Advice for Building a Successful Online Community: Start Small, Grow Slow

In the arms race to grow bigger and bigger online social media communities, there is a contrarian voice.

His name is Richard Millington, and he’s an online community consultant who helps companies develop successful online communities. I recently discovered his blog at, and he was kind enough to take an interview today.

“Most organizations try to make every community or group they have bigger, but the people in the group never want it to be bigger,” Richard explains. “They want it to be as good as possible. That doesn’t necessarily mean more members. There are lots of ways to make a community better without making it bigger.”

Richard’s involvement in online communities began as a teenager playing video games. “What was interesting to me was the community around the games,” he says. “Over time I noticed that all these successful online communities had the same elements in them. I began identifying what those elements were and began working for companies.”

Richard has worked for the United Nations, The Global Fund, Novartis, OECD, BAE Systems, AMD and other organizations.

Here are some key points from our interview (edited in some cases for brevity):

Building successful online communities takes time

Organizations see a very successful network like Facebook or LinkedIn, and they think “I want that.” They think they can create that simply by throwing money at it. They’ll work very hard to get a successful online community going in a matter of weeks.

Organizations need to adjust to the fact that it’s going to take months to get started and years to be really successful. All of the successful communities that are around today have gone through a long, long process to get where they are. The more you try to rush it the more you end up with a community that may have a small number of active members and huge number who are not active.

Take time to build the community

Start small. It’s not a numbers game

Start very small. Focus on going as micro as you can. Interact with 5 or 10 people directly. Don’t ask them to do anything. Just talk to them. See what they want. You don’t need to rush it. Interact with your target audience as one person talking to another.

Now find 30 to 50 people who have been patients and invite them to join the community and talk to each other. Arrange for a local meet-up once a month. Initiate discussion between them. Give them something to talk about that is relevant to them. Help them begin initiating conversations themselves. Invite your core people to invite others to join the community. Grow from 100 to 200.

Make sure the level of activity per member stays very high. Keep your eye on the level of engagement of your audience.

Members of your community have different motivations

Realize that the core motivations of people haven’t changed since forever. People are still very much motivated by the same things: The need for power or influence upon their surroundings, a need for recognition, the need to have positive relationships in their lives, avoiding fear or danger.

There is no single motivation of any group. You need to take a range of motivations and identify what most works for groups within their community. You do that with trial and error. Try different things to find out what works for each group.

Prepare for negative comments and relax

Every company I’ve ever worked with has been very worried about the bad things that can happen in online communities. The likelihood that something bad will happen is very low. We hear about it because the examples are really bad.

Make sure you have a plan if people do start complaining about your hospital, so you can respond and participate in that discussion. And I don’t mean delete delete delete. If people are going to say bad things, they’re going to say bad things somewhere. Better have them say it in your community. Then you can respond and give your side of the story. People don’t want to feel that they’re being manipulated or controlled.

Once you have a plan in place for when something bad happens, you don’t have much to worry about. You can relax. The benefits far outweigh the possible problems.

Interact with people directly – on and offline

The key thing: Interact with people directly. A lot of people are terrified of talking to the people who are their audience. They might write content, but they won’t engage in personal conversation. They won’t email them directly or interact with them through the telephone directly. You interact with people, work with them, build relationships with them. If you do that at an early stage, your audience will respect that.

You can read Richard’s Online Community Manifesto here. I also recommend this blogpost: A Simplified Version of the Online Community Development Process.


How we help

Hive Strategies helps hospitals engage patients through social media. We don’t manage social media. Instead, we help hospitals develop an effective social media strategy and mentor them through the implementation process. Start a conversation. Email us or call us at 503-472-5512.

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