Growing Your Community: The Best Channels And Tactics
If you’ve ever wondered why your community isn’t growing, it’s probably because you’re leaving growth to chance.
It’s common to focus on doing fun, engaging, activities in a community and hope growth takes care of itself. This is a mistake.
The problem is if you don’t get more people to visit the community, no-one new is going to see all the engaging things you’re doing.
This is why the majority of things you do don’t have a big impact on community membership – they don’t get more visitors in the first place.
If you want to radically grow a community, you need to match your engagement efforts with a targeted promotional push.
This post is about the best techniques and channels to do just that.
The Best Channels To Grow Your Community Community
If you want to grow a community, you need to be deliberate about how you do. Simply ‘doing a good job’ doesn’t grow a community.
In our community strategies, we develop a clear plan of growth by identifying the main channels to use and then the specific actions we will take on each of them.
This isn’t a comprehensive list, but the main tools of community growth are usually:
- Search visitors. This is traffic from search engines (Google, Bing, Brave etc..).
- Customer support flow. This is when people are trying to find an answer to their question through support channels and get redirected to your community.
- Homepage placement. This is when the community appears somewhere prominently on the homepage for people browsing around.
- Product integration. This is when the community is a clickable link within the product (or members can simply participate in the community from the product i.e. in-app communities).
- Related articles. This is when the community shows up alongside related articles people are looking at on a company website.
- Newsletter promotion. This is when the organization promotes the community to an audience subscribed to a mailing list.
- Paid social ads. This is when the organization pays to promote the community through ads or promoted posts on social media.
- Social media. This is when you promote the community through the popular channels members use every day.
- Member referrals. This is when members invite others to join the community or share community content on social channels.
- Partnerships and influencers. This is when the community is partnered with another organization (or influencers) and traffic is sent in both directions.
- Direct invitations. This is when the community team sends individual outreach messages inviting people to join.
You can take very deliberate and specific actions to use each of these tools to grow a community.
Which Channel Of Growth Is Best For Your Community?
Not every tool is suitable for growing every type of community. It doesn’t make sense to individually invite people to a support community.
One additional member isn’t worth the effort. Nor does it make sense to promote small peer groups on the community homepage. A flood of traffic will do more harm than good.
You can see a breakdown of the right tool for each type of community here.
Some of this is subjective, but you get a general idea.
For support communities that are usually high-traffic volume, you need tools that can also deliver a high volume of traffic. For smaller communities, you’re working at the micro-level and need the right tools to match.
If you want to grow a community, the first step is to identify which are the right tools for your community.
The Smaller The Community, The More Influence You Have Over Growth
Generally speaking, the smaller the group the more direct influence you have over the level of growth.
If you’re building a support community, your influence is usually somewhat limited. This is because the number of visitors depends upon how many people have the kind of questions support communities are best placed to solve. There are some things you can do to optimize traffic flows, but you’re fundamentally playing within a given set of constraints.
However, if you’re building a small community of peers, your influence is much greater. You often individually invite people to join and you’re responsible for keeping them active.
The bigger the audience you’re dealing with, the more growth depends upon sources of traffic you have less direct influence over. Be mindful of this when you’re given engagement targets.
p.s. The level of influence over direct growth is also the level of influence you have over member retention.
How To Get More Visitors To Your Community
Once you know which tools are best suited to your community, you can start to figure out how to optimize each of them.
This isn’t going to be a comprehensive list, but will cover some of the steps which have given us the most mileage in the past.
1. Community Search Traffic
Search is a black box of conflicting advice, but some general principles seem to work well.
There are several ways to improve your search results. The most common are:
- Removing/archiving old content. Use tools like ScreamingFrog to pull a list of articles/discussions and combine this with criteria to highlight discussions that haven’t received any traffic in the past year. Then remove them from the search index (or the discussion entirely with redirects to category-level topics).
- Match categories/tags to terms that are searched for. Use tools like Ahrefs and customer research to identify what people are searching for and ensure categories/tags are named accordingly (i.e. so they appear in every URL/page for that topic). Also ensure the site configuration is set up to properly complete the title tags, meta descriptions, alt-images text, and h1/h2 tags etc…
- Target specific keywords with resources. Communities are fantastic tools for compiling the best expertise from members into a definitive resource for a particular topic. Once published, you can also help members to share and promote the resources (aside – a definitive guide to tools/settings often seem popular).
