How to Build a Thriving Online Community

When you think of a thriving online community it’s hard not to use Reddit as a perfect example. Since its founding in 2005, “the front page of the internet” has accumulated some 174 million users and has even recently launched its own podcast network dubbed “Upvoted.” But, how did this community become such a phenomenon over the last decade?

Just like any other popular digital community, Reddit utilized the following techniques in constructing its thriving community.

Find the Right Subject

If you’re reading this article, you probably already have a business and are merely looking for a way to connect with your audience. So, wouldn’t that mean the subject matter for your community is already determined? Not necessarily.

Martin Reed, founder of, informed Gwen Moran on Entrepreneur that your community doesn’t want to discuss the products you’re selling. Instead, they want to discuss the problems they are facing in the real world. That’s why Reed stated “Building a community around car batteries isn’t going to work. Instead, you should consider building a community for DIY mechanics.”

An example of a brand that has found the right subject matter is American Express. In 2007, the company launched OPEN Forum, which has become a widely popular service for small business owners. With OPEN Forum, American Express isn’t selling credit cards. It’s helping small business owners overcome the challenges of running their own business by letting them exchange advice with each other.

Know Your Audience

This may seem obvious, but getting to know your audience is one of the main factors in any successful community. But, what exactly should you know about your audience? As noted on the Community Roundtable, you should be aware of the likes and dislikes of community members. You should also know where they spend their time online, what kind of information they’re looking for, and what their values are.

[pullquote]When you know who your community members are, you can give them a satisfying online experience where they can seek out the information they find valuable.[/pullquote]

One solid example of this is The Student Room. It’s a simple platform for college students to interact with each other to discuss anything from sports to current affairs, including helpful information on topics that matter most to students (the application process, finding a job, student loans) and how to become a better student overall. Not only is the content geared towards students, the ads have been selected carefully to reflect what the site represents and what college students would be interested in – such as ads for universities or work abroad programs.

Who’s the Boss?

Srinivas Rao stated on SEJ that, “every online community that has thrived has a clearly defined leader.” And, when you think about it, he has a great point. Rao points out when you hear mention of Copyblogger, Brian Clark comes to mind. When someone discusses Social Media Examiner, Mike Stelzner pops up into the conversation.

Your community needs someone to take your members to your desired destination and to establish guidelines and rules for the entire community. Without someone to lead, organize, and keep things in order, you can expect your community to spiral out of control eventually.

Embrace Everyone

Remember that first day of college when you were in a brand new place with a bunch of strange people? It was a bit overwhelming, wasn’t it? If you want to make community members feel welcome, then make sure you embrace each and every member. Richard Millington from FeverBee put together some great suggestions for welcoming new members, such as sending personalized messages instead of automated messages, introducing yourself, sending them a welcome pack or even introducing them to other members by giving them a shout out in a weekly/monthly newsletter.

A nice example of embracing everyone is Startup Grind. Not only was this community set up by entrepreneurs for entrepreneurs, it also takes several small measures to make its new members feel welcome – for example when a new member joins there’s a message that states so-and-so “has just signed up. Say hello!”

Place Members on a Pedestal

Marketer Matthew Powers highlights a t-shirt company called Threadless, which has an excellent online community where artists can submit their own designs and interact with each other. But, what makes this community stand out is how well Threadless showcases the artists. For example, the company will create blog posts, conduct interviews, or even release videos that spotlight the artists and their work.

By showcasing their members, Threadless has a created a loyal and dedicated fan base that their artists appreciate because they can use the shout-outs to gain exposure.

Help Members Connect

One of the most important elements of any online community is the ability to make connections. What this means is you shouldn’t be afraid to connect other members with each other, which could lead to them meeting outside of your network. LinkedIn is a great example of this. Whether you’re looking for specific advice in your industry or seeking a new job, LinkedIn has made it extremely convenient for its members to connect to each other both inside and outside the community.

Another example is Cowbird – which is a community of storytellers. Cowbird helps community members connect with each other by allowing them to “love” other people’s stories, “re-tell” stories or even add them to their collection. One of the coolest ways Cowbird connects members is by having a grid containing the profile images of all the members who have loved your work. It’s more personal than just a name, and an excellent way to connect members.

Provide Value

Remember, a community isn’t a one-way street. After all, why would people want to join your forum or follow you on social media if you’re not providing them with something of value? Whether it’s educational or entertaining, your audience is seeking out information that will better their lives in some way by solving a problem – recall how the OPEN Forum is assisting small business owners as an example of this.

However, it’s equally important that you listen to what your community members want. Joyce Brocaglia of Executive Women’s Forum shared with Patricia Fletcher on Inc. that you should “study discussions to hear what issues you may be able to help solve through programs.” Furthermore, you should create content, programs, activities, or events based on what your community suggests.

Creating Content is Just the Beginning

While creating content is one of the most important aspects of building a community, that’s only the beginning. In addition to your killer content, you need to host webinars, curate a conference, or offer exclusive products.

Take Built In Chicago, for example. This startup community hosts frequent events for its members to help regional entrepreneurs with getting their startup off the ground. Another example would be The Chive. The comic site doesn’t have to worry about SEO, because it’s created a community of members who proudly wear exclusive merchandise. These two communities rely more on just content. They rely on activities and physical goods to construct a sound community.


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