How to Build an Online Community for Your Startup

Your competition may be beating you before either of you even launch.

In today's marketplace, the company with the most robust, active, and engaged online community will win. Whatever you're racing to get to market and whoever your direct competition is, the race to the podium will be won by whoever has that community backing them up.

startups need a community backing them up, here's why.

When it comes to startup success, it truly does take a village.

When it comes to building that community, however, there aren’t any easy shortcuts. Unless you, as CEO, already have a following and you can convince them all to join in, you will start from scratch. And the first step is going to be defining your startup's mission.

To Build Community, First Know Your Startup Mission

The idea is to convince people you don't know yet to join and support your new company, right? If you just start tweeting about your new widget and how it's better than the competition, that might garner some followers, likes, etc. But what if you got people excited about the problems you know they're having, empathizing with them and explaining how to find a solution? Sounds like a better way to collect true fans, doesn't it?

By defining your startup mission on day one (or shortly after that), you'll have a direction to come at your marketing, social media updates, blog posts, and everything else you'll be doing in the run-up to launch. Organizational consultant Simon Sinek calls this, "Start with WHY," and it's one of the best practices at the core of every great marketing campaign.

As a bonus, since you're basing your content on this mission rather than on your as-yet-nonexistent product, you can start building your following early. Find folks with problems your widget will solve and join their online conversations. Don't jump right in with, "Here's my widget; buy it, please?" Start with that empathy I mentioned above. Discuss how you've gone through the same thing and how you worked through it. Describe similar situations you've helped others get through. Then, ask questions; this is the important bit—listen to the answers.

Secret Tip for Community Building: Do Your Research

Is that listening you're doing? That's the basis for the research you've got to start doing. It's called social listening or social monitoring. It's when you use your presence on social media to follow what other people say about you, your product, and your industry. Take notes.

You're looking for what they're saying, how they're saying it, and who's listening and responding to these comments. Check yourself out on review sites (if you've launched already, chances are you'll have reviews), Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and so on if you don't have a presence on these platforms yet. Use a personal account if you have to, or create your company handles, put up an "under construction" notice, and use that as your listening post and base for reconnaissance.

Use Existing Resources: Community Building from the Inside

If you're starting from scratch, we'll address your situation in a moment—if you've launched and have customers you can tap, what are you waiting for? Reach out to that repeat customer and ask them about that repeat business. What is it they love so much? How did they find out about you? Offer a discount or freebie for their feedback.

How about that one person who seems to tweet your praises regularly? Or that random kind of email you received yesterday to the support account? These folks are all your brand ambassadors-in-waiting. Reach out, show the humanity of your company, and be kind. In return, you'll have supporters for life. Even if you don't start an official street team or anything, these boosters will continue talking you up in their circles, and you can't buy that kind of word-of-mouth marketing gold.

Go out of your way to make these early supporters feel special because they are. Even if starting with a simple, free option like a Facebook group, make membership by invitation only. That way, you reach out directly to each individual to extend that invite, giving your group an exclusivity that will excite your audience. Nurture these early adopter relationships; it's proven that those on the cutting edge of their niche are also the most enthusiastic brand evangelists.

Remember: The Community is for Them, Not You

So many startups fail to develop the online following they need to succeed for one simple reason: they make it all about themselves. Asking for feedback and making offers is crucial, but it can't be the only thing you do. You're there to engage, ask and answer questions, and provide solutions. By entering your community on your mission rather than on your product, you have ready-made conversation topics and directions you can take the discussion. Feel free to intersperse some marketing topics, requests for feedback, etc. But remember, this community is for its members, so be sure to do this infrequently and make it worth your time.

Keep It Simple

You may be familiar with the acronym KISS or Keep It Simple...Silly. This applies to your startup marketing in a big, big way. You're just starting; don't expect to buy Super Bowl ads yet. Starting with things like Facebook Groups, subreddits, and the like gives you the ability to engage your audience and build your community, all while not over-extending your limited marketing budget. 

Most of the people you want to reach are already on these platforms, making it frictionless to join in. Plus, established channels like these have robust feature sets that let you host streaming events, schedule and promote real-world events, hold giveaways, and produce other special events for your budding community on the platform.

Don't Forget Yourself

With everything else surrounding your new startup, it's easy to forget about one important aspect—you. You're the brains of the outfit, you're the brawn getting the word out, and you're probably also the customer support team. None of that means you should neglect to get the support you need.

There are forums, FB Groups, and subreddits for everyone, including entrepreneurs, solopreneurs, and startup CEOs full of others who have been where you are and are willing to help. Whether you find your home on a pre-existing platform like the #Startup group on Slack or a niche forum like #nomads (for globetrotting solopreneurs) or Growthhackers, you'll find your tribe. And just like the support your community gives your product, you can also get the support you need to grow and expand from these focused communities.

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Jesse hails from Seattle, WA. When he's not creating great content or staring at his laptop screen waiting for inspiration, he's probably walking in the trees somewhere in the foothills of the nearby Cascade Mountains.

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