- Improve the navigation/content architecture. This helps limit orphan pages that aren’t linked to within the site but exist on the site. These should be removed or included within a rebuilt navigation structure. Too many community sites have awful navigation/content architecture.
- Hosting the community on the domain rather than a subdomain. If you can, host the community in a folder (or seemingly in a folder) rather than a subdomain, i.e. it’s better to have brand.com/brand/community than community.brandname.com. This is hard to do without hosting the community yourself.
- Improving the site load speed. Be aware some platforms are remarkably slow to load compared to others. In my experiments, Flarum seems to have the best load speeds (and Salesforce the slowest). If you can’t switch platforms, at least remove every non-essential script/video/image you don’t need on the site (remove annoying pop-ups if you can too).
- Rewrite posts and merge duplicate posts. Make a habit of rewriting post discussion titles for things people actually search for. Also be mindful to merge discussions with duplicate titles (or very similar titles) to create single-comprehensive discussions.
If you need more help with search, contact us and we can undertake an audit with follow-up recommendations.
2. Customer Onboarding And Support Flow
The onboarding flow is how and if a customer learns about the community. Our surveys often reveal many customers don’t know a community exists (aside, I’ve also been in senior exec meetings where participants made the same startling discovery). The support flow is how members go about resolving questions. A change in the positioning or prominence of the community in the support flow can have a big impact upon participation.
The best ways to optimize this include:
- Introduce newcomers into the community (and setting up a place for them). For success and support communities, making newcomers aware of the community in the early documentation and training, and having customer support/success reps telling audiences about the community is key.
- Place the community above the support center (Okta example). Make ‘ask the community’ the default option for people looking for support answers. Position it above the ‘contact us’ option.
- Federated search to retrieve community discussions. Ideally, you want a search tool (Coveo/SearchUnify) that can retrieve information from throughout the support center (both discussions and help articles). This can greatly increase the number of people arriving at the community.
- Reminding callers about community while on hold. I’ve only seen this done once, but a message advising people on hold they can ask questions in the community can add a (small) number of active members.
- Create and communicate the right positioning messages for community vs. support. Make it clear when and how people should use the community. This should appear on your community homepage and be consistent in every other message.
3. Homepage Placement
A lot more people are going to find your community if it’s featured on the main navigation tab than if it’s buried several levels deep. Sometimes this tweak alone can double the amount of traffic a community receives.
At the top level, you want the community in the main navigation tab. If not, you want it featured first in the support tab/help center. If not there, then you’re not going to get much referral traffic.
The SAP Community (below) is a best in class example here:
4. Product Integration
This is more relevant to some products than others. The more integrated the community is with the product itself, the more traffic you’re likely to get. There are some wins here:
- Prominent inclusion in the product. If you can include the community as a simple click from the product itself, this can help. Quickbooks (below) is a good example of this.
- Packaging. It’s relatively rare, but I’ve seen the community featured on packaging for products. “For support, visit community.brand.com”. It’s probably not a big win, but can help.
- In-app community. Some organizations have an in-app community which can be directly integrated with the product so customers/audiences can directly ask questions without having to leave the app. Other times I’ve seen software error messages link to the community where people can get support/ask questions.
5. Related Articles
A major way to drive traffic to a community is to ensure it shows up in more places ‘in the flow’ of where people visit today. A common missed opportunity is connecting the metadata from knowledge articles to community discussions and using it to show related community discussions alongside knowledge articles.
For example, for any knowledge article, you could show related community discussions in the sidebar that members might find useful.
Another option is to include an option to ask a question about any article at the bottom of the article itself. Apple does this well.
6. Newsletter Promotion
You can get bumps in traffic from properly promoting the community within a newsletter which goes out to a majority of customers (or your audience). The newsletter isn’t a suitable option for customer support communities, but it can be useful for success communities (promoting individual items of great community content) and using it to help get user groups and new peer groups quickly to a critical mass of activity.
7. Paid Social Ads
It’s not common for organizations to launch paid social media to promote a community, but it can be useful when an organization doesn’t have a newsletter audience to promote a new community initiative (and has limited time to build an audience).
It’s best used for a small number of success and exclusive peer group communities (the kind that charges a membership fee to make a budget worthwhile). I’ve seen the cost of acquiring a new member range between $4 to $120.
