It and FlipBoard make it exceptionally easy to aggregate relevant content and package it in a way that adds value to brand communities. Similarly, visual storytelling tools like Canva allow entrepreneurs to create designed, multimedia-friendly assets for free to pave the way for enhanced user experiences.

Facilitate Nested and Productive Experiences -- Just like Rome wasn't built in a day, online communities also need time to develop and reach critical mass. Most new communities need strong facilitation to jump-start the initial discussions before reaching the point of self-sustained momentum. In order to encourage early engagement, it is important to focus on thought leadership and avoid branded content - share your startup's unique point-of-view on industry trends and issues, provide answers to common pain points, and drive broader conversations on emerging topics.

The 1-9-90 rule, stating that one percent of your population will create content, nine percent will comment or engage with it, and 90 percent will just browse, is especially relevant in the context of community building. Most successful online communities are rooted in shared experiences, a sense of purpose, and mutual learning.

Don't Sanitize: Embrace Conflicting Points -- Marketing strategists and brand experts often spend a great deal of time laying out restrictive rules and community policies to avoid the potential for conflict or controversy. In reality, the most successful online communities or groups are built on rivalries and ardent debates (think PC vs Mac). Creating policies that limit authentic expression and "smoothing" things over can be counterproductive and goes against fundamental crowdsourcing principles.

Startups that embrace the "rising tide" principle are often more effective in fostering lasting brand communities and transforming them into business assets. If community building is approached as an authentic extension of the startup's business values (as opposed to a marketing stunt) and focused on meeting the needs of the members, online communities can be powerful drivers of sustained growth.