Scott Gerber on building an online community

How to Build a Hyper-Engaged Online Community

Chris Ronzio

August 21, 2020

With the world distributed, staying connected has never been more important. And building an online community has never been more relevant, both professionally and personally.

With that said, building an online community is more than just gathering millions of people onto a platform, and everyone giving their pitch.

Scott Gerber, CEO of The Community Company and found of Young Entrepreneurs Council, has spent the last decade helping hundreds of businesses and entrepreneurs build meaningful communities. Ones where members are highly engaged and actually benefiting.

His secret? Being intentional about how he sets the foundation for the community.

Building his first community

Scott’s adventures in building online communities started by trying to find a community himself. At the time, he was trying to connect with like-minded entrepreneurs and build his network. But it wasn’t easy.

A lot of the communities available focused on what participants could do for each other in the short term. And the results were communities of takers, rather than givers. It was toxic.

So, Scott decided to create his own. One where young entrepreneurs could connect, educate each other, and share upcoming opportunities.

But unlike a lot of the communities available, his would focus on building lasting relationships based on mutual value and support. Even if that meant slower growth.

With this approach, 10 members quickly grew to 50, then 100, and within a few years, well over a thousand.

Here’s how Scott did it:

Choose your approach

There are two approaches when it comes to building groups.

One, the Top of Funnel approach. This is where you get as many people as possible as quickly as possible. This way, you can show the numbers (AKA how popular it is) and keep it growing that way.

However, humans naturally gravitate toward smaller, niche groups. That’s not to say that you can’t build a hyper-engaged community this way. 

But as Scott explains, “you have to constantly be figuring out how to take the 5,000 and make it feel more like five.”

Or two, the Bottom-Up approach. This is the more exclusive application- or invite-only approach to community building.

By pre-qualifying members, you’ve already ensured that they’ll get value from the community. So this option leads to better, more natural long-term engagement – even though the growth is a bit slower.

This is the approach Scott gravitates toward.

Identify who should be a part of it

One thing to keep in mind is that not every community is for everyone.

So, before sending out any invitations, start by figuring out who would really benefit from being part of the community. AKA who is your target member.

The best way to do this is by creating a member persona. Start by identifying:

  • Who they are (be as specific as possible)
  • What do they all have in common 
  • What their goals are
  • How they benefit from your community 
  • What value your community offers them

Then, identify people who are already in your network that fit this persona. Don’t worry about finding new people to join your online community. Just people you already know who would be a good fit. (It might be helpful to write a list.)

Then focus on providing how you will provide the promised value.

As members begin to create organic and authentic connections, they’ll invite new members from their own networks. And over time, the group will grow exponentially without sacrificing value or quality.

Create your toolbox

Simply put: you want to build your online community around platforms that already work for your target members. This will keep engagement up and frustration down.

For example, if all your target users are on Facebook, it doesn’t make sense to make a LinkedIn Group. Instead, meet them where they are at.

If you’re not sure where to look, consider checking community-based platforms like Twitter, Slack, or even just email first. When you’ve found the best platform, get the logistics set up.

Then, you’re ready to start inviting your first few members! Send the invite from the tool directly to keep confusion down.

Pro tip: No one likes a blanket invitation or generic message. Instead, show your members that you’re super excited for them to be there – and even outline how the community will benefit them.

After that, it’s a matter of keeping the communication frequent and the value consistent.

Add value first

But remember, technology is a double-edged sword when it comes to building solid business relationships.

Yes, platforms like LinkedIn and Twitter make it easier than ever to connect and reach prospects. But they also in a lot of ways make it too easy, enabling bad behaviors that dilute the community.

For example, how many generic InMail messages have hit your LinkedIn account this week? You know – the ones that have nothing to do with you and are basically just an unsolicited elevator pitch.

We all know the game – the user creates a bot that sends a message to everyone they connect with. And while it might seem personal at first glance, there is nothing personal about it. It’s just a wide-net sales pitch.

“InMail as a system isn’t bad,” explains Scott. “The problem is people bastardize the system, and they don’t know how to use it.”

Instead, Scott recommends starting small and taking a more organic approach.

After all, if you wanted to close a huge deal, you wouldn’t just hand them your business card and disappear. You would nurture the relationship, prove that your product is invaluable, and then, make the ask.

The same goes for your online community. And one of the best ways to do this is by providing value first. No pitch or gimmicks. Just genuinely reaching out to see what you can do for them.

If you do this, your online community will provide value for more than just a few weeks or months. Instead, it will keep members hyper-engaged for the long haul. (And will even covert a few into paying customers – if that’s your end goal!)

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