Illustration by Nicole Stevenson
Back in the old days of the Internet, long before Web 2.0 brought social media to the forefront, online human interaction happened in forums, chat rooms and — once the tech was stable enough — blog comments.

Now, with social media taking up over a quarter of the time people spend online, we take for granted that technology helps us connect with people.

As small business owners, social media is at the heart of how we reach our clients and customers. We focus on relatively new platforms like Instagram and Pinterest – Facebook is a dinosaur in comparison – yet in the face of an endless stream of social sharing and promoting, it’s the humble online community that’s making a comeback. Only, this time around, it’s being used as a business tool.

Meighan O’Toole is a social media strategist who started a private Facebook group for her business in 2014, in part because of how little engagement she generated on her fan page. A former community manager at Wikia (Wikipedia’s for-profit sister site) and Wired Magazine, O’Toole says she wanted to offer a space where she could meet new customers and where people could form connections with each other.

“I wanted a way to connect with my potential clients and people who enjoyed my content in a more direct way,” O’Toole says. “I also wanted a place where artists, makers and shop owners could ask questions, share resources regarding creating an online presence, and create relationships with others.”
It’s the ability to create and foster relationships that led the founders of Midwest Craft Con to start a secret Facebook group for the speakers and attendees of the event.

Inspired by a different conference’s online community, conference co-founder Grace Dobush says her team initially set their group up as an easy way to communicate as they planned the event, but that it “quickly morphed into a group for all the attendees and speakers.”

Facebook has two kinds of private groups: closed and secret. Closed groups’ posts are only visible to members of the group, but the group’s existence is public and any Facebook member can request permission to join. Secret groups, in contrast, are hidden from search results, and people can only join when directly invited by the group’s administrators.

Though Facebook seems to be the most popular platform on which small businesses host their online communities and is, as Dobush points out, a site where many people check in at least daily, owners of niche businesses have found success hosting their communities on other platforms that are more dedicated to their niche.

Crochet designer Stacey Trock and knitwear designer Laura Nelkin each host a lively group on Ravelry.com, the website for yarn crafters. All Ravelry groups are open to any member of the site. In addition to simply building community surrounding their designs and books, both designers set up their groups as an attempt to spend less time answering customers’ questions.

“I needed a place that people could go to ask questions about my patterns and get support from other knitters. It was originally an attempt to get less e-mail,” Nelkin says.

Trock came from a similar place: “I wanted my customers to be able to help each other out. I might not be awake at 3 a.m. to answer a question, but with a large group, chances are that someone in the world is and is happy to chime in.”

Beyond having group members help each other out, the designers were eager to create a place where crafters could share the projects they make from their patterns, in the hope that those projects would inspire other members to make more purchases.

Where to Start

If you want to start a group for your business, O’Toole recommends first deciding exactly what you want the group to help you achieve.

“Be sure to be very clear about what it is you want from a community,” she says. “Building a community is incredibly rewarding, and it can create super evangelists for your products and services. But it takes work and a lot of time, which is a big commitment for a small business owner.”

Next, decide whether you want your group to be public, closed or secret, and then choose the platform that meets your group’s hosting needs.

Invite People to Join

Invite people to join by using the existing channels you use to reach your audience. O’Toole mentions her Facebook group in her email newsletter about once a month.

On the other hand, Nelkin promotes her group very actively.

“I tend to always have a project or promotion happening in the group, and share that through my social media channels (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter), and point people over to the group to join in,” Nelkin says.

Group membership also can be used as a benefit of purchasing an online class or conference registration. As Dobush explains: “We consider the [Midwest Craft Con] group an extension of the conference and an extra benefit for people who register. So we’ve got lots of candid discussions going on, and after the conference I expect speakers to share materials there, too. It’s a place for people to share resources and help each other out more than anything else.”

Nurture to Build Community

Like any business venture, you shouldn’t assume that simply launching the community will cause it to thrive.

“A group won’t survive without input from you,” Trock advises. “So plan on dedicating some effort and time to it.”

Nelson adds: “Commit to posting daily and come up with a plan to keep the people you have in it involved. If you don’t do this it probably isn’t worth starting one!”

It’s also important to set clear rules and boundaries.

O’Toole says that, in the beginning, she “sort of let everyone share anything they wanted because the group is about building and creating an online presence – which is a broad topic.”

“I wanted people to share their own content too, to help others grow and get their content in front of others. But as with most communities without boundaries, people started to share things that were very self-promotional. There was a little backlash behind the scenes where members felt that they were being spammed,” O’Toole says. “I realized I needed to set some limits. To make up for it, I created a monthly brag thread where I ask people to share something they’re proud of, and that allows the opportunity for people to share their business and things they’re doing that may be off topic.”

One Size Does Not Fit All

There’s a wide range of group sizes, and each of the business owners in this article said they’re happy with the size of their own groups, but that there is still room for improvement.

For example, Nelson’s group has about 4,700 members, but she’s keen for that number to increase. And Trock says that, with about 2,800 members in her group, she is starting to feel concerned about whether a level of intimacy can be maintained even in very large groups. Both designers have volunteers who help manage their groups, from moderating discussions to greeting new members.

O’Toole’s group currently has fewer than 300 members, and she intends to keep the number relatively small. However, O’Toole cautions other business owners about judging their group’s success on numbers alone

“You can have a very active, powerful and robust community with only 50 people,” O’Toole advises “You don’t need to be in the thousands to have a successful community.”

Kim Werker

Kim Werker


To learn more about author Kim Werker, visit her website at www.kimwerker.com.

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