Lunch and Learn: How to get started building a community online

Kat Haylock
Kat Haylock

Posted: Wed 12th Aug 2020

PR expert Rhea Freeman joined Enterprise Nation founder Emma Jones for today's webinar on how businesses can build thriving communities online.

Rhea is the founder of Rhea Freeman PR and has spent almost a decade coaching and mentoring small businesses.

She runs several Facebook groups, including the popular Small and Supercharged, an online community for small businesses and bloggers in the equestrian and rural space.

Why is building a community important for small businesses?

Rhea first started Small and Supercharged because she couldn't find anything else in her industry like it. Small, niggly questions would crop up in her business and she struggled to find people who could provide answers.

"There was no one to ask about postage, for example. How do I ship something to America? As business owners, we spend a lot of time by ourselves and an issue can consume our whole day. When you have so many options to choose between, it can be paralysing and make you feel incredibly lonely," she said.

Rhea's group has grown to just under 2,500 members. She explains that it's become a great place to get quick answers or find other businesses to collaborate with in the local area.

The group has also positioned Rhea as a point of authority and given her a platform to build other paid-for membership groups. However, she emphasises that businesses shouldn't start communities with the sole purpose of making money.

"Through the group, I'm known as a connector. It's given me a really good platform to build my two other membership groups. But the group isn't all about me. That's the thing with a community - it shouldn't all be about the founder.

"Being the glue that connects people puts you at the point of authority. From a business perspective, it can be amazing. But you have to go in with the right objectives and right thoughts behind it. You can't just want to promote yourself."

What advice would you give to someone just starting out with community building?

Rhea recommends using Facebook to start with because it's so easy to set up a group. The important thing is to create rules straight away, so people know exactly what's allowed and what's not.

Facebook suggests rules when you're first setting up your group, but Rhea also gives some examples of community standards she uses:

  1. Be kind and courteous

  2. No hate speech or bullying

  3. No promotions or spam

  4. Respect everyone's privacy

The most important thing is to make sure people feel happy and safe in the group. If you have a closed group, you can put qualifying questions in place that people need to answer before they're allowed to join. That way, you can ensure everyone involved is a good fit for your community.

"One time, someone wanted to join and put loads of information about mechanics and supercharging engines. Obviously they weren't going to have a good time in the group. Have some questions in place so you know you're getting the right people," Rhea advised.

"Something simple like 'What's your interest in X?' works. Then you can accept people based on their answers. I've got over 500 people trying to get into the group who haven't answered the questions. Initially you think, I want more people in the group so it looks good. But the right people are worth far more than a big number."

How long should you spend managing your community?

Smaller communities will inevitably need more time and effort, but Rhea posts in her main group a few times a week. She spends around an hour a day in her paid membership groups.

Setting out clear rules and encouraging members to self-regulate will reduce the amount of time you need to spend managing your community. Rhea asks members to report posts if there's a rule breach, so she can quickly dip in and deal with them.

"I'm really lucky that the community is good and generally I don't have any issues. I probably scan through new posts three times a day, which takes around 20 minutes. If I can help people, I'll put a quick link in," she said.

Rhea uses SmarterQueue to schedule regular posts in the group. On Wednesdays, for example, she always asks people to share their most recent blog post. On Fridays, she'll schedule a post that lets people share social media handles.

How can you drive engagement and interactions in a new community?

It can be hard to drive engagement when you've got a small number of people, so be prepared to put more effort in. Rhea advises people to start out with simple questions that make it easy for other members to answer.

"Ask people about themselves, their business or passion, or their favourite healthy recipe if it's relevant. Ask them questions that will make them want to speak.

"If you go in with 'What are your biggest problems with your business at the moment?' it can be quite tough to answer that. Make it easy for them, so they don't have to share their deepest darkest secrets."

Can you pitch in community groups without coming across as too salesy?

Rather than pitching your business - and probably breaking the group's rules - the best thing you can do is be an active group member. Rhea recommends trying to regularly answer questions and share your expertise.

If people have a problem that you can help with, offer your advice and let them know that they can get in touch if they have any other questions. If you position yourself as an expert and contribute positively to a group, you'll get recommended next time someone needs help in your sector.

Is there a way to commercialise your community without eroding trust?

When Rhea wanted to commercialise her community, she created two separate groups around Small and Supercharged. One group is at a low price point, while the other is more expensive but has weekly live masterclasses. Most of her time goes into this high level group.

"People ask more in-depth questions in that membership group, but I can answer in a better way and use my skills more. I know them a lot better," she said.

Rhea created separate groups so people in her main group wouldn't feel like they'd been lured into something they had to pay for. She explains that maintaining trust is crucial when you're building an online community.

"The point with a community is that it's about trust. Anything you do to erode that trust hurts your brand."

Kat Haylock
Kat Haylock
Kat is a writer for Enterprise Nation, The Pitch and Side Hustle Club. She's worked with small businesses for the last four years, championing Britain's startup scene and anyone who has snacks. 

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