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How to build an engaging online community

october 12, 2022

Building an online community is the key to having a successful brand. Now more than ever, people are spending a lot of their time online. According to DataReportal, 4.95 billion people around the world used the Internet in January 2022—nearly 63% of our total population. Building a digital community allows brands to make an authentic connection to their consumers and cultivate relationships that ultimately drive brand affinity, loyalty, and sales.

I've seen this first-hand as the founder of Black Girls Graduate, an online resource dedicated to the success of Black girls. We share content and host virtual and in-person events and workshops specific to career development and financial literacy. Since 2015, I've used social media to grow our community of career-driven millennial women leaders and it has it been quite a journey. Through tests and learning I have come to understand the secret sauce to success.

These are the top five strategies I've used over the years to organically grow my online community to over 100K people across Instagram, TikTok, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, LinkedIn and our email newsletter combined. If you follow these steps, I believe you can do it too.

Female college graduates throwing their caps in the air in celebration.

Step 1: Understand your brand

The first step to building an online community is understanding your brand. Think about who your brand would most likely benefit or be of interest to—that is how you begin to define your target audience. A target audience is a brand's ideal consumers who share demographic similarities such as age, location, education, and/or socioeconomic status. You can go even deeper by subdividing your target audience by niche interest to create consumer personas. For example, what kind of routine does your ideal consumer have on a Sunday morning? The more you zero in on their interests, the better you can target your consumer through brand messaging.

Many businesses fail to clearly define their target audience and, as a result, their marketing and advertising strategies are unsuccessful. You cannot bypass this step.

Rather than attempting to market your brand to everyone, center your outreach on this core audience as they are most likely to engage.

You also want to define your brand voice. A brand voice is messaging that resonates when being shared with your target audience. For Black Girls Graduate, we know our target audience are professionals between 18 and 34 who have grown up listening to and enjoying hip hop music. Often we use lyrics from trending songs by popular artists like Drake, Kanye, and Beyonce as Instagram captions. In the below Instagram post, we made a play on the popular song "Said Sum," by rapper Moneybagg Yo.

Example of an Instagram post with song lyrics, to help reinforce the brand's voice.

Another strategy is to insert your brand into conversations that are already taking place within your industry. For example, if your brand wants to reach more people interested in tech, your brand messaging can address trending events, major software updates, or provide a point of view on a major tech advancement. This kind of content is called thought leadership, which allows your brand to build credibility and become a trusted advisor within the industry.

Step 2: Focus on quality content

In the digital landscape, content is QUEEN. It's how you reel in your audience and keep them engaged. With the rise of TikTok and Instagram reels, we have even less time to convince a person to engage with our content. Be creative and leverage high-quality images and videos. Long gone are the days of pixelated images and grainy filters when the average smartphone has the capability to shoot in high definition. Create content that is shareable and relatable so you can maximize the number of people your content can potentially reach.

One easy way to make relatable content is to leverage seasonal events and holidays. You can plan this content in advance.

Image of an Instagram giveaway.

We live in the age of meme culture. If your posts go viral, they can be shared across platforms and media outlets almost instantly. Take advantage of this by putting thought into your content and listening to your audience. Leverage data insights to understand what types of content resonates most with your audience, then continue to build from there. Strategically test new content to determine what does and does not work.

When I first introduced sharing meme-style content on the Black Girls Graduate Instagram, I wasn't sure if it would resonate as it deviated from the content we usually shared. I learned that incorporating a call to action in the caption encourages users to meet the goal I want, and focusing the content directly to our target audience makes them feel heard and seen when they read it. When I first began sharing meme-style content, we studied the data analytics the following week to determine if the content resonated with our audience beyond generating likes—did people save to a collection or share the post? For example, we shared the below meme-style piece of content on July 24, 2020. The post generated 498 likes, 18 comments, 186 shares, and 62 saves, reaching 16,871 accounts.

Example of an Instagram meme post.

