Building an Online Community

Building an Online Community

How can you help your customers, students, members and other stakeholders truly connect with you and each other - test whether they are physically close or scattered across geography and time zones? By building an online community that provides them with an opportunity to engage in deeper and more meaningful ways. What does it take? A flexible infrastructure that adapts and supports your needs - and a plan for how to approach. In this article, we’ll look at some things you should consider for your community - and some ideas for how to use them when you do create your community online.

Picking a platform for building your online community​

We’ve all seen them or have them - “online communities” that are long discussion strings of written conversations moderated by a community leader or designated subject matter expert. Creating a community online with a set of written discussion strings or forum is a start - but it is only the beginning. More capabilities can provide more opportunities for individuals or groups to connect.

For example:

  • video or audio chats among your members and/or a moderator and a specific set of members
  • real-time collaboration on a project sharing screens and files
  • hosting a special guest or panel of guests in a live presentation
  • providing a recorded series of podcasts or webinars

Those are things that your platform should support to provide flexibility to your community members, leaders and event moderators.

Behind the scenes, it should also make it easy on your IT team, infrastructure and budget:

  • allow you to quickly embed the functionality in your website.
  • be white-labelled - aka: flexible enough to easily add your organization’s “look and feel” to your new community, reinforcing your branding with participants.
  • integrate easily with your other tech (have an open API).
  • enable you to make security as tight as needed.
  • scale up effectively, efficiently and cost-effectively, whether you grow from 1 to 100 - or 10k+ community members - without eating up bandwidth. So if you’ve picked your platform, let’s talk about ideas for putting it to work for your community.

Engaging your online community

Supportive tech is great - now you really need ideas for your potential member audiences. What will make them sit up and take notice - and more importantly - join and participate? Well, in the case of The MIDI Association (, when they started their online community for MIDI users - folks who use the MIDI technology to create and share music and sound - they had just a handful of members. Through great content: recordings from industry events; moderated panel discussions of experts on topics of member interest; and hosted interactive events; plus targeted newsletters, nurturing emails and special opportunities, they attracted 15,000 (and counting) more new members! And this all volunteer organization was able to do this easily with horn as the platform for their community (which allowed them to quickly integrate right into their website in a sidebar on their existing member forum with their own branding) and a plan for identifying and rolling out the communications.

What about more restrictive or exclusive communities? If you are building an online community for an institution or entity where you need to maintain more control over who accesses which content - and/or which “event” the member is invited to participate in - you can use your online community not only for the general, but also specific needs. For example, online communities for:

  • An institution of higher education - a college, university or conservatory: You want to grow your reach, while targeting content and access by group. Your current students are used to having an online life and you may already have a “campus-wide” online community - but does it support how your students, faculty or even alum may want to interact? What about those who are from the general area that like to stay engaged with their neighbors on campus?

Establishing a general community for all your constituents is first step. For students and faculty, you can leverage a current sign-on or username they may have been issued to allow them access (so they don’t have to remember a different one - making it easy for them to participate). For “neighbors,” have them log in with their Facebook or Google. Use the community to post your updates about things that everyone loves: schedules for your sports and performances; overall calendar for academic year; good news about students, faculty and alum; etc. Then take advantage of the functionality of your platform and establish different groups within that: invite your divisions, departments, schools and centers of excellence to create targeted events and conversations which are only open to specific participants - undergrads OR grad students OR majors of a discipline, for example; have faculty members utilize for their “office hours” via video chat or to have their students in a particular course collaborate on an “all-hands on deck” project with live chat and sharing documents; letting upper-level course students set up smaller study groups with video, voice and sharing documents; etc. By creating a centralized community - one single place where many things happen, but appropriate for the audience - you can grow your institution’s community.

  • For a sports team or performing artist/band: You want to grow your reach, but also make your community members feel like they are part of an exclusive club. Making it easy for folks to join your community online with their Facebook or other social media credentials is important - and then providing “members only” content: recordings of your well-known players/ performers speaking to the members about what happens “behind the scenes” during practice; hosted panel discussions with the stars about what is in the plans for the upcoming season or tour; etc. And providing fans opportunities to interact in an online moderated chat with a favorite and share their love of all things you are in a regularly scheduled “were you there?!?” post-event chats. Making it easy to join and participate - while making them feel special with “insider info” is one of the best ways to make this group grow.

  • For healthcare institutions - to both grow engagement with the general public, while creating secure internal collaboration: Creating a community of wellness for your physical community, including staff, potential patients and neighbors, allows you to share educational opportunities through recorded content on everything from tips on eating well to exercise ideas for seniors. Being able to establish logins that easily distinguish between general public and medical staff allows you to then have dedicated and secure areas that allow your staff to have private conversations and share ideas or host “virtual” in-service events for staff via video that can also be recorded for those who couldn’t attend - and at a glance, see who has participated. Openness for the general group - making it easy to access and consume - while providing secure collaboration is key for encouraging use.

Establish your goals, identify your audiences and what they want from you most - and pair with great community platform to build a successful online community!

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