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10 Rules for Building an Online Community in 2020

Updated: Feb 9, 2023

Follow these best practices to make your community stand out during community's biggest year yet.

meme of man holding hand with woman and looking over shoulder at another woman. Man labeled "community managers in 2020." Woman 1 labeled "forums." Woman 2 labeled "comprehensive community programs."

As online communities grow in popularity, community builders are looking for new ways to stand out from the pack. Especially for founders and early-stage community builders who aren’t yet able to hire an experienced community manager full time, doing so will require an innovative mindset, and in some cases, a break from tradition.

Here, I’ve compiled a list of 10 of the most important rules community builders should follow to ensure their communities are a cut above the rest in an increasingly competitive landscape.

1. Start with a purpose, not just a topic.

In the words of Together Apart host Priya Parker (contextualized to the community world by Danielle Maveal), “A category is not a purpose.”

It’s important not to overlook purpose-setting for your online community, yet so many do. Without a purpose, any decision can seem justifiable—and thus, most decisions are meaningless. Start with a purpose, and let it inform all of your decisions as you build your community. Go deeper than just identifying the niche you’ll serve.

Not sure where to start? My five-step lean community launch framework is an editable template that includes a section to help you set goals. You can download that below:

2. Go beyond a forum to build a comprehensive online community program.

When people hear “online community,” what often comes to mind is “forum.” In fact, many use these terms interchangeably. But, the most successful community programs in today’s market all have one thing in common: they see their community as a unique content channel, and their community programs are more than just a place to chat.

While most community programs still center around a permanent home for group discussion, the most effective ones have additional features that ladder up to the purpose of the community: things like workshop series, mastermind groups, curated networking connections, challenges, swag programs, and more.

3. Quality community interaction beats engagement volume, every time.

The days of professional community managers prioritizing volume of engagement over quality community interactions are, thankfully, on their way out. Community pros know it takes time for engagement to build, and they see the value in fostering high-impact interactions between their members.

However, it’s important that small businesses and entrepreneurs who don’t yet have an experienced, full-time community manager not repeat the mistake that community pros are just now getting out of their system. Anxiety over lack of engagement is still one of the most common fears I hear from first-time community builders: even the most savvy founders can fall into this trap.

The antidote? Stop worrying about it. Optimize for quality interactions and quantity will follow.

4. Measure the important stuff, and ease back on engagement metrics.

Many professional community managers now turn their nose up at “vanity metrics,” i.e., metrics reports stuffed with stats on things like number of posts, likes, and comments. While these numbers can be a good way to gut-check if your engagement tactics are effective, resist the urge to draw larger conclusions based on them. Instead, measure what already matters to your business in relation to your community. Is there a member outcome you’re driving towards? Is your community a retention tool? Or, perhaps you’re trying to use your community as a product ideation space. Make sure the metrics you focus on reflect your purpose.

5. Ditch big social platforms like Facebook.

There’s a persistent idea in community management that you should “go where your members are.” This is based on good instincts, but ones that are better applied to audience-building. Community builders who cling to this idea will end up utilizing platforms, like Facebook (and Slack to a degree), that weren’t built to serve communities.

There are many reasons to move away from Facebook Groups, but the most important one to keep in mind right now is competitive differentiation. While it used to be a competitive differentiator just to have an online community, as they become more ubiquitous, founders who want to build the best communities will have to demonstrate a bigger investment in community by delivering a premium community experience. This means choosing a community platform that lets you customize your community experience to tie in with your brand and support your program’s unique features.

One of my favorite platforms is Circle; and Commsor’s Community Ecosystem Map is a great place to get the lay of the land.

6. Use your community as a source of high quality content.

One of the biggest trends in community building in 2020 is a growing sophistication in the relationship between community and content. Thought leaders like Hunter Walk believe that community will play an increasingly essential role in the media landscape throughout the next decade.

Beyond that, brand communities are poised to become a vital content source for channels like social media and blogs. Community builders who see this opportunity will soar in comparison to peers who fail to harness the lasting impact of user generated content.

7. Do things that don’t scale.

Community is, at its core, about building authentic relationships with humans. Yes, the most effective community builders will be analytical thinkers with varied marketing chops—which sometimes means a preference toward scrapping initiatives that don’t scale easily. Community builders must counteract this instinct. A willingness to invest time in non-scaled programs is essential for community builders to create genuine relationships with members. Favoring non-scaled efforts upfront can also help community builders choose the most impactful programs to scale and automate down the road.

8. Don’t say “community” when you really mean “audience.”

More and more, brands use the term “community” to refer to their entire audience. And while applying the ethos of community building to other marketing efforts is gaining importance, the brands who step to the head of the pack will be those who build genuine, intentional communities and use language that effectively distinguishes these efforts from their audience at large.

Why? Because building “Captial C,” owned communities (what I talk about primarily on this blog and with my clients) requires its own expertise distinct from marketing in general, and distinct from marketing specializations like email marketing and social media. Semantics aside, companies who equate community and audience in practice will hire the wrong experts and fail to reach the full potential of community.

9. Rely on best practices from experts, not instincts.

Because “community” has a broader meaning in society, and most of us have experience forming relationships with others, it can be tempting to believe (like Holly Firestone’s contact here) that community building is a “soft skill.”

This kind of thinking—that community management can be done intuitively or by entry level contributors with no experience or guidance—leads even the savviest founders to sink valuable time and resources into ineffective community programs. Many best practices community leaders have defined—including some on this list—are deeply unintuitive. The explosion of interest in community building has also led to an increase in expert content in the space—Community Club’s Content Library is a good place to start. If you really want to invest in community, consider hiring an experienced consultant to assist you with forming a strong strategy—starting strong can save time and money down the line.

10. Great communities come from strategy, not magic.

The best communities can feel like they’re fueled by pure magic. Once the ball gets rolling, genuine friendships, inside jokes, and spontaneity make communities soar. But, that doesn’t mean you have to wait for those things to emerge completely organically. Strong community strategies can create environments where it’s easier for these genuine qualities to emerge. Don’t think you’ve failed if this takes time—keep returning to your strategy and testing new tactics, and in time, you’ll create a space where community magic can happen.


Want to take all this a step further?

I work with clients 1:1 to help with big community projects (like launches or community strategies) or coaching over the phone. If you’re a founder launching a community project that you could use a hand on, or a first-time community manager looking for an experienced coach, check out ways we can work together here. I’d love to hear from you.

Lastly, you can get free resources on community building straight to your inbox —like a templatized guide to a community launch, a cheat sheet for community management job postings, and more—by clicking the button below:

Thank you for reading!

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