Building a community around your startup can be one of the cheapest ways to create momentum for your product. A community is much more than a one-time marketing campaign, and can help you throughout your company's life cycle if you take the time to grow it right.
Here are 10 tips for getting started.
1. Look Before You Leap
First, take stock of who is already talking about your product or industry and where they're doing it. Mike Handy, a community consultant, suggests you seek out “pockets of users who are excited about your product or service.” If users are already talking about your product on Twitter, for instance, that's a good place to start building.
Sumaya Kazi, CEO of Sumazi, recommends “It's best to focus on one to two communities to begin with, and really focus your efforts to grow a community one at a time.” Take stock of where your efforts will be most useful and narrow in on those areas.
2. Get to Know Your Users
Kazi recommends you “use Twitter search to see who is posting about your company, competitor or about a topic that is relevant to your company. You can use that to follow people, start a conversation and engage with them.” This way you can start to build a relevant following from the ground up.
David Spinks, director of community for Zaarly, adds “Startups are always in a rush to build a community as big as possible, as quickly as possible. Slow down. Get to know all of your users one at a time.” This will give you the foundation you need to eventually scale and grow your community.
3. Leverage Any and All Connections at Your Disposal
Kazi emphasizes the value of your own friends and connections to start the community. Ask them to be a part of your community and to help you grow it. Jason Keath, CEO of Social Fresh points out that email lists are often overlooked as a chance to ask your existing community to follow you elsewhere. Social Fresh found early success by building partnerships with conferences and leveraging their audiences, so definitely think about any partners or deals you can make to help build your base.
4. Build Social Into Your Product
If you want people to share, make it really easy on them. When they sign up, give them a checkbox to sign up for your newsletter. Ask them to follow you on Twitter and like you on Facebook as part of your onboarding process. Suggest opportunities for them to tweet or share with their friends. You'll be amazed how many people will take the step to follow or share just because you took the time to ask.
5. Think in Terms of Advocates, Not Just Numbers
Getting fifty more followers (or even 5,000) doesn't mean much in itself. Think about building a quality follower and fan base that is engaging with and sharing your content. According to a 2009 Nielsen study, 90% of consumers trust peer recommendations, while only 33% trust online ads. Your goal should be to turn your user base into advocates who help spread the word about your startup in a way you could never do on your own.
6. Expect It to Take Time
Real community doesn't happen overnight. Spinks advises “Every community will go through an ‘awkward phase' where conversations feel a little forced and people aren't initiating conversations on their own. It will pass. Keep building your community one person at a time, and it will eventually begin to flow naturally.” The returns on your effort increase exponentially as you grow a real community. Don't give up when your account doesn't “go viral” immediately, because unless you're the Old Spice guy, it's probably not going to happen.
7. Connect and Help Your Community Members
Having Twitter followers or likes doesn't mean you have a community. Spinks emphasizes this point: “It's good to engage your users personally, but that's not scalable. That's why it's so important to connect them with each other.”
By focusing on building a place where community members talk to each other, not just you, you're on the way to building a scalable community that can sustain itself. Make sure your community finds value from their involvement — focus on building that value and your community will not only stick around, but become a huge supporter of your company.
8. Take Chances and Experiment
In some ways, a small community can be a blessing. It gives you the ability to try new things with very little fear of failure or of pissing a lot of people off. Handy suggests you “risk while the risk is low. If no one follows you, there is no where to go but up.” I firmly believe you should always be trying new things, but there's no better time for your off-the-wall ideas than when you don't have much to lose.
9. Have a Personality
Think about some of your favorite brands online. Are they boring and dry, or do they have a distinct personality or brand voice?
Now is the time to build your own brand voice and have fun with it. Kazi showcased her brand's personality on its landing page for beta sign ups. It included quirky messages like"Sumazi can bake 30 minute brownies in 20 minutes flat.” At the end of the signup process, users even got serenaded. They quickly exceeded the number of signups they were hoping to get because people were excited to share and be a part of what they were building.
10. Track Everything
Put numbers behind what you're doing and track them back to your company's goals. Note which of your efforts get the best response and try to do more like them. As Handy points out, your “data is telling stories” so make sure you're listening.
A vibrant community helps you attract new users, keep current users engaged, and provide valuable feedback to help improve your product. At the beginning, getting any retweet or share will be a victory. If done right, however, you'll find yourself quickly and exponentially growing past those initial milestones.
Image courtesy of iStockphoto, matspersson0