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Top tips for setting up and running an online community

These days online communities come in all shapes and sizes.

From the tedious, self-promotion pits that are LinkedIn Groups to the slightly serious Google+ communities and the frequently facile Facebook groups.

A quick search on Facebook will show there are communities for everything from Making a Murderer conspiracy theory discussions to Badger appreciation.

But having sniffed out more communities that a dog has bottoms, I can safety say that most are a bit… well, rubbish.

So if you’re thinking of setting up your own community, what exactly do you need to consider?

And if you already have a online community, but it’s about as lively as a slug at a salt party, how can you inject some much-needed chutzpah?

Here are my top tips on setting up and running a successful online community.

Why communities rock

If you’re wondering why setting up a community is a good idea, here are some benefits to ponder:

  • Communities let you control the conversation. As the manager you get to set the topic and the tone, and boot anyone out who gets on your nerves.
  • Communities help you build a stronger connection with your customers/people/followers. On sites like Facebook, group content is far more visible in feeds than standard business page content.
  • A well-run community can be a great way to give back. For example, rather than answering individual emails from newbie copywriters I can direct them to my community and answer their question there for everyone’s benefit.
  • Let’s be honest: communities create leads that are warmer than freshly toasted muffins. They’re a great way to fluff folk into a sell, rather than ramming your stuff down their throats.

My community credentials

When I started running communities a few years back, it was all about me.

The first community I created was on Google+. I invited 50 or so random copywriters I’d never met to join me in a secret copywriter’s community.

My goal was to make other copywriters my allies rather than enemies, and to share our highs and lows.

Some never replied, and some told me to piss off. But 30 or so took the plunge.

That community is still going strong, and has quite honestly transformed my copywriting career (as well as a few others, I’m guessing).

Since then I’ve:

Running an online community

Tip 1: Understand online community commitment

Setting up a community takes about five minutes.

But running a community (well) is a completely different hedgehog.

While the dream is for your community to become self-sustaining, with your members regularly contributing, interactive and self-moderating, it’s just that—a dream.

The reality is that most online communities are only as good as their manager. 

To make your community successful you need to:

  • Contribute regularly. You should do it at least once a day—more if possible.
  • Moderate. Once you’ve set up your guidelines (see below) you need to stick to them, warn repeat offenders, and be prepared to boot people out.
  • Reply promptly. In one paid community I joined it took more than two weeks to get a reply to a fairly basic question, and there were only ten people in the group. Not good.
  • Listen and change. Take contributions and criticisms on board, encourage conversations and show you care.

As a rough guide I spend 30 minutes to an hour each day running my various communities—sometimes more.
If you’re not willing to make that kind of commitment, I’d say community management isn’t for you.

Toon tip: How to set up a Facebook group
Toon tip: How to set up a Google+ community

Tip 2: Set guidelines

I recommend creating a pinned post at the top of your community (easy to do on Google+ and Facebook) that outlines the community guidelines (although they’re actually the rules).
You should cover:

  • How to use the group.
  • Who can post what, and when.
  • When people are allowed to self-promote (the main reason many people join communities ☺).
  • What kinds of posts and comments will get them booted out.

Tip 3: Chill with the hashtags

Lots of groups do the whole #mindfulmoney #tipuesday #wigwamwednesday thing. But while it’s good to have some structure, these hashtags quickly become irritating and trite.

I prefer to create a set of multipurpose hashtags people can use as and when they please. It also makes it easy to search through posts. 

In my copywriting community these are:


I love it when community members invent their own hashtags and use them creatively.

So don’t hold on to the hash tag reigns too tightly. 

Tip 4: Mix it up.

Don’t make all your posts text-based. Instead, mix it up a bit with:

  • Memes and quotes.
  • Tips and advice.
  • Personal stories (funny, sad, or embarrassing ones are the best).
  • Great blogs from other people.
  • Wins and successes.
  • Videos of people falling over or cats doing funny stuff.

Yes, the focus of the group might be wigwams. But you don’t have to constantly relate everything back to wigwams.

Tip 5: Subtle self-promotion

If every second post just toots your business horn, people will quickly realise the only reason you set up the community is to flog them stuff.

The best communities rarely push a product.

Instead the moderators build a positive vibe, which in turn leads to conversions in a more subtle way.

Tip 6: Be a leader

There are gazillion wishy-washy, vanilla communities out there. To make yours different you need to give it some personality – preferably yours.

Decide on your approach and tone of voice from day one, and be confident about it.

Not everyone will love you, but the people who do will mostly likely become super engaged and loyal.

Try to:

  • Be your best self. Even though it’s your community, it’s not your place to whinge and be negative.
  • Take a breath. Don’t react to every comment immediately. If someone says something that irks you, give it a minute before you bite back. You can also just delete the comment completely. You’re the moderator, remember?
  • Be humble. The collective brain of your community will undoubtedly know more than you. So don’t be arrogant, or start from a ‘know-it-all’ position. Instead, be prepared to learn as much from your community as they learn from you.

Oh and if you’re going to employ a community manager, be upfront about it.

There’s nothing worse than a comment in a community that was clearly made by a minion masquerading as you. Remember: people signed up to interact with you, not your social media assistant.

I recommending introducing your community manager to the community, giving them a separate login and identity, and ensuring their approach matches your own.

Tip 7: Let it go

Communities are messy, and you can’t always control the conversation.

They’re not marketing in a traditional sense. You’re not broadcasting to your customers—you’re having a conversation with them.

The sooner you accept you can’t totally control your community, the more it will flourish.

Tip 8: Embrace the negative

Many businesses are reluctant to start communities (on any kind of social media) because they’re fearful of negative comments and backlash. 

But the truth is your users will be talking about your service and product somewhere.

By giving them a forum to do it, you have a chance to join the conversation.

I wouldn’t recommend deleting negative comments (unless they’re downright rude). Instead, see it as an opportunity to:

  • Get free feedback on your product.
  • Tackle the problem head-on.
  • Possibly create a lifelong fan by solving your customer’s problem.

Are online communities worth the effort?

After reading this post you might be ripping your community plan into tiny angry pieces.


The communities I’ve created have been hugely valuable to my business.

I’ve made lifelong friends through them, and found valuable business partners. (Belinda Weaver and I grew our relationship in my first community, which gave birth to the Hot Copy Podcast.)

I’ve learned so much about my customers, and what they want from my services and products. And some of my best ideas grew out of seeds planted in communities.

In short I’ve invested serious time and effort into my communities, and it’s paid off by the wheelie bin load.

Over to you

What do you like about the communities you’re a member of? If you’re a community manager, do you have any tips to share?

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