8. Social Media
If you have an existing audience, social media can help you amplify discussions to a broader audience. This works well in success, advocacy, and peer groups. If you don’t have a big audience, social media can be the best place to look for the first trickle of discussions.
- Promoting good discussions on social media channels. When you have discussions (or content) that are becoming popular in the community, you can boost traffic by also promoting them on social media too. MoneySavingExpert (below) is a good example.
- Finding new members on LinkedIn. Another tactic is to recruit new members directly from social media. LinkedIn and Twitter, for example, provide a great channel to promote the community to new audiences. You can search specifically for the people you want to join and invite them. This works especially well for smaller peer groups. This is where knowing tools like Canva can really help.
- Platform referrals. Sometimes the platform will automatically promote your group/community/content to others on the same platform. Facebook groups are a good example. There might be a way to optimize this with the right name/description, but I haven’t yet worked out how. Reddit is another one where the community facilitates mass cross-promotion of related groups from one to another.
9. Member Referrals
In theory, as a community grows more people talk about it and it grows. In practice, that doesn’t happen as much as you might think. Most people don’t go around recommending communities to each other. However, there are a couple of things you can do to help facilitate referrals.
- Engage members in creating a shared project. If you engage members in creating a shared project, they’re quite likely to share it with others. This works especially well with eBooks, events, and similar activities where members will promote the community to others (aside this post is 13 years old and still relevant).
- Lists or rankings of top members. I hate that this still works in 2022, but creating a list of top community members (or industry influencers) tends to attract a lot of promotion and people on the list sharing it with others. If members can even vote and rank the list, even better.
- Enable member sharing/referrals. Increasing the prominence of shared options (all the usual social channels) can provide a small boost. But most people don’t share community discussions unless something remarkable is happening. For peer groups and user groups, inviting members to invite others (or giving members a fixed number of invites they can use per month) can really help grow a community.
- Create content worth sharing. A final option is perhaps the most obvious, create things worth sharing. As mentioned before, definitive guides to specific topics can attract a lot of attention. Especially when members have played a part in creating it.
- Influencers. The common myth is you need influencers to launch a community. You don’t. But they can be great people to help promote a community once it’s launched. The most common are hosting events featuring influencers, letting influencers curate discussions/have their own ask me anything category for a short-time, hosting panels with influencers or simply paying influencers to answer questions. The more influencers know a community exists, the more likely they will mention it at some point to their audience. This isn’t a big win, but it can help.
- Existing organizations/communities. You should have a clear ecosystem map of related organizations/similar events in your space. You can offer a partnership where you promote them if they promote you. This works especially well for events which don’t have their own community. You can be the community for events. Likewise, you can reach out to large organizations and suggest your community be added as a resource for new/existing employees etc.
11. Direct invitations
Direct invitations are primarily used to get people to join small groups. At the larger side, it doesn’t make sense to send out invitations directly to members. An additional member doesn’t move the needle. Therefore direct invites work best for attracting advocates, launching small groups of peers, and creating a program of superusers (one client fantastically referred to the superuser invites as the ‘Hogwarts letters’).
There are plenty of useful scripts you can use here. However, fundamentally, the name of this game is about customizing the approach to make each recipient feel like they’re being invited to something special based upon their skills, knowledge, or personal attributes. In short, it’s about making the recipient feel as special as possible.
If you’re launching a new group, you can easily find and send messages to numerous people on LinkedIn, Twitter, and other channels who might want to join.
Create A 12-Week Growth Plan
I’ve found it works best to create a ‘12-week sprint’ when it comes to growth. 12 weeks is arbitrary, but the key is to figure out which options make sense to you and then put this into a specific plan for growth.
You can see an example below:
This growth plan is probably too ambitious for 12 weeks, but it shows the full range of activities available. If you’re going to deliberately grow a community, you need a specific plan to do it that everyone can rally around.
Don’t Leave Growth To Chance!
We teach our clients not to let growth happen by chance.
Sure, you might get a surge of new members who happen to stumble upon your community. But you’re going to be far more successful if you deliberately drive a group of new visitors to your community.
You can (and should) develop a deliberate plan of growth (i.e. a 12-week plan), target a couple of channels, and then work hard to optimize each of them.
You have more influence over some of these channels than others. The trick is to figure out which are the best channels for your community and how you can best optimize them. This isn’t a comprehensive list of resources, but it should help.