Crafting a strong community takes the right balance of talking to your audience and actually listening them. Sarah Judd Welch explains the key tools for cultivation. Yes, content is one of them.

If you are new to community building or just launching a company and looking to build a loyal user base, the first lesson to learn before getting started is that building a community is a strategic process. It’s about more than just pushing interesting content to a relevant audience. It’s about gaining an understanding of who your target audience is and how they will potentially use your product and service, and constantly keeping lines of communication open with and among your community members.

Building a community is complex. It takes trust, accountability, care, listening, empathy, and thoughtfulness. Fortunately, there are many tools to build a supportive ecosystem to simplify and organize your community building process. Just remember: community efforts are built around business goals, and the tools are just there to help execute — not the other way around.

1. Focus groups and surveys

Focus groups and surveys may seem old school, however they are highly relevant community building tools for new products and offerings. Whether over an informal breakfast or a lightweight Google Form, they provide an opportunity to learn from your users’ pain points and to gather informal feedback that can lead to narrowed focus on specific product improvements. They can even be used to gauge potential price offerings. Further, this is an easy way to recruit new and/or founding community members who will take a vested interest in your progress. Treated with care and trust, these folks are likely to become your biggest brand advocates, continuously recruiting new customers over time.

2. Stakeholder interviews

Stakeholder interviews differ from focus groups in that they’re one-on-one with an individual who already has a vested interest in your brand, product, or service. Depending on the purpose of the interview, this could be a current user or customer, an investor, partner, an employee, etc. These are often conducted to uncover challenges, unique uses, and opportunities for new products. They can also be helpful for determining the best way to communicate with a community. Come prepared with specific open-ended questions and be careful to not lead answers. Most importantly, be sure to thank stakeholders for their participation and after takeaways have been determined, share the results.

3. Support tickets

Want to know how to improve your product? Your support inbox is the easiest way to find out. A tight product/community feedback loop is one of the most effective ways to identify bugs and pain points for your community members, determine priority and urgency of new features, and even preemptively improve a product’s user experience — all through email.

4. Forums, groups and listservs

A true community isn’t formed until members are engaging with each other. Forums are one of the original tools for building communities online (and have recently been making quite the comeback), whereas groups are kind of like new school forums taking on a variety of forms including Facebook and LinkedIn. Forums tend to be better suited for informational content with longevity (how to do X, the difference between X and Y, etc.), whereas groups tend be more casual and conversational with timely content. Listservs, such as Google Groups, are best suited for ephemeral informational distribution such as links, job opportunities, or project updates.

Any of these options are a lightweight way to keep a community updated on your progress and to encourage discussions around shared interests, goals, ideas, or beliefs among community members. When encouraged to share candidly with each other, community members are likely to be a bit more personable, providing the opportunity for further insights. This doesn’t mean you can’t participate; feel free to jump in and join the conversation.

5. Events

This is a pretty obvious one. Events – attending or hosting – create opportunities for one-on-one in-person interactions you just can’t have online, not even with Skype or Google Hangouts. Whether a low-key monthly meetup or an all-out bash, there is no substitute for watching your community members interact in real life and getting to know them through in-person conversation. Regardless, be sure to meet your community at events that they’re already attending. Make friends!

6. Content

Content has become the buzzword of 2014. It’s a valuable tool and an important part of your community building toolkit, but content is not the end all be all of community building efforts. Content should be used to add value for your community members, generate interest among relevant audiences, educate users through feature highlights, and illustrate company culture. Content can be nearly anything, ranging from a tweet to a professionally produced video, from an email newsletter to an interview series hosted on your blog.

Most importantly, content should have its own strategy. Goals, objectives, brand voice and tone, community interests and creative campaigns should all be identified and mapped out with guidelines for execution and a flexible editorial calendar.

7. Design

Design plays a critical role in community building that most folks overlook. This can be through:

  • Visual design: the look and feel of a website or specific piece of content/brand asset

  • Information design and architecture: how information is organized for ease of access, readability or consumption, shareability, and commenting ability

  • Design of the community itself: how easy it is for members to interact, simple navigation, etc.

Done well, design can create relevant emotional appeal and identification for a community. In fact, design and community have a lot in common as disciplines, and they can learn a great deal from each other.

8. Analytics

All of the above tools are only valuable if you can measure their effectiveness. With analytical tools such as Google Analytics, Buffer, SproutSocial, and Radian6, you can determine what is actually resonating with your audience. Certain metrics to pay attention to when first getting started on building your community include:

  • What content is driving traffic (clicks)

  • What content is driving engagement (comments, likes, replies, time on site)

  • What content is driving referrals (shares)

  • What’s spurring conversation among members

Now that you have your tools to build a solid community foundation, you can set your strategies and start implementing with confidence and ease.

About our contributor // Sarah Judd Welch is the founder, head of community design and BD at Loyal where she designs communities for startups, brands, and Fortune 100s. Find her on Twitter at @sjw.

Image credit: AKTA