Some brands view social networks as an audience, and just another opportunity to broadcast messages and recruit additional customers. For them, communities are something they own and they fail to nurture and maintain relationships with members. Others see the social community as an opportunity to build meaningful, sustainable connections, the result of which are not just customers but valued, engaged, and important brand advocates.

As a community manager for Sprout Social, I’m tasked with achieving the latter. I strive to encourage open communication between our brand and the online community. I’m often the first touch many people have with our brand. I handle the initial interaction and am sometimes their most frequent point of contact at Sprout. That means I must be knowledgeable about all the facets of the organization, but also personable and relatable to start and grow individual relationships.

Playing a number of roles – leader, spokesperson, therapist, and friend – I’ve learned that there are a few key principles to building and maintaining a community that is thoughtful, meaningful, and engaged. Here are my tips.

Tip #1: Make Community Members Feel Included

We all desire to feel like we’re a part of something. In fact, the need to feel a sense of belonging is part of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Beyond our physiological – food, water, sleep, shelter – and safety needs, we desire to feel valued and included in groups both large and small. Fulfilling this need can be as simple as having a conversation, but in the setting of community, simple interaction needs to go a step further.

Actively participating in a community takes time and effort. People love to be recognized for their effort, and it’s a community manager’s job to acknowledge that, ensuring that individuals feel valued and part of something greater. They need to feel wanted. The same rules of respect that you follow in your physical communities can and should apply in your online communities as well:

  • Use individuals’ names.
  • Address their questions directly and with poise.
  • Respond to comments and questions in a timely manner.
  • Treat everyone with the same respect.

Tip #2: Always Cater to New Members

While it may seem obvious, an important thing to keep in mind is that a community is always growing and changing, and any new members will inherently need more attention and information. Oftentimes, their first interaction with you is their first impression of your brand, so it’s important to approach each interaction openly and enthusiastically. One conversation can affect an individual’s entire perception of a brand or community.

One great concept to keep in mind is “Eternal September,” which refers to the notion that new members are always going to make up part of any given community. Moderators, as well as existing users, need to have patience and fervor for teaching them the rules, etiquette, and procedures of the community.

Andrew Hyde, founder of StartUp Weekend, knows there are always new folks attending any of his events. He understands the attendees give up an entire weekend to be there, and because he’s aware of their time commitment, he is sure to be incredibly welcoming. Hyde treats each Weekend like it’s the very first one.

Explaining the rules and background of an event or community over and over again may seem exhausting, but the next tip will help lessen the responsibility.

Tip #3: Enable and Impassion Community Champions

Just as your community will always have newer members, it will also be comprised of some brand champions. These folks may have adopted your organization early on, or simply appreciate you for the way you make their daily lives just a little bit easier. Either way, they’re willing to defend your brand and promote it whenever possible. Most important, they’ll give your brand time, which is more valuable than anything else.

You might not have a large number of these brand champions, but that doesn’t matter. What does matter is enabling and empowering the group – that is what will help grow your community. Ask these knowledgeable and invested parties to educate the newbies, post tips about your product or service, and be vocal within and outside of your community. They’ll gladly oblige as long as you start with a small “ask” and grow it from there. Also, make sure to acknowledge their efforts as much as possible and express your gratitude.

Due to certain legislation, Airbnb has had to build a community of vocal people willing to stand up for the brand. It has enabled the community to scale with the help of field organizers and starting with a small “ask” then building to bigger requests. The company earned a cult-like affinity towards the organization because it empowers individuals to earn extra money and give travelers a trusted marketplace to book unique accommodations around the world.

Tip #4: Single Out Members

Similar to how it’s important to highlight and single out brand advocates, it’s also important to frequently recognize other community members for various reasons. While an individual may not be a power user, they might be using your product in a really interesting way, or be enjoying great personal or business success from using it.

Promoting the stories of your community members shows the transparency of your brand and makes it clear that your organization is genuinely invested in those that make your company successful in the first place. Polyvore, for example, does a great job of this. Its community management team regularly highlights members by tweeting followers’ unique Polyvore collage creations, which shows that Polyvore is listening and interested in what the community is doing.

Tip #5: Help Individuals Achieve a Goal or Dream

If your brand can afford the time and financial commitment, find ways to help community members achieve their goals, and realize their hopes and dreams. Why do people use your service? Is it to achieve recognition? Gain sales? Connect to people in a certain industry?

Based on how brands answer these questions, community managers should align their goals with those of the individuals within their community, and then use their company’s resources to find ways to help. Demonstrating selflessness as a brand will grow a community of fiercely loyal people. If you help members achieve what they want, they’ll want to mobilize and tell others about your support. This word-of-mouth marketing is stronger and longer-lasting than any form of advertising.

BetaBrand is a company almost completely built on the community. Members design clothing, crowd fund the pieces, and receive 10 percent of the item’s profits. This model of proving a fashion concept before product is unique and encourages designers to submit ideas that will be produced if their popularity is great enough. Instead of facing the challenge of paying the cost of production, the challenge is instead to be creative and come up with something people want.

Tip #6: Enable the Community to Connect with Each Other

A common interest in your brand is the connective tissue that holds the community together. However, they each have lives outside of your community, so it is important to encourage them to build connections with each other as well as your brand. No matter what kind of relation an individual has to the brand, a strong connection to other individuals who are a part of the brand’s community will inspire them to become more invested.

Enabling community members to learn from and help each other will make your brand a significant resource, as your social presence will serve as the hub where the connecting is happening. Orchestrate occasions for members to get to know each other, which will in turn cause them to become interested in what others are doing. This works even more in your brand’s favor if it’s in relation to your product or service.

The Twitch community is all about gaming. Within the platform, users can watch others play video games. Marcus Graham, Twitch’s director of community and education, noticed in his community that individuals connecting with each other created even more brand loyalty. The gamers feel a unique identity within the community and thus feel it’s a valuable place to spend their time.

Tip #7: Always Keep a Non-Zero-Sum Game in Mind

A non-zero-sum game is defined as everyone winning, as opposed to just one individual. Think of your community in this way: the happiest and most beneficial communities are ones where everyone gains something and no one feels like they’ve lost anything.

To create a non-zero-sum game, find ways the community members can benefit from each other. As I mentioned in the last tip, find members who can enrich each other’s lives: connect a mentor and a mentee, or find a seasoned pro who loves teaching and introduce them to a new community member.

Amy Jo Kim of Shufflebrain believes non-zero-sum games are the future and stresses the importance of this kind of community and mindset. Though finding the positive outcomes for each side might be a challenge at first, there should always be a situation where this can be possible.

Tip #8: Host Events

While our world is becoming increasingly connected through social media, video conferencing and the like, digital relationships are still limiting. Ninety-five percent of professionals believe face-to-face meetings are key to business success.

Digital relationships will never fully replace in-person ones, so it’s important to continue to foster face-to-face gatherings as well. Hosting or even organizing a meetup for your community is incredibly beneficial. The event doesn’t need to be a grand production, just organized or sponsored by your company; people will appreciate the opportunity to connect on a more intimate level.

Every community is different. What works well for one group may not be as relevant for another. Community managers must test different tactics to figure out their community’s expectations and which directions they’ll best grow.

What do you think is most important in building an involved and engaged community? I’d love your feedback; tweet me at @sprout_sarah and let’s chat!

I must give credit to the speakers at CMX Summit for teaching and furthering the tips I outline in this post. Much of the advice here stems from the amazing people who spoke at the recent conference in San Francisco. If you haven’t heard of the event, be sure to check it out.