Step 3: Use #hashtags

I am a hashtag queen! I believe using hashtags was one of the main strategies that grew Black Girls Graduate from a few hundred followers on Instagram to a few thousand. Here's a pro tip: Create a unique hashtag for your brand and encourage your community to use it. This is a form of digital guerilla marketing. When I started there was no use of the hashtag #BlackGirlsGraduate on any platform. Fast forward to 2022 and there are now over 45,000 posts on Instagram alone using #BlackGirlsGraduate! This means there are over 45,000 posts marketing my brand organically and I didn't have to ask them to do it. Users take pride in posting content tagged with our community hashtag because it has evolved into a social movement.

Image from Instagram showing total number of posts with the hashtag #blackgirlsgraduate

In addition to a unique hashtag, it's critical to use relatable hashtags on all your posts. No, that wasn't a typo—all of them. Social media platforms prioritize hashtags. Across various channels, hashtags are the avenue to connect content with the people who are searching for it. It's your job to make sure that your audience finds your content. Instagram has even enabled the ability to follow a hashtag, which further supports the idea that hashtags are another way users within a community can interact.

Step 4: Engage with your community

Think of growing and cultivating a community the same way you would strengthen a relationship. I'm no dating coach, but I can tell you that in order to have a successful relationship you must have two-way communication. This same rule applies with your online community. Engagement means responding to your audience's comments in a meaningful way. This is what humanizes your brand and makes your audience feel seen and heard. It's what sets digital marketing apart from traditional marketing methods like a television or radio ad.

Image of comments and replies for an Instagram post

For many years, consumers listened to brands talk at them, but they didn't have a platform to respond and voice their opinion back to the brands. Now, online media empowers consumers to have a voice. Earn brownie points by engaging with the folks who take time out of their day to send you a message, leave a comment, or reply to the content you've shared. Your response goes a long way.

This is especially important when you are just getting started. In the beginning stages, we replied to every message and liked each comment left on any of our social channels. We would also search college geotags and comment on photos shared by girls who fit our target audience. This strategy helped our target audience find our brand before Black Girls Graduate had much brand recognition. We still like each comment left below a post. On Twitter, we retweet almost every tweet that uses our hashtag. Think about your brand voice as you're responding because people outside your community are watching, and that moment could make or break their decision to become a follower or customer.

When we think about growing an online community, the first place we look these days are social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, and Twitter. However, if your goal is to turn your audience into customers, the platform you can't leave out is email marketing. You can use an online tool like MailChimp to organize and collect your contact lists. How would you reach your community if Instagram or TikTok became unavailable or went offline? Until recently, brands were not able to sell products or services directly on social media platforms. This is why email marketing is still important. Converting followers into customers is not easy, but with an email marketing list users can opt-in to receive updates and advertisements directly. Whether you are using email marketing, or a social media platform, you must work to keep your audience engaged.

Step 5: Be consistent

Last but certainly not least, my number one rule to organically grow an online community is engaging with your audience on a consistent basis. As I mentioned earlier, today's consumers have their attention stretched incredibly thin. They can forget about your brand quicker than the time it takes to swipe to the next video on TikTok.

Posting daily is my rule of thumb. I admit this is challenging, especially when you are just getting started. But there are a few ways to help with this. The first one is to schedule your content in advance. Block out "think time" to ideate your content as far in advance as you can and use a free tool like Later to automatically publish your content and never miss an opportunity to engage with your audience. Keep in mind, not all social channels are created equal. While some content can be repurposed across platforms like TikTok and Instagram, most content aspect ratios vary by platform, meaning you need to make sure each asset is customized for each platform.

The templates on Microsoft Create are already in the aspect ratio you need for each social platform. For example, there are beautiful Instagram templates, trend-worthy TikTok video templates, plus thousands of more templates for other social media platforms.

The data will help guide you into understanding what types of content pieces work best on each platform. Don't focus on how many likes your content generates, focus on what content drives users to share—this is the primary KPI (key performance indicator). Seeing how many times a post is shared or saved illustrates that your existing audience is engaged, while also opening the door to evergreen users.

Patience is the final ingredient. Don't expect to see rapid results overnight unless you happen to strike gold and go viral. Consistently nurturing your audience using these five tips guarantees you will experience growth over time.

Happy posting!

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