Building a successful online community, Part 3: Launching
Janne Lehtinen • 2016-03-22
How do you get people to visit your shiny new community?
You’ve put the finishing touches on your new community, and now there’s just one, yet integral piece missing: people. How do you get them to join your new community?
Checklist: are you ready for launch?
Your community is now about to go live. There’s some content to get you started — you’ve asked friends and colleagues to join in and start some new threads on the topic of the forum and leave a few comments on the articles.
Before you publish and start making noise about the community, go through this checklist to see if everything is in order:
Users can get in
Does user authentication for your community work? This is especially important for those who are using their own user authentication system and user database. Your new community is of not much use if nobody can log in! Check various scenarios on a few browsers and devices, whenever possible.
Reading and posting works
If you started a new forum without many modifications and there’s nothing else on the page where it’s embedded, then it’s likely that everything works out-of-the-box. Sometimes, however, other elements, styling, code libraries, or Wordpress themes etc. on your webpage may interfere with the community, so it’s important to check that everything is in order.
There is enough good content
The first impressions count. Here, not only quality, but quantity of the content are both keys. A couple of interesting posts with zero replies don’t do much good. If more content is needed, create some. You don’t want to post your new forum and comment sections full of useless rambling, so quality is imperative as well.
Like on the initial view of the community, make sure that each channel, or category, on your new forum has at least a few relevant threads, preferably with some replies. Or, if starting a bunch of on-topic threads yourself doesn’t make sense (like in the case of support channels meant for user issues), you could post a thread encouraging people to post questions and issues they might be having with your product, as well as add links to places where they might find help.
Your community looks good
Is your css styling in order? Spacing is ok, no overlapping elements? Try different user scenarios such as posting, click on the individual channels, and so on.
Text is easy to read
Is the text readable? Users can easily be put off by hard-to-read text that you might have gotten used to after staring at it for days. Do your color palettes have good contrast? Check your site in black-and-white (many devices have settings to do this) to get a clue about how people with color blindness might experience certain color combinations.
Does your site work on devices with small screens? More and more people surf on their smartphones and there are no longer excuses for building non-responsive sites. When testing, try browsing and posting in both portrait and landscape modes.
Page load times are good
How fast does your site load? Research shows that if your site takes a few seconds too many to load, people will leave. For online businesses, every 1/10th of a second might amount to 1% in revenue!
Remove or replace any scripts that might causing slow page load times. It’s also worth trying your site with mobile connections and bad WiFi to imitate the conditions many people living in the real world (outside the range of your home or office network range) will experience your site in.
There are no annoying ads
Everybody hates ads apart from the people who make them or the people who make money with them. That said, an informative, non-intrusive, well-placed ad can be very useful for your users and be a nice source of revenue for you.
When you are placing ads on your community pages, make sure they don’t block elements or interfere with the community functions. Luckily, since Flash took a downward spiral, ads have become far less bandwidth and processor heavy.
Your community is easy to find
Is your community easy to find? It’s pointless to launch unless people can find the community. Human readable URL’s for forums are a must: think yourwebsite.com/forum or mycompany.com/support.
Marketing your community
After you’ve checked that everything is in order, it’s time to start promoting!
All the usual rules for marketing apply here: you need to have figured out who you want to market to, because otherwise you won’t know how, when, and where to speak to your audience.
Big bang launches
Unveiling the curtain and starting to make noise everywhere simultaneously can be effective. You’ve prepared your launch materials, and can now start firing on all guns and touting your new community everywhere. Seeing your site’s or company’s name pop up on social media and email inbox a few times within a short period of time can make users intrigued and interested to know what is happening.
Launching in parts
In case your community requires more actual user content before a full-scale launch, consider doing a partial launch to the part of the audience who are more likely to be active and get them discussing first. These are the users who might give a damn about the mere fact that there’s a new community to check out.
The most likely place to find your most active users is on the old forum you are migrating from, if you have one. Announce a that the old forum will be closed and give the users a bit of time to start posting before you launch elsewhere.
Existing customers also already engage with you and your products, so they are a likely audience to have something to say on your shiny new discussion forum and comment sections. Consider sending an email out to those users before starting to market elsewhere.
Then later, when there’s already some action and a good amount of content starting to gather, widen your perspective and start reaching out to the part of your audience who need a bit more of an incentive to become regulars in your community. This way these more casual users of your site don’t get met with a blank page and are more likely to feel at home and join in on the discussions.
Every startup founder knows that it’s easy to fall in love with your own product. Likewise, it’s very easy to be lured into thinking that after spending so much time in setting up a community, there’s no question that people will rush in and start generating content, engaging with each other and your company, start inviting others, all the while looking at and clicking your ads or buying your company’s products in droves.
Reality, sadly, often does not follow wishful thinking.
It’s getting harder and harder to get people’s attention online. That’s why you need to make sure that, when launching your site to the wider audiences, there’s something in it for them to visit.
Hopefully, you’ve clarified to yourself what purpose it is that your community is supposed to fulfill already at the planning phase. If so, now’s the time to start fulfilling that purpose!
What to share
It’s not a bad idea to announce your new community on Twitter and Facebook, but don’t expect people to arrive in droves just because you have a new community and you worked hard to get it started. Instead, give them compelling reasons to visit.
Your community’s power lies in its content, so now you need to dig deeper into the discussions already starting to pile and weed out some truly interesting threads for sharing.
