Website Community Building: How to Create a Following (From Scratch)

A website (read: business) community is truly invaluable.

A community has many inherent benefits; these come as a “bonus” such as content creation, brand awareness, and feedback (though these aren’t the only ones).

The community that develops around your business or website is completely dependent on the amount of time and energy invested in its users. In fact, the most successful businesses are ones which have feverous community members; this has compounded their success once ported to online platforms.

You’ll have learned why building a community (and managing it) is absolutely critical to your affiliate marketing success, by the time you finish this post.

Grab a pen and paper, prepare to take some notes, because it’s the community that makes or breaks your online ventures.

Part 1: Understanding the Community

The core value you should strive to learn and understand, in community development, is compassion.

Sitting behind a desktop, tablet, or some mobile device is another human being – like you; they have hopes, dreams, an inherent quest for knowledge, to reach out, connect, and join.

The Web, though increasingly becoming personal, is still a very anonymous platform despite its advancements through social media within the last decade. People have a sense of seclusion when they reach out to others when using the Web because it’s still very impersonal due to the lack of one-on-one face time with other human beings.

Couple in the nag that work needs to be done, a seemingly endless amount of entertainment sources, bombardment of advertising, connecting with friends and family, online shopping, and the simple fact that there’s just so much information, you can see why people may not be quick to jump into the role of a community member – they just have too much on their plate.

So, when people actually do become members of your website (or business), there are new things going into play, including:

  • They feel that they’re part of a “bigger picture”
  • The other people within the community are of (generally) equal mind
  • Their participation is noticed
  • There’s a sense of “survival” (in relation that they’re “surviving” the information overload)

Humans naturally form communities around their beliefs, interests, hobbies, goals, and more, so it’s no wonder that people will use the Web to join with one another.

The big question here is why they decided to form a community around your brand.

This brings us to the all-important action of understanding your community.

Try to answer these questions:

  • How did people find my website/business?
  • What keeps people coming back?
  • Who are the major players in the “group”?
  • Why are they listening to me?
  • What do they want?

Sure, people may join your “community” when they’re on your email list or part of a customer database after making a purchase but do these people actually care for your brand outside of what you offered on the surface? Are these individuals talking about you even when you’re not asking?

Get into the mind of your community.

  • Ask hard questions to your community members to learn what they want from your brand.
  • Invite members to share their experiences, feedback, and suggestions.
  • Allow individuals to create and share their own content within your network.
  • Give your community tools and resources to connect with one another.
  • Create a grand picture for your community and drum up excitement for the movement.

In essence, pair your goal for your website (or business) with the drive and passion from your community. Understand what they want from your brand and develop a continuous strategy to deliver that experience. Collect and acknowledge the early adopters and brand ambassadors (the ones most vocal about your offerings) and use them as a starting point for larger, better community interaction.

Do this, right now:

  • Write down a list of 3 – 5 individuals that frequent your website/business.
  • Contact each for a short 20 – 30 minute chat.
  • Chat, casually, and bring up discussions about your brand (and the industry).
  • Take notes about their feelings and drive behind choosing your site over others.
  • Ask them what they would like to see on the site/business.

Compile all those notes and brain storm, for an hour or two, about where your venture could be going and match it up with your personal goals – find an equal ground between the community expectations and your personal quest – it’s that moment that you’ll realize the community is forming and it’s that moment when you know how to proceed to the bigger, challenging goals of community development.

Part 2: Community Engagement

Engaging your community is second hardest to actually building it.

There must be a strategy in play if you wish to retain your website visitors for the long haul; however, remember that people change, in time, and you won’t necessarily keep the same audience for the duration of your projects – just know that you should be targeting the types of community members so there is always a fresh group to connect with.

With that being said, there are various strategies for engaging a community, such as:

  • Opening your website to guest posts
  • Using a robust commenting system for your blog posts
  • Having an email newsletter
  • Installing and operating a user forum
  • Doing Q&A sessions with your members
  • Connecting through video on Google+ or Skype
  • Creating social media profiles that act as independent content sources
  • Doing highlights of your community members
  • Linking to relevant blogs and website owned by your community
  • Operating a membership area
  • Offering premium products and an exclusive list

Of these, the most powerful is a combination of social media, email newsletters, and membership areas (whether it’s a subscription or forum – basically: something that gives a user an account).

Through social media, you have a direct, instant connection which presents a platform for your community to give feedback, suggestions, and their opinion about your work; Facebook, Google+, and Twitter are more than enough to create a community platform outside of your website.

Second, email newsletters, when used as an alternative platform, can become a community within itself if you offer exclusive content to subscribers such as freebies, freemium content, and lucrative offers; treating the email side of your business as its own platform gives people a greater appreciation for your work and keeps them sticking around because it’s more information and value than they’re readily receiving through your website and campaigns – they’ll be more likely to buy.

