Community engagement is fast becoming a buzzword — and it’s not hard to see why. Everywhere you look, it seems as though there’s a new online community cropping up. Some are focused on a particular interest or industry, while others simply span the wide umbrella of entrepreneurship. But no matter the topic and purpose, there’s a big difference between the communities that thrive and those that putter out before ever gaining traction.
Why? More so than luck, the success of an online community is quality engagement — which is always the result of thoughtful and deliberate planning. It’s weighing the strengths of the community through the lens of providing the highest value to both its members and its mission, and it’s being honest about what the group can truly offer and working hard to deliver it.
'We have had such healthy engagement that we’ve invested nothing in traditional marketing'
I know this because, for nearly the past eight years, I’ve been running Dreamers & Doers, a private collective that amplifies extraordinary entrepreneurial women through thought leadership opportunities, authentic connection, and access. We have had such healthy engagement that we’ve invested nothing in traditional marketing. Our members regularly and proactively refer new members. This has allowed us to grow both our community and our mission.
Of course, it hasn’t always been smooth sailing, and I’ve learned plenty along the way. If you’re building an online community — or considering it — here are some hard-won lessons that I’ve learned running Dreamers & Doers. One quick disclaimer is that communities can vastly differ in nature, which makes it very hard to share tips that will universally work. But I hope that these insights will at least spark ideas that you can utilize to enrich your community in your own way!
Furthermore, engagement (perhaps counterintuitively) isn’t all about quantity! Instead it behooves you to also emphasize the quality of engagement. This focus is usually rewarded with member retention more than a numbers game focused purely on increasing the number of posts or comments in your community without accounting for the impact the engagement has on your members’ lives. With that in mind, let’s dive straight in!
Many new community builders underestimate the workload of successfully managing a growing community. It’s good to be clear on the commitment to ensure this is a path you truly want to pursue. Be prepared for this to take much more time and energy than you initially expect. Depending on the complexity, size, and scope of your member base, plan on allocating at least 3-5 hours every week on community management.
By the way, size isn’t always correlated to time commitment. For example, Dreamers & Doers private collective comprises around 650 members and is hands down more than a full-time job given our very high-touch and hands-on approach there. Whereas, we also run a Jobs & Careers community with over 34,000 community members, and managing that group is closer to 3-5 hours per week because members engage there in a much more specific and defined way.
What is the glue of your particular group? Why should these individuals care about each other? The clearer you can get on your ‘why’, the more intentional you can be about your ‘how’. Dreamers & Doers, for example, was founded out of my personal desire for high-impact support, resources, and connections with other women when I was building a company — so those became the key tenets of how we operate today.
Some of the strongest communities are those that are tied together by a strong and common pain point. This could be a topic that members have in common with each other but that makes it challenging to connect with others outside of the community.
For example, people managing a specific chronic medical condition often utilize online groups to share resources, get advice on treatment plans, and find support among others who can relate to their challenges. They’re allowed to be more vulnerable in these spaces than they can be elsewhere because their fellow community members are among the very few who can truly relate to what they’re going through. This builds deep trust and connection.
Speaking of vulnerability and trust, the more that members feel like they’re in a safe space, and that they can be their true selves, the more they will identify with your community and care about fellow members.
So how do you introduce authenticity into your group? As the leader, you set the tone, especially in the early days. By opening up and sharing vulnerable parts of your journey, you demonstrate that your community is a judgment-free place, or at a minimum a place where members are safe. This is the baseline for people showing up and wanting to engage.
A great hack for spurring conversation and engagement is to start out with very simple prompts — such as a fun question that members can answer by commenting. After all, the hurdle of commenting on a post to answer a specific question is much smaller than if members were to share a standalone post of their own.
Ideas for simple prompts could be: “Where do you live?”, “Why did you join this group?”, “What’s one question that’s been on your mind lately?” The nature of your community will help dictate the direction for your prompts and, over time, you can increase the amount of vulnerability that you’re seeking.
Another approach that can be incredibly effective in building engagement is to ask for feedback on a controversial topic that elicits a strong reaction from members. For example: “Hey, I received this inappropriate email from an investor. How would you respond?”. Often, these types of questions spur others to share their own stories.
Especially in the early days, the more that you can get to know your members on a personal level and connect with them one on one, the stronger the foundation of your community will be. One actionable item is to establish backchannels with the individuals with whom you have the closest relationships with and nudge them to engage or get involved in specific ways.
