These days, it seems like every company out there is trying to build community around an app. It’s a more engaging way to win over your customers than by bombarding them with advertising, and it’s a creative—and yes, trendy—way to stand out in increasingly crowded marketplaces. And we’re not just talking about apps run by social media brands and buzzy startups: even big non-tech companies from Pop Secret to BMW are getting in on the trend.
We’ve learned quite a few things from successfully building a community around our own app and studying the best practices of other brands. Here are the five most important things we learned:
- Find out your customer’s interests. Shared interests and similar values clearly bring people together—how else can you explain comic book conventions? A powerful bond is formed among people who just get each other’s interests, and these people are more likely to come together in a community.
To market to customers who share your values, hobbies, interests, and obsession with dressing up like Spiderman, identify other existing channels they’re on and communicate the value proposition of bringing them over to your app. If they’re already on your app, there’s mobile analytics software available that will help you identify your users’ most common interests and find out what pathways they take through your app, along with other information that will help you understand their needs. From there, you can create in-app tools to facilitate their existing behaviors or gently nudge them into similar ones.
- Aim for in-person interactions. Research shows that people often reveal more personal information to online strangers than they do to people they meet in person. But the formation of long-term bonds still typically requires face-to-face interactions. It’s scientifically proven that when a friend is in trouble, you shouldn’t just text them about it: talking in person is a more effective way to give emotional support. To build a strong community, you need to have community members meet IRL.
While app-to-coffee-shop interaction may seem tough to facilitate, it’s doesn’t actually require reinventing the wheel. Organizing meetups and other formal events for users is one way to get people in the same place (Meetup was designed precisely for this). If you’re stretched too thin to organize meetups yourself, consider appointing brand ambassadors—perhaps the early, passionate adopters of your app—to put events together for you. (Just make sure you reward them for their time, too.)
You can also see if any of you are attending the same conferences as your users, and grab a coffee with them there. This is an approach that organization-building specialists genuinely recommend as a way to build relationships with your app users that stick.
- Allow the community to influence your company culture. Another advantage of meetups: employees can introduce themselves to enthusiastic users and find out more in-depth information about what exactly they’re doing with your app. Additionally, chatting with users helps employees get to know the general culture of their user base and see how they themselves fit into it, which makes it easier for them to serve the users well.
Motorcycle brand Harley-Davidson’s marketing strategy is a great example of this. Recovering from near-bankruptcy in the 1980s, the company leadership decided to capitalize on the fact that their brand had given rise to a passionate Harley-riding biker community, unified by similar interests, lifestyle approaches, and, let’s be honest, leather jackets.
To bring this community closer to their own company culture, Harley-Davidson staffed outreach events with their own permanent employees instead of hiring outside help. This meant that employees were rubbing elbows with loyal customers, which resulted in a deeper understanding of the brand on the employees’ side, as well as a community that felt seen and heard.
- Help community members help each other. Drinking cocktails together is one way to get community members to bond, but if you want to truly take your app’s community to the next level, have them help each other out. Research shows that gift-giving reinforces social bonds, just like meeting in person.
So try organizing gift exchanges between members, or get everyone involved in a charity drive to help them feel a purposeful sense of working toward the same meaningful goal. Or, consider having the community nominate a charity that they feel best represents your brand.
This type of bonding works even in the most unusual circumstances. For example, the online community Reddit is infamous for rude behavior and internet “trolls.” Yet when Reddit users were called upon to exchange secret Santa gifts with each other, they took it very seriously and actually put lots of time and effort into the gifts. Voilá: a more engaged (and better-behaved) online community.
Of course, you shouldn’t just reinforce customers’ bonds among each other—you should be reinforcing your bonds with them, too. That means making sure your in-app customer service is stellar, so that you’re creating an atmosphere of authenticity and trust. That atmosphere will make users feel comfortable reaching out to each other, but also inviting friends and fellow community members to start using the app.
- Have fun. The best way to ensure users enjoy a community is to enjoy it yourself. The process of building a brand community should be fun and social—if you’re stressing over meeting X or Y business goals with it, you’re doing something wrong.
Ask yourself the tough questions: would you actually use this app? If opening it up feels like a slog or a chore, take a step back. You want an app community that feels like a really great summer barbecue, not one that reminds you of that terrible statistics lecture you always skipped in college.
Open up your app, chat with users a bit, and find what feels organically right. Then do more of it