Skip to content

How to Build a Vibrant Online Community [Examples]

Updated Feb. 25, 2021

Swapping stories at networking events. Trading ideas over a cup of coffee or tea. Getting to know the person behind the screen over a shared meal. These once-common activities now live in our memories – and in our hopes for the future.

To be honest, in-person exchanges with audience members, prospects, and customers were limited even before the pandemic made them next to impossible. Smart brands have worked hard to create communities where digital versions of those interactions are common. The pandemic just made them more important.

Almost one-third (32%) of B2B marketers surveyed by the Content Marketing Institute in 2020 had online communities. Among those who didn’t, 27% said they planned to create them in the next 12 months. Among B2C marketers surveyed in the same study, almost half (48%) had online communities, while 31% of those who didn’t have one planned to in the next 12 months.

As CMI’s community manager, I’ve learned the way we design our digital neighborhood plays a huge role in how our audience experiences the brand – and how vibrant the community becomes.

The way we design our digital neighborhood plays a huge role in how our audience experiences the brand – and how vibrant the community becomes, says @MoninaW via @CMIContent. #SocialMedia #CommunityManagement #CMGR Share on X

Stay away from cookie-cutter neighborhoods. To start or strengthen a community, you must differentiate your group.

In this post, I discuss the elements that go into building a great community and share examples from brands that successfully instill a sense of connectedness online.

Put your audience first

Have you ever surprised your neighbors with their favorite cookies? You’re a good neighbor. You not only engage with your neighbors but do it in a way they’ll appreciate. A successful online brand community uses the same approach. The brand researches the audience to understand its culture, then operates the community with the audience’s best interests at heart. That approach builds trusting relationships.

A successful brand researches its audience & operates the community with the members’ best interests at heart, says @MoninaW via @CMIContent. #CMGR #CMWorld Share on X

Example: Forks Over Knives Facebook Group

Forks Over Knives is a brand that grew from a film to multiple books, apps, and a website about a plant-based way of eating. It created an inclusive Facebook community, which reinforces its mission to support its members’ interest in whole-food, plant-based eating.

The brand focuses the community on topics its customers care about and provides members open access to brand experts. It has established itself as a trustworthy online resource with a robust following of over 335,000.

Keep them interesting

A good online community acts as a social gathering spot. Members want to come back again and again. It is the brand’s job to keep things interesting. A dedicated and educated community manager can be an asset in facilitating conversations the audience craves.

A good online community acts as a social gathering spot, says @MoninaW via @CMIContent. #CMWorld #CMGR #SocialMediaTips Share on X

Example: Buffer Community

Buffer grew a community with more than 4,000 members on Slack, then moved it to a dedicated home in 2019. Activities in the community (open to Buffer users) include weekly Community Mastermind discussions. Members trade strategies, advice, and monthly “CommuniTea/Coffee” Zoom meetings featuring discussions facilitated by a community member. Twice a year, members can apply for a six-month stint as community hosts, who welcome new members, work on special projects, foster discussions, and more.

Provide the opportunity to share

Just as good neighbors share a cup of sugar, good members of digital neighborhoods share too. They become de-facto leaders and influencers, giving their time and knowledge to others. They also anticipate the needs of the group and encourage open communication.

Example: Nokia website-based forum

If a member seeks advice, Nokia community members lend a helping hand and provide common fixes. If the community has an idea for a future product, the brand offers a message board for suggestions. Members feel certain they can solve problems on their own. That confidence helps increase group satisfaction.

An image showing a Nokia message board. A member is asking How to change my username and a community member’s reply.

Go where your audience is

Choosing a digital home for your community can be difficult. Consider allowing the audience members to pick it. Gathering where they already are is convenient and doesn’t require a new learning curve to participate.

Example: CMI on Slack

As the CMI community grew, the needs of our members evolved. In one-on-one interviews, audience members indicated they wanted more activity on Slack. Since we introduced our Slack community in 2018, our members and activities have grown. We selected our first-ever Community Host, Jeremy Bednarski. We held real-time discussions around our online ContentTECH event in August. We hosted a Super Bowl ad-watching party during the big game earlier this month, then conducted a series of head-to-head voting challenges to come up with the ultimate winner. (You can find out which ad won here.)

We continue to promote CMI activity on Slack via email and social media. If you’re interested in an invite, let me know. If you join soon, you’ll be in time to participate in the March CMWorld Book Club hosted by CMI Slack community lead Emily Phelps.

Be respectful

A community is a shared space. Good neighbors show respect and courtesy and so should online community group members. Set rules that allow your community to work toward a common goal. Post the rules to make it easier to manage the group and moderate conversations.

Post community group rules to make it easier to moderate, says @MoninaW via @CMIContent. #CMGR #CMWorld Share on X

Example: Step into the Spotlight! on LinkedIn

Group rules in the Step into the Spotlight! LinkedIn Group set standards for how the community is run. They include no sales pitches and no self-promotion. Members expect relevant discussions that showcase the community’s expertise. Setting these expectations (and enforcing them) allows for the group to have a thriving community.

Foster friendliness

If your group is valuable and fun, members will naturally want to further their relationships. Identify how to make those connections. We’ve hosted face-to-face meetups at Content Marketing World to bring our #CMWorld Twitter Chat community together, for example. When in-person events are possible again, look for ways to help your online community find each other IRL (in real life).

A Content Marketing World tweetup (in Cleveland) featuring participants from three Twitter chats: #CMWorld, #ContentChat, and #TacoChat.

Example: CMI Live

While in-person events aren’t possible, look for new ways to help your community feel like they know you (and you’re interested in helping them). CMI recently introduced a number of live shows that let our community ask the CMI team questions, get to know our #CMWorld Twitter Chat guests better, and learn from some of our creative contributors.

Don’t forget the cookies

Just as good neighbors thank the person next door with their favorite cookies, brand communities can cook up some surprises too. CMI has been known to give a digital shout-out for birthdays, promotions, etc., and even a snail mail surprise or two to our community members.

Even if you don’t have a cookie budget, you have the tools to build your brand in a neighborhood your audience members love in a way that will entice and engage them in a format that breeds respect and trust. And that’s the recipe for online community success.

Consider this the invitation to join us in the CMI Slack community. And please join us during one of our live shows.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute