From the very first “electronic bulletin board” at the Community Memory Project in Berkeley, California to Facebook groups for everything from fans of hit show The Office to aspiring novelists, online communities are everywhere.
More than any other channel, online communities let creators build a global audience without losing the sense of belonging. That’s why Sid Yadav co-founded Circle, an online community platform, in 2019. Rather than depend on Facebook, Slack, or other existing social media networks, Circle gives creators the ability to tailor an online space directly to their brand and their community’s needs.
“A lot of creators end up building audiences on aggregators,” says Yadav. “But once they’ve built up an audience and established a niche for themselves, there’s a need for something more.”
That something is an online community.
5 reasons why you should build an online community
We’re experiencing a surge of interest in carving out specific spaces online, according to Yadav. Circle already has 1000 different teams using the platform, and they’re growing at a steady 20-40% clip per month.
Should you run out and start an online community today? Not necessarily, cautions Yadav, who recommends creators build their audience first. “Once a creator is more established, the branding, the tone, the positioning all matters. We're one of the platforms that enables them to do that on their own website on their own terms.”
For creators like Jay Clouse, online communities integrate directly into his marketing strategy. After building up his email list, blog, and social presence, he started the Freelancing School, a 400-member strong space for freelance writers and designers looking to uplevel their entrepreneurship skills.
“I think about community as a peer-to-peer support network,” he says. His community complements his content marketing efforts. “An article answering a question might give very specific directions, but a post in a community might yield several different perspectives. In the comment thread, one of which is more applicable to the reader than the others.”
Here are five reasons why an online community should be a part of your marketing strategy:
#1: Build a brand
Brands create a runway to expand your business, and a community offers a place to build that brand. Says Yadav, “You need to build a brand that attracts superfans and keeps them in your vicinity. It's the superfans that kind of keep you in business and lead you to your overall monetization strategy.”
For your online community to succeed, it must have a distinct purpose. Whether you’re looking to build a product-based, lifestyle-based, association-based, or an online course like Clouse, communities pull the rest of your marketing together.
You need an idea to rally around for a community to make sense. Clouse knew he wanted to bring creators together. “Isolation is more intense now than it's ever been. As a species we need community and belonging,” he says. “When I started the community, I knew I wanted to create a space where people could support one another.”
Building a brand elevates your work from the creative hustle to a sustainable career path, and online communities are one way to make your business feel more like a brand. “When you first start selling your content, you may see success, and you may sell your first product, or you may build up a niche audience on Instagram or YouTube or your newsletter. But then the question becomes, how do you turn that into a full time income?”
That’s where online communities come in.
#2: Attract new people to your products
Community attracts new prospects to your business while creating value. You can easily promote your products…without making it too overly sales-y.
Clouse connects his different channels—email, website, and social—with the community so it all feels seamless.
I'll direct people in the community to my website where I have a free email course, which gets them into my mailing list with ConvertKit and, you know, the flywheel turns.
— Jay Clouse
Your community already knows who you are, which makes them much hotter leads than your average website traffic. Says Yadav, “They'll want to be the first to consume anything you write, or you publish, and a portion of them might want to get more involved.”
When it comes to acquisition, focus on offering additional value in the relationship, so that your members want to subscribe to your content and vice versa. “You're basically trying to get to a point of compounding growth,” says Clouse. “Every additional subscriber that you can get in the beginning is getting closer and closer to that inflection point on an exponential growth curve. So the more thoughtful you are about attracting every single extra subscriber that you can, the faster you get to that point.”
Where to start monetizing your community? At the beginning, of course. “I use ConvertKit to effectively onboard new members in the community so they get comfortable in the space and they know how to use it,” he says. “When somebody joins Freelancing School, they create an account and Circle connects to Zapier which connects to ConvertKit, so they go into an onboarding sequence to get them familiar with the community, and that gets them on the mailing list,” he says.
Here’s how that works:
- To join Freelancing School’s free community requires an email sign-up.
