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Never Underestimate the Impact of Online Community Building

7 Sep, 2017 Dylan Kettering

Marketers spend a great deal of time developing means of leveraging the power of the internet to benefit their business and brand. I’d like to look at one aspect of these efforts that deserves special attention: online community building.

To start, here are some numbers to consider:




These numbers represent the charitable donations collected in 2016 that were generated by various online groups. Each of their stories demonstrate different ideas and executions of online community building. We’ll look at each in order and their practices which help develop powerful online communities.

Doing Good for Others

Our first example shows the power of a meme. If you’re not familiar, a meme is a joke or comedic reference spread online. Memes are often works of parody and are themselves parodied frequently as they gain popularity. The meme that raised $159,327 is from a music video rendition of “We AreNumber One” from the popular Icelandic children’s show Lazy Town.

This short music video had 26,909,216 views on YouTube when this article was written, and has been parodied in thousands of ways since its release on July 25, 2015. In October of 2016, the lead performer of the music video, Stefan Karl, announced to the public that he had been diagnosed with cancer. Shortly after in November, a Go Fund Me page was created for people to donate money to his support. Since the page went live, over 10,000 individuals donated $159,327. This page has largely been advertised through the efforts of the thousands of online content creators who made parodies of the original music video, such as this orchestra cover. These parodies helped to generate engagement for audiences while also driving awareness to Karl’s Go Fund Me campaign. For a full history of the spread of the meme, check out this article.

In this example, we see the raw potential of people online. No formalized community donated this money or organized complex fundraising. But word spread through the internet and those entertained by the meme chose to put forward their money to the benefit of a man in need.

The important principles to grasp from this example are the power of content and the willingness of people to do good for others.

Effective content is engaging and shareable, and, in the case of memes, is easily parodied and added to. As marketers, is your content engaging to your audience online? Or does it simply check the boxes of what you need to ask your target market? Does it add value or entertainment? Or does it only mimic content that does? Like the attention the parody artists gave their creations to the Go Fund Me page, does your content motivate your audience to action? Is that action simple, straightforward and concrete? Master these principles and you’ll be number one soon enough.

Deliberate Management

From the core of engaging content and a call to action, let’s move on to communities that have deliberate management. Our next example comes from Rooster Teeth Productions. This company is based in Austin, Texas, and has been creating online content since 2003. They have created, owned and managed several YouTube channels, and also offer their content on their proprietary
websites. Their YouTube community on their primary channel alone consists of over nine million people and the videos have been viewed over five billion times. They have a dedicated fan base who are regulated by consistent and varied content. Their dedication to quality content and the effective use of community engagement through online content, forums, managers and events have created a cohesive group much more powerful than the random, undirected online community surrounding the We Are Number One meme.

On a yearly basis since 2013, Rooster Teeth’s performers and staff have run a 24-hour long live stream in which they ask their community to donate money to the charity Extra Life. Rooster Teeth sets donation thresholds throughout the live stream. When the community donates beyond those thresholds, the performers on the live stream respond with a promised piece of extra content. For example, after meeting one threshold, one of the performers was voluntarily shot with a police taser on camera. In their most recent stream, Rooster Teeth’s community generated $663,535.52 in 24 hours. This figure far out strips the previous one. So, what’s the difference? The online community.

Rooster Teeth’s focused approach at creating an online community gives their brand power. Their community is not an accident; it’s the result of hard work by full-time professionals who keep track of audience feedback in the form of comments, forum posts and event attendance. There is a clear connection and communication between the creators and the fans. This connection is what takes any effort in online community building from just meaningful content and an engaging call to action to the next level.

But we’re not done yet. There’s still one more example which supersedes the rest as the example of the power of online community building.

Connecting to a Core Identity

The principle at work in our final example is identity. Many content creators online like Rooster Teeth are great at curating and interacting with an online community, but few of these communities connect to people’s core identities. This is where the Nerdfighter community shines.

Nerdfighters are the online community tied to the long-running YouTube vlog, Vlogbrothers. This channel features its two co-creators, John Green and Hank Green, as they discuss every imaginable topic from politics to poverty to Harry Potter. Their channel’s numerical statistics pale in comparison to Rooster Teeth’s. But these brothers succeeded in creating an avid and active community by making participation individually meaningful. Fans of the channel aren’t just fans; they’re invited into a community of their own.

This community has its own vocabulary, such as DFTBA (Don’t Forget To Be Awesome), its own events and its own charitable work. However, this identity gave rise to a different model of charitable donation. Instead of just the creators of the channel making content to benefit one charitable organization, all members of the Nerdfighter community are invited to make a short video of their own to present a charitable organization or cause worthy of the whole community’s attention.

The yearly online event held for three days in December is called “The Project for Awesome.” (Learn more about the mechanics of donation here.) In 2016’s Project For Awesome, a smaller but more deeply engaged group raised $2,149,523 spread across multiple charities. This isn’t to say that the smaller community of Nerdfighters is more wealthy or charitable than Rooster Teeth’s fans. They are engaged in doing the best work possible as a part of that community identity, and so are able to garner the attention of larger companies who match donations.

Lessons Learned

So, what are the takeaways?

  1. Content and Call – If you want to start a community and formalize an audience, you need engaging and meaningful content. This content should be paired with simple, clear calls to action.
  2. Communication – Once your content draws a following, set resources to manage interactions with that following and give a place for that following to communicate in between its members. Once your following is communicating with you and itself, you have an online community.
  3. Identity and Action – Once you have a community, give that community an identity to aspire to. Communicate to them that membership in the community means something about them as an individual person and that their contribution is meaningful. This sense of identity primes action. Action out-values size. It is less important that you have the largest community, but more important that your community acts when called upon.

Now go forward and build better online communities!

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