Types of Communities
Before I start, I'd like to address the fact that I'm not an expert on community building. I'm merely sharing what worked for me with building and monetizing a large gaming community, and hope that some of the strategies I used are useful for you as well.
I'd also like to mention that there are broadly two types of communities. One where you try to grow as fast as possible and open it up to the general public like the one I ran. The second type is a smaller community where you really care about the quality of people inside. For example, some sort of think tank of people you want to brainstorm startup ideas with or a close intimate meetup group. You want to keep this group small and full of high quality people, so you limit members. Regardless of the type of community you run or would like to run, there is something in this blog post for you.
With that out of the way, let's talk about how I managed to build a gaming community of over half a million members for my startup, UltraShock Gaming, with $0 of investment. Chances are, you don't have a gaming startup but may be interested in starting some sort of community or would like to learn how to grow one. Regardless, I hope some of the techniques I share in this blog post will be useful.
Let me start off by giving you some background on my startup first. It started with me realizing how hard it was for game developers to get their games on PC platforms like Steam to sell. Steam required you to have several hundred people to vote and say they would buy your game before they would put it on the store. Small indie game developers did not have an audience like this, so I realized I needed a build a community of gamers who would be willing to help me accomplish this.
I contacted game developers who had their game on Steam, and asked them for a few copies of their game to give away in my community. This way, they would get some free marketing, and I'd make my group members happy by giving away free games. As it turns out, people really like free stuff. I made the giveaways happen daily and made them very easy to join. No clicking links or completing tasks, just a simple comment to join.
I spent 2-3 hours a day contacting game developers to ask for games, posting the giveaways, picking winners, distributing games, and moderating my community. The first two months, we saw almost no traction. We had about 100 members in the group and I couldn't justify the ~20 hours a week I was putting into it. Then all of a sudden, we reached 1000 members after the third month. 6 months in, we had 50,000 members.
After this, I ended up acquiring some other gaming communities and growing all of them to a collective 700,000 members. I then monetized through ads and sponsored posts, making about $9000 a year. More on that story here if you're interested.
5 Steps to Build a Community
Now on to the million dollar question, how do you build a community? Here's the 7 step process I used that worked well for me.
Define the mission/purpose of the community. You want to answer the following questions: What does this community revolve around? Why should people join your community? Doing this clarifies the value proposition for new members.
Think about what kind of interactions you want group members to have. Will you have a weekly call with all the members? Will it be more async? If it is async, what is the recommended way for people to communicate? How do you get people to participate? What kind of events will you have?
Choose the right platform. Depending on your target community member, choose a platform that makes the most sense. For gaming, I chose a Steam group (similar to a FB page) since that's where most gamers hang out. I probably wouldn't have been able to grow as much as I did on another platform. For reference, we had 700k members on Steam and only about 30k on Facebook. So consider various platforms like Twitter, Facebook, or Discord, or community specific ones like Circle.
Map out the new member onboarding flow. What happens when a new member joins? Will they be confused and thrust into a discord server with 20 channels that are mostly inactive? Or will they be guided by a strong onboarding process that immediately shows them what the group is about and how they can interact with others?
Get help running the community after it's established. It's very time consuming to run a community alone. When it gets to a certain point, get volunteers or appoint community ambassadors to help take the weight off your shoulders.
Here are two of the biggest lessons I learned when building my community.
Maintain consistency. This is one of the most important and hardest steps to maintain. It's very easy to lose motivation to keep growing a community, especially in the beginning when you're not seeing any results. In the beginning you'll feel like you're giving and giving, but not getting anything back and that's perfectly normal. You just need to persevere through this phase.
When in doubt, niche down. I started with game giveaways and expanded to mini-games, hosting game servers, and more. Having a singular focus in the beginning allows you to be a more focused community and is generally less work than supporting multiple niches.
At the end of the day, building a community is hard. Think about if you want to go this route and why you'd want to build one. If you find a compelling reason to, I hope this blog post can help guide you and allow you to learn from the mistakes I made.
If you're building a community, have any questions for me, or would like to share your thoughts on this subject, I'd love to hear from you on Twitter!
“Alone, we can do so little; together, we can do so much” – Helen Keller