Is there a nice active conversation on a universally trending subject that you could share? Share that on Twitter using an appropriate hashtag. (You need to make sure you’re not using a trending hashtag where it has no connection to the topic, though, because that’s sleazy and can get you banned from Twitter.)
After a while you’ll start to see what kind of content generates the most discussion. Get into a habit of finding the hottest topics and sharing those on social media.
Take a few moments to come up with ideas for threads based on what you feel your users might be interested in, then post them and invite people to join. This might take some trial-and-error: testing is key to finding out what works best.
Pay special attention to your threads' titles; the same rules apply here as do for blog titles or news headlines, although you need to adapt the language to suit that of your community’s.
Did one of your visitors say something particularly great or funny? Maybe they shared an interesting story or a solution to a long-standing problem. Quote that while linking to the discussion.
You can quote by simply copying and pasting the text, but also by taking a screenshot of the post and sharing the resulting image. This has an added benefit of giving people an idea what your community looks like. Image shares also perform nicely on Twitter compared to text-only tweets.
This works best if the quote doesn’t tell the full story, so readers will feel like they’re missing out on something unless they visit the community.
Polls and competitions
This might not work for every audience and community, but consider handing out a giveaway drawn between everyone who chimes in on a thread. Ask something simple and on-topic, like “What is your candidate for the best picture Oscar this year?” or “Suggest a name for our upcoming festival!” Then announce the winner later on the same thread and social media.
Material prizes are not absolutely essential, you could simply announce someone “a winner" for bragging rights, but iPads are known to make people active. You might also be able to partner with some company to sponsor a prize.
Where to share
Don’t be lazy when it comes to marketing your community. Aside from the aforementioned popular social media sites, there are plenty of places and ways you should explore for sharing the news of your shiny new community’s arrival.
Email — Despite the rumors of its demise, email is not only still around, but it’s one of the most efficient ways of marketing yourself if you already have a list of email addresses to cater to.
Don’t bother sending unsolicited emails out to people you don’t know and have no idea about whether they would ever be interested in what you’re offering, though: that’s called spamming — and it’s unpleasant.
Emails are usually best kept short and snappy, but if there is something interesting that you know your recipients might like, go ahead and share it.
Social media — There is life outside Facebook and Twitter! Digg, Reddit, Tumblr, Hackernews, all of those might make sense for you to announce your new community, or share a particular discussion.
Make sure you’re familiar with the etiquette of the site you are posting to. If your community is about tech and software, then Hackernews users might be interested, for example.
Familiarize yourself with what works for the site in question. The accompanying message to your link that works great for Facebook would typically be totally different for Twitter, for example.
What nobody likes is someone registering one of the above mentioned sites, then repeatedly spamming with links to their own website. You need to make sure you’re sharing only when you have something the users of the site in question might find valuable, or be prepared for your links to start invariably sinking into oblivion without no-one noticing.
User sharing — Getting your users to share their own or each others' threads is often much more effective than you sharing them yourself. People tend to trust their friends or connections more than faceless companies or siteowners, so urging your users to share their own discussions can bring you a nice traffic boost.
Blogs — If you have a blog, then that’s an obvious place to announce your new community. Write a bit about your reasoning for starting one, what your future plans are, and so on, then start sharing links to the blog entry.
Other online communities — Like marketing often does, sharing on other online communities requires some discretion so you won’t come off as a jerk. If you’re launching a competing community, then don’t visit forums to slag them off while offering your alternative.
Instead, go to forums that are somewhat related and where you are a frequent visitor already, and politely tell that you have a new community they might be interested in.
Ads — Ads and banners on your own site are an obvious way to let your visitors know about the new community, and offer a convenient link to check it out.
If you have a marketing budget, then consider placing carefully targeted ads on other sites as well.
Traditional ads — Banner ads not old fashioned enough for you yet? Then why not print flyers and posters and spread those in appropriate places!
If you’re starting a hobbyist forum, then it’s possible that you already know where people interested in the topic hang out in the real world. You could also buy advertising space on specialist magazines.
Things don’t stop at launch. Starting an online community is a marathon, not a sprint, so to keep your community alive and thriving, regular attention is required.
You might get along by just moderating a bit here and there, replying to an odd topic every now and then. However, to really make your community a continued success, it’s crucial to set aside some time regularly to start new threads on interesting topics, participate in existing ones, or share trending discussions in your social media channels.
When users notice that the community is regularly active, or that they get a reply to their questions quickly, they’re more likely to return.
If all went according to the plan and your community is now enjoying decent traffic, then you should constantly think about how to improve and refresh your community to keep users happy and attract new ones.
Consider appointing additional administrators or moderators to the forums so you don’t have to run the entire show alone 24/7. Check your community’s design. Is there anything to fix? Does it still adhere to your plan? Did flat design go out of fashion? Is everything else working like it should?
Step back occasionally and think about whether you’re meeting the goals you originally set for your community way back in the planning stage. Are all the forum channels still relevant? Is something missing? Are you getting more signups for your service? Are the ads generating revenue?
Always be redefining your vision of a grand success. Return to the planning stage, then make whatever changes you think are required.
Rinse and repeat. Remember to add new ingredients to keep things up to date. In time you should shopefully start reaping the rewards for your efforts!
Now that your community is live and out in the wild, what is the next, however small, action that could take it closer to being a success?