How to build a sticky online community around your brand: Part I

Nobody aspires to create a flash-in-the-pan phenomenon. When you build something, you want it to stand the test of time, and communities are no different.

As you embark on your journey to create a sticky, salient, enduring fanbase, here are some best practices to keep close.

How do I know if I have an audience or a community?

The two terms are often used interchangeably, but the difference between an audience and a community boils down to one simple factor: engagement.

If your “community” consumes your content, listens to what you have to say, and follows your online activity, what you actually have is an audience. But if your fans are connecting with you, interfacing with each other, sharing, discussing, and exchanging, you’ve tapped into the real thing.

These days, it’s not enough to create a social media account and hope that a community springs up around you. In fact, it’s largely the opposite — so you’ll need to be intentional about the process.

As shared by community-building guru Gina Bianchini during a recent podcast appearance:

“The divergence of community and social media are so stark right now […] When we think about social media, that is a fantastic platform for getting a message out. My followers listen to me. It’s essentially an audience; one’s really talking to each other compared to a community.”

The do’s and don’ts of building a sticky community:

Don’t try to please everyone

When trying to please everyone, we often end up pleasing no one. Based on the 1,000 True Fans theory — coined by founding executive editor of Wired magazine Kevin Kelly — if a brand wants to build a lasting community, they don’t need to rack up millions of supporters. All they need is 1,000 die-hard fans — the type that will buy every album on pre-release and snatch up limited-edition product drops.

In its simplest form, it’s the classic “quality over quantity” principle. In a similar vein, if we look at the Pareto Principle through a brand-building lens, 80% of a company’s profits can be traced back to 20% of consumers. That doesn’t mean you should neglect the other 80% that aren’t as loyal, but it does suggest that your “core” following is what can ultimately make (or break) your success.

Of course, the principle isn’t an exact science, and the percentage split can fluctuate depending on the business. The takeaway is to nurture your most committed fans, because they often hold the key to a brand’s staying power.

Do demonstrate your value

People often leverage communities to learn something new and stay in the know. Nobody is going to stick around to idly chat with strangers online, but they will stick around to better themselves or be the first to know about developments within their niche.

In January 2021, the WallStreetBets subreddit experienced explosive subscriber growth to the tune of more than 10X. The forum had been around since 2012, and its member count had been growing at a modestly linear pace. So, what changed?

Buzz surrounding Gamestop, the inaugural meme stock, was drawing in retail investors like moths to a flame. Some came for the advice (and potential astronomical gains), others to ogle at screenshots of less-fortunate traders’ losses. Their reasons for staying were just as diverse: to disrupt Wall Street and “stick it to the man,” to be part of the zeitgeist, to try and predict the next breakout stock that would catapult them into millionaire-hood.

While WallStreetBets’ success as a community wasn’t intentionally orchestrated, the value it had to offer was naturally magnetic enough to build critical mass. This totally disparate group of anonymous online users even banded together to buy a billboard in Times Square on behalf of their community. If that’s not sticky, then what is?

Don’t over-engineer it

Leafing through Tribes, a book by entrepreneur and best-selling author Seth Godin, you’ll find this critical tidbit:

“Tribes are the most effective media channels ever, but they’re not for sale or for rent. Tribes don’t do what you want; they do what they want.”

Communities with hardy roots are like cacti: they only need the bare necessities to survive and thrive. Water them too much, and you’ll suffocate them with love. Put simply, a brand community only needs a shared purpose and a place to exist — then, if given room to breathe, it will organically evolve in a direction determined by its members.

This decentralized, user-driven approach falls squarely in line with the advent of Web3: a pendulum swing away from the more centralized, closed-platform Web2 world that we’re currently living in. Web2 has seen much of our commerce and communications unfold within corporate-owned ecosystems like Google, Facebook, and Amazon; Web3 is set to challenge these frameworks by placing the power back in users’ hands.

To wrap up this list of do’s and don’ts, head over to part 2.

To dig into how NFTs can be a powerful lever for community building, jump to part 3.

Written by: Steph Ullman

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