For example, at Dreamers & Doers we have a culture of celebrating our wins by “bragging.” If I know a member recently achieved a major milestone, I’ll email or DM her, nudging her to share this win with the community. Or, if I am catching up with one of our members and she happens to mention a problem she’s facing, I’ll remind her to leverage the Dreamers & Doers community to help find a solution. This approach has been essential for getting many early-stage communities off the ground.
There’s no way around it: as the leader, you must engage a lot within your community. This means reading and engaging (in some manner) with every single post that gets shared, especially in the early days. Be supportive, helpful, and the biggest cheerleader for your members. And don’t be afraid to let your personality shine through! Of course, taking a team vs. solo leader approach is always an option, too. Don’t go it all on your own! There are various ways to build out your team of leaders, either by hiring or enlisting volunteers, depending on your budget and the nature of your community.
This is undoubtedly my least favorite part of community management, but it’s crucial: you must set up some form of code of conduct for engagement. These guidelines and rules should also evolve as your community does and as its needs and behaviors change. My best advice is to make them as clear, straightforward, and specific as possible while focusing on only the most important rules (too many will be impossible to follow or remember!), and act quickly when rules have been broken. One bad egg can quickly turn your community sour and alienate your most committed members.
When a new member joins, it is the most crucial time to shape their behavior within the community. At Dreamers & Doers, we take a cohort approach, onboarding roughly 60 women at the same time every quarter, which allows us to be extra thoughtful and helps new members feel like they’re immediately part of the group. We also host welcome calls that give new members the backstory to our community and why we selected each one of them to join us.
We view the membership application itself as part of our member journey; we familiarize potential new members with our values there, and we intentionally have a long application because we only want members who truly want to be part of our collective to join. If you want to be even more hands-on, you could pair new members up with more seasoned ones to help them transition into your community.
Depending on the nature of your community, this can be the ‘make or break’ moment. The most powerful communities attract members because of shared interests, experiences, or pain points, and they are more likely to keep members there (and engaged) if they feel seen, heard, and supported. It’s easy to have scope creep with communities, and that can dilute the power of your community once it’s not as clear anymore who it’s for (and who it’s not for).
It’s important, too, to only accept members who appear to be community-driven and to remove members quickly if they clearly don’t have fellow members’ best interests in mind. Finally, some communities (like the one I run) greatly benefit by knowing each member was hand-selected. This can especially be the case for paid communities.
The more opportunities that members have to connect with each other, the more of a true and self-sustaining community you’ll have. In many ways, this is the core definition of ‘engagement.’ While there are many avenues through which your members can connect, I’ve seen that you’ll achieve maximum impact by not going overboard on the number of platforms, and by being intentional about the core vs. secondary homes for your community.
In our case, we are online-first, with offline events being very much secondary (in contrast with communities like Summit or Soho House, which are offline-first). Luckily for all of us community builders, there are plenty of platforms and tools available to help forge online connections. In addition to the big platforms like Facebook, LinkedIn, Mighty Networks, and Circle (where the core of our online community is hosted), look into tools like Gatheround, a Zoom alternative that supercharges breakout rooms and creates the ability to connect one on one and in small groups, Meetsy which enables curated and hyper-customizable introductions for your community, as well as Orbiit, a premium tool that sends AI-driven email connections to your members. For a more comprehensive list you can check out Commsor’s compilation of community tools.
Enlisting your community members to become leaders within your community can exponentially increase engagement. There are many ways to go about this, such as setting up an ambassador or chapter lead program. While it’s important to be aware that this approach can backfire if not done well, I don’t think leaders (including myself) leverage this powerful approach nearly enough.
Communities are impactful because of the people who make them up, and the more we can tap into this power and not be the central catalyst, the more connections, serendipity, and opened doors can unfold for our members. More specifically, you could have some of your most engaged members lead initiatives and events around topics they deeply care about and that tie back in with the wider raison d'etre of your community — the reason it exits.
My final piece of advice is to invest only in a community that you genuinely and personally care about. Community-building can be emotionally draining and, if you’re going to give a lot of yourself to a group, it helps if you really, truly care.
What I love most about community-building is that it has the power to utterly transform lives, both for members and for the leaders. It’s my deepest wish that you’ll get to experience these life-transforming moments for yourself. It’s what makes this journey so worthwhile.