The Secrets to Building a Thriving Online Community

This post is written by Chris Lema. Since 2005, Chris has been working with startups, software companies, and in the WordPress ecosystem helping teams and companies grow. Learn more about Chris here.

Online Events Expose a Challenge We All Have

In the last two years, we’ve seen a massive shift to toward online events (like conferences and church services). Sometimes it’s big groups (like a Sunday morning service) and sometimes it’s small mastermind groups. And even as people begin to meet in person again, it’s clear we’re not going to see the end of online events.

But how do you build community when you barely connect with the people on the other side of a camera?

This is a problem that we all have.

It doesn’t do anyone any good to brag about the 5,000 or 25,000 people who watched your video if you haven’t actually connected with them or are helping them connect with each other.

So, this is the challenge. What’s the solution?

One Answer is Smaller and Repeated Connections

While this won’t magically solve any of our challenges, the idea of having a regular and recurring connection point online means you’ll start getting to know people.

We’ve all been invited to a new small group at some point in our lives and felt the struggle of being in a room with strangers. But just weeks later, after repeated Thursday night huddles, no one is a stranger any longer.

So, instead of only having big streaming parties to watch videos together, create small and recurring online gatherings with fewer “speakers” and more discussions. Get more people talking, and you’ll start seeing people connect with each other.

My friend Brad runs a technology company, GoWP, that works with digital agencies. A couple of years ago, they started a weekly Friday afternoon “happy hour.” But this isn’t a time for everyone to drink on a Zoom call. Instead, agency owners (their community) join a group discussion about what’s made them happy this week.

Initially, no one other than Brad knew most of the attendees. Two years later, almost everyone who comes knows at least 5 or 10 other attendees. As a result, they’ve all started collaborating and sharing insights with each other. And they’ve even passed clients between themselves.

Another Answer is Community Software

That same company, GoWP, also runs a Facebook Group, where they have online text-based discussions all the time. It helps those agency owners connect and gives them a place to get help from people that are on the same journey as they are.

But you don’t have to do this only on Facebook. Today there are several solutions that can help create an online community when you’re not on Zoom or YouTube.

Check out these three other options as well:

  1. Podia
  2. Circle.so
  3. Discord

Now, that last one is more technical and a happy place for younger folks (driven in popularity by gamers), but each of them aren’t Facebook. So if you’re looking for a Facebook alternative, those can work.

Three Strategies for Building an Online Community

So, let’s get into a couple of strategies that can help you build a community online.

1. Add Community to what you’re already doing

One of the things we forget is that all the material and content we’re publishing won’t ever make someone feel connected to others.

Don’t get me wrong, when you write a blog post, create an online presentation, run an online course, or publish a book, the person watching or reading may feel very connected because they feel seen. But once they’ve stepped away, they won’t feel any community.

So, instead of simply publishing top-quality material, consider adding community to everything you’re already doing.

Have you published a book? Create some discussion questions so that groups can discuss each chapter each week.

Have you published an online course? Create a connection to those software packages mentioned above so that cohorts taking the class together can do some peer review or answer each other’s questions.

Have you created content that could be a series of webinars? Consider going over the content live in Zoom and opening up the chat on the side, or even consider scheduling them every month and inviting folks to join.

2. Shift from Content to Community

For years we’ve said content is king. I’m someone who publishes every single day on my blog. Trust me, I get that content is critical. But it’s not king. Maybe queen or prince. Community is king. Because community helps people belong. It helps them feel safe. And that safety is often what gives people the courage to take risks and be their best selves.

So how do you shift from content to community? It’s actually not as hard as you might think.

I host a business conference in Cabo San Lucas every year. Most business conferences have two components that my event doesn’t. First, they often have a full day of sessions. Second, those sessions are talks. In other words, most business conferences fill your day with people talking at you.

My conference only has sessions from 9 am to noon. And those sessions are discussions. There are no speakers, only conversation moderators.

The result is that people spend more time connecting with each other than sitting in a room listening to a handful of speakers.

What does this mean for you? Every place where you’re creating, publishing, presenting, and delivering content – consider cutting it down in half and adding a community discussion in the second half.

Watch what happens next. You’ll be delighted.

3. Talk With People, Not At People

I mentioned this when I was telling you about my event. But this isn’t something that only happens at events. If you are sending emails to customers or prospects, or if you’re on podcasts, or publishing newsletters, most of the communication is unidirectional.

Think about the last podcast you listened to. Did you interact with it? It’s not like the old radio shows where you might have called in to join the conversation.

Think about the last email newsletter you got. Did you click reply and engage with the publisher?

Think about the last book you read. Did you reach out or reply to the author online somewhere?

Most of the time, even when we want connection, the methods we’re using are creating unidirectional relationships: An audience that listens, reads, or watches, but doesn’t interact.

Your job is to drive that interaction. (And guess what? It turns them all into better customers too!)

So, how do you do it? You have to be explicit in inviting interactions. Literally. I’ll write a post and toward the bottom, I’ll write, “Hit reply if you’re reading this in your inbox and let me know…”

I get 1000% more engagement when I explicitly invite it than when I say nothing and hope that a reader will automatically and naturally engage.

In order to talk with people instead of at them, you have to remind them that they’re in the conversation. You need to invite them to participate and tell them where to do that. Is it in email? On Facebook? In an upcoming webinar series?

Let them know.

Building Community Online Takes Time

The last thing I’ll remind you of is that building community online takes time. It’s not something that happens quickly and automatically. It’s a self-referencing loop where trust builds engagement and engagement builds trust.

So, take your time. Build slowly. But be consistent. Because even the slightest hint that you don’t care about those you’re connecting with and serving will kill your online community.

Where have you found community online?

Where have you found community online? Share your experience in the comments below.

The Secrets to Building a Thriving Online Community

3 Comments

  1. Trish Arnold on November 26, 2021 at 12:09 pm

    Thank you for this! We have a consistant positive online church community and incorporating these ideas can take us to the next level of connection. A steady team of online hosts has helped our online church family thrive! We also do a live welcome each Sunday for our online peeps by alternating pastors paired with church staff and online hosts. People like the connection to real people on the other side of the screen.

  2. Gospel on November 26, 2021 at 8:10 am

    Great stuff! We are looking to build community by launching a Discord group in addition to our Facebook group. If anyone has done this please let me know! Thanks for writing this!

  3. Keith Duff on November 26, 2021 at 7:03 am

    I agree, content is important. Very important. Without it, people won’t stop by. But community is king. Without it people won’t stay. And why would they? We’re wired by our creator to be relational beings – both extroverts and introverts. We want to be known and we want to be needed. Not just taught.

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