Last, a membership area of your website (or just forums), creates a platform where other community members can connect; you’ll realize that users will create and submit their own content which generates discussion and a reason for members to regularly log in – even if you’re not there.

In all, it’s a matter of being personal to your audience.

Take time to reach community members outside of your content and marketing. Get to know each individual as they pass through. Visit their website and leave comments. Engage on social media platforms. Give them something to talk about and create new platforms to encourage discussion.

People naturally hold onto their communities if they begin to create connections with other members.

Part 3: Expanding Your Reach

In time, your community will develop and begin to grow outside of the influence of your work.

Members of your community will discuss your content to individuals you have no connection with, people will link to your content, there’s a buzz generating around your brand.

You may not realize it yet but there are already members of your community aiding the growth of your brand without your involvement.

So, you’re at a cross road:

  • Continue to develop your community through your own work
  • Allow your community to develop on its own

Of course, you should realistically do both approaches throughout the entirety of your affiliate marketing but the latter is the most powerful because it frees up your time to work on bigger projects and long-time community members become marketing professionals in their own right (because they’re selling your brand).

The growth of your community lies on your ability to deliver value and give users the tools and resources to share your work.

Use any and every platform you can join to share your message to the world but also take a considerable amount of time to cultivate your community around your goals and passion.

A small group of 10 – 20 individuals, die-hard for your brand, is enough to start a buzz and keep your community growing. Nurture these individuals and they will stand by throughout your various ventures and work.

Consider the following tactics, as well, when growing your brand:

  • Invest in online advertising to promote your products/services/brand
  • Hire a virtual assistant to connect with members, write guest posts, and manage the membership side of your website (if you have one).
  • Work on bigger, loftier premium products and give it to your best members to begin building that all-important initial buzz.
  • Branch out into new mediums like video and podcasting to reach a different segment of your niche industry.
  • Joint venture with other individuals selling products and services (ones you promote through your affiliate business) and work on a tandem project (or challenge another).
  • Continually contribute guest posts to relevant blogs in your niche.

Like link building, you’re getting your message out to as many people as you can all-the-while building your assets which gives people a reason to return for additional value.

Part 4: Developing a Self-Sufficient Community

In this last part – it’s all about building self-sufficiency. I touched on this in part two about community engagement.

The keyword here is: user generated content.

Remember that you’re trying to operate an affiliate marketing business which means your time is very limited and worth a great deal of money. Spending hours upon hours answering comments, leaving feedback in forums, or tweaking designs on your site isn’t the best use of your resources – they should be going toward business development – mainly, networking, promotion, and product development.

The way to overcome this burden that becomes apparent from massive community management is to cultivate user generated content from your community members.

The process is simple:

  • Create a hands free platform that gives your users the ability to create and share content; this can be done through forums, upload services, or having a virtual assistant manage the daily routines of content curating.
  • Invite community members to share their feedback, opinions, and knowledge about a particular subject, publish their work, and cite them as the source (people love being published).
  • Give valuable leadership roles to long-term community members such as forum moderators or blog editor.
  • Pay your community to submit content and help market the brand (especially if it’s during a big affiliate marketing promotion).

In essence, you’re turning over the keys of the business to your community.

Yes, you still have final say on what goes out but the “heavy” work is now rested on the community.

Sure enough, you’ll find die-hard followers that want their voice to be found; they want to become known within your community. Rewarding these individuals (and readily encouraging them) will keep them active and continually producing new items for your brand and members.

You’re taking a social media approach. Let people talk, use your platform, and share what they want, do a bit of moderation, work on the bigger business items (like marketing), and it will take care of itself.

The Early Adopters, Your Brand Ambassadors, and the “Yes Men”

On a final note, there are three things to look out for in community development:

  • Early adopters – the original people that discovered your brand and continue to stick around; they are the most powerful because they’re the most loyal – which also means they’re quick to jump ship if you go too far off the rails by devaluing your brand.
  • Brand ambassadors – they may not have come in right at the beginning (though they may be early adopters) but they’ll fight too and nail for your brand; they are the most vocal, they build your links, share your content, review your work, and promote your marketing campaigns. Treat them well and they will be one of the largest factors in your business growth.
  • The “yes men” – these are the individuals that love everything you create – even if it’s crap. They have good intentions and they’re certainly good people but they don’t fully understand the big picture and they’ll continually suggest actions which eventually lead to your failure, disillusionment of the early adopters, and leave your brand ambassadors scratching their heads.

Work on the first two and avoid the last like the plague.

The early adopters and brand ambassadors will show, in time, so cultivate them, reward them, and seek new ones on a regular basis.

Try to put up blinders to the “yes men” which are overly positive – you’ll go off course from your goals to cater to these individuals (which often never buy from you) – they’re freebie hunters.