How to Grow Your Professional Community Online (Organically)

For anyone who was still skeptical, the pandemic has proven that we can build and sustain thriving professional networks online. At the same time, the value and importance of these networks has only grown with all the challenges connected with hosting in-person community events.

Whether stuck at home or simply limited in travel and networking options, professionals around the world are looking for online communities worth their time. That said, all of these factors haven’t made building these networks easier for community managers like you. It’s still tough to find the right platforms and tools to grow a community without huge investment on your part.

Fortunately, this guide has plenty of effective tips and tools to make building and growing an online professional community easier. It will empower you to better utilize all the advantages of online communities like accessibility, low-cost, and greater reach.

Why Professional Communities Matter & Why They’re Hard to Grow

TLDR, people are busy and communities offer a lot of value.

But seriously, why are professional communities so important? There are some things communities offer professionals they simply can’t get elsewhere.

For example, I’m a doctor trying to find a better way to treat a specific illness. Or I could be a manufacturer interested in building a new product in a specific country. In these and so many other cases, finding a fellow professional who’s tackled that same problem can unlock an enormous amount of value. Often this is information that simply doesn’t exist elsewhere. It has to be unlocked through a person-to-person connection.

Other times, these networks can function like a more expert driven message board. Members can pose questions to a group of fellow professionals and get lots of responses, helping them unlock the wisdom of crowds. These connections also allow professionals to strengthen connections, build reputations, and find new opportunities.

So if these communities are so valuable, why is it so difficult to get one off the ground?

There are a few reasons worth keeping in mind. The first is understanding that for busy professionals, these kinds of communities can be very high risk, high reward. The right match in the right community can transform a career or even an entire business. But finding that perfect match can take a lot of time that professionals don’t have and there’s no guarantee it’s waiting for them in your community. So what should you do?

Aside from the advice we’ll get to later, the general mindset you need is to focus on providing value and making things easy for prospective community members. Put yourself in their shoes, these are extremely busy professionals who have to be picky about where they spend their time. The community’s value has to be clearly evident for them to readily invest the time needed to be a productive member.

So you need to consistently look at the communities you manage from a member’s perspective. Often it helps to talk to members to learn more. Polls are nice, but you’re more likely to learn something unexpected and valuable by actually talking to them (which is, ironically, also why the communities are so valuable to begin with!)

How Community Platforms Can Help Boost the Impact of Your Professional Network Organically

Okay, so we’ve gone through what online professional communities are and why they’re so valuable, but what exactly is an online professional community platform? These platforms are essentially expansive tools designed to enable you to more easily manage and grow an online professional community. Considering the amount of admin that can easily develop in this process, they can quickly become essential management tools.

Of course, you could always just start a community on Reddit, Facebook, or one of the other big platforms, but there are some major downsides. You end up relying on them a lot and sudden policy changes can have a huge impact on the community you worked so hard to build. But more than that, a professional community just won’t seem as… well professional on a mass platform.

Using a professional community platform tailor made for your needs as a community manager just makes sense with all the additional features they offer. These enable you to more easily maximize your impact, grow engagement, and create value for your community members all while minimizing dull admin work on your end. Put simply, these platforms help address many of the biggest challenges you can face managing a professional network.

What to look for in a professional community platform

Okay, but if you’re looking at professional community platforms, how should you be evaluating them? What kind of features can you expect?

  • Good analytics for measuring impact. This is critical because it’s how you can test ideas, get feedback, and demonstrate ROI. The more reliable and detailed the analytics you have, the more empowered you’ll be to do all kinds of things with your community.
  • The ability to match members based on their experience and goals. As mentioned above, a huge portion of the value of professional communities comes from members meeting each other. But while this tends to happen more naturally with in-person events, online it can be tricky. That’s why using a professional community platform which can intelligently match members can save you a lot of time and make your community far more valuable.
  • As much automation as possible. In general, if you’re looking at a community platform designed for managers like you, it makes sense that it should save you time with automations. Keep an eye out for all the ways a platform can save you time and simplify your work.
  • The ability to segment audiences. No community is a monolith, so the ability to intelligently discover subsegments which you can then more precisely serve with content, events, etc. is exceptionally valuable.

Types of Community Platforms Suitable for Professional Communities

Besides looking at features, there are also general categories of professional community platforms which can help you find the right one for your needs. For example, while nearly all of them can empower you to more easily facilitate connections between members, some are less professional-oriented than others.

Conversation-oriented

These are professional community platforms primarily designed for free and open communication between members. You probably use at least one platform like this now (for example, Slack, Clubhouse, or Discord). Also, because most of the major platforms are so popular, new users are more likely to be familiar with them. This makes joining your communities more seamless.

In general, these are a good choice if you think the greatest value for your members will come from the serendipity of plenty of open communication. You surrender a bit of control relative to a membership-focused community.

Memberships

On the other hand, sometimes you want to structure your interactions more. That’s where membership-focused communities come in. These are platforms like Patreon and Orbiit where communication only happens around set events. This could be when you release some content or when the platform schedules a 1-1 meeting.

Obviously this puts you more in the driver’s seat when it comes to controlling when and how your community interacts. But it also means that community activity is more focused and less frequent, which could be better for busy professionals (more on that in a bit). If you’re curious what this looks like in practice, you can read a case study here.

Social media professional communities

These are likely the platforms you’re already familiar with (and have probably used at some point). Facebook, LinkedIn, and Reddit are all widely popular mass-market online platforms which are often used for professional communities. These take most of the elements of the conversation-based platforms and turn them up even further with no limits on open communication and little to no barriers for entry.

How to compare these types of platforms

Honestly, going with the free and open conversation-oriented platform can seem like the easy choice, but remember you need to put yourself in the shoes of your prospective community members.

If those members are busy professionals who want the maximum value for the smallest time commitment, asking them to work through frequent conversations which may not be relevant for them to find that value may not be the best bet. In those cases, the more value-dense and predictable interactions of a membership-based or social media community might be ideal.

Simplify the Growth of Your Professional Network, Maximize Its Impact

Ultimately, choosing the right professional community platform (not to mention taking on the task of building an online professional community to begin with) is tough. All the elements you’ll need to manage and the thought of locking yourself into a single platform puts on a lot of pressure. But with the right platform, management gets far easier.

But once you choose a platform, what can and should you start doing? Here are some simple steps you can follow to get your network growing and increase its impact.

  1. Be active on other similar community platforms. This is your chance to see what’s working (and what’s not working) in your professional space.
  2. Organize events for your members. Even if you can’t do anything in-person, organizing special events can be a great opportunity to take members out of the normal community space and give them a chance to interact differently. This can be particularly important and useful if you’re using a membership-focused platform as it gives a structured space and time for free and open chats.
  3. Create structured monthly meetups. One-off events are great but if you really see the value in combining a more structured online community with occasional open meetups, it makes sense to make them scheduled so busy professionals can more easily fit them in their schedules.
  4. Never stop brainstorming and experimenting. This is a cornerstone of any great professional community. You always need to be looking for ways to improve and bring more value to your community members. If a community is being neglected by its managers, its members will likely notice and take less of an interest.
  5. Talk to your community members. While it’s critical to observe and gather data on how your community functions, there are some things you can only learn by just talking to community members. This is also a great opportunity to model the values and behaviors you want in your community to individual members.

Now It’s Time to Start Building

You’ve got all the tools you need to pick the perfect professional community platform and use it to start building something truly impactful. Every connection you help make has the potential to change someone’s career or even transform a business. The tools are out there and professionals have rarely been more hungry for alternative online communities. That’s why there’s no better time to get out there and start building something amazing.

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