- Using Zapier, that email gets added to Clouse’s ConvertKit account, which triggers an automated welcome email.
- Freelancing School sends a series of welcome emails, each focused on a different aspect of the community, encouraging new users to engage.
- Once they’re on the mailing list and out of the onboarding flow, Clouse drops them into his community segment, warming up the list with additional content, offers, and promotions.
#3: Create a premium experience for additional income
Communities are often thought of as free because of existing platforms like Slack and Facebook. But creating exclusivity with membership makes it that much more special, whether it’s gating the entire community or adding a premium tier.
Requiring payment lends itself to a higher quality engagement. “Exclusive communities have something special,” says Yadav.
The more successful communities we see have a higher quality of engagement. So you may not have thousands of members. But paying for access means you end up with a higher quality of discussion, and that they actually want to participate.
— Sid Yadav
What sets a paid community apart actually takes place in the background: Community moderation. That means:
- Starting discussion threads or posting pieces of content
- Responding to other discussion threads, especially if no one has responded
- Asking questions on dormant threads to re-start a conversation
- Weeding out trolls and watching for off-topic or negative behavior
- Access to exclusive content, like videos, courses, or member-only calls and conversations
Owning your own platform makes it much easier to deliver a more curated experience and give members autonomy and structure. “A lot of times when you join a Facebook group, you'll just be in this news feed where people are constantly shouting over one another,” says Yadav. “There's no structure to the conversation. If you're an owner of a community, you have to really put in the work, which may not seem scalable at first. But it really pays off with engagement.”
At the beginning, you may need to seed discussions, answer questions, and be everywhere at once—but eventually, you can get into a rhythm.
I jump in there for 20 to 30 minutes at a time multiple times per day. I have it set so that I get email notifications for most new topics that come in. Managing a community is quite a bit of work to grow it and get it to be a place where people enjoy spending time.
— Jay Clouse
#4: Drive loyalty and retention
Eventually, as the community takes off, you’ll need to jump in less and less. “When we started our own Circle community, the moment where I felt great was when I saw that most posts got responded to before anyone within our team was able to even get them,” says Yadav. “That’s when I knew we’d made it.”
When you build the space, you own the experience. That means you can tailor your online community exactly to your brand, seeding on-topic discussions, using the same colors and fonts, and keeping discussions going. The more you make the online community a space to engage, the more connected members will be to your brand.
As a business owner, I think it's a competitive advantage long term. If you have an enthusiastic, kind, generous community behind your brand, they're going to tell more people about the community and be exposed to your other products.
— Jay Clouse
#5: Serve your community and add value
Ultimately, what’s going to achieve the most success comes down to serving your community. Clouse made his community free to anyone, with a dedicated private space for members of his paid course. “The idea became, ‘Okay, how can I make more and more free content to service people if they're not ready to invest in the course?’” he says.
Serving your community doesn’t mean just investing in an online space, but thinking more broadly about how you add value. That’s why we offer creators free access to ConvertKit’s online community. Says Yadav, “Communities that cross mediums, like doing a weekly Q&A over Zoom, having offline rituals, and thinking through more than just posting questions and answering them tend to be the most successful.”
Community can be a powerful, sustainable way to build your business and achieve your goals. Says Clouse, “Building a sense of belonging and making your community a place people want to spend time in a thoughtful way is going to do so much more for your business than trying to sell all the time.”
How to configure ConvertKit with Circle
Ready to integrate your community into your marketing strategy? If you want to start with an easy onboarding flow for new community members, you can do that quickly and easily in ConvertKit by connecting Circle and ConvertKit to Zapier:
- Create a Zapier account and connect it to ConvertKit and Circle.
- Create a new Zap by clicking the ‘Make a Zap’ button.
- Set the Trigger to ‘New Member Added’ in Circle from the dropdown.
- Set the Action as ‘Add Tag to Subscriber’ in ConvertKit.
- Test it out and see what other connections you can make. Click here for the complete guide on connecting your accounts through Zapier.