How to build an online community?

Every now and then, I try to build a group of people to talk about specific topics but it quickly dies because of inactivity. Although I really saw the value in having such a community, I just didn’t know how to build one. Even if one person keeps pumping in content, how do you actually get the community to interact with each other?

It is the same kind of problem being faced by, say which, I am guessing, wants to be the Hacker News of India. There are indeed topics that apply only to startups in India, from “Startup Morning”, to India’s first in-taxi magazine. Such interesting events and ideas are worthy of discussion.

There is value in such a community, but again, how to build it? StartupDunia has already put its thoughts on the subject but the question still remains.

Here are some of my thoughts.

Does it require credibility?

  • Hacker News has Paul Graham and YCombinator behind it.
  • ProBlogger Forums have ProBlogger’s Darren Rowse behind it.
  • And the most recent example of that has Joel Spolsky and Jeff Atwood behind it.

So the question is whether there each community should be backed by up by a credible person who has a reasonable authority on the subject?

Does it require an offline face-to-face presence?

  • Would the Headstart Network have taken off without all the Startup Saturdays?
  • Would the OCC mailing list have taken off without the Sunday meetups?
  • Would have taken off without the big showcase events that made famous?

(On the same note, I want to point out that there are other startup events that I’ve come across are not communities, they just happen to have good publicity. I just wanted to draw out that distinction.)

Would have taken off it was started by the existing Headstart/OCC/ communities instead of a standalone presence?

Does it require a news site?

  • How did StartupDunia,, and others take off?
  • Why does TechCrunch have 2 million readers?
  • Why doesn’t, say, the Steve Pavlina Forums have the same kind of numbers?

Is building a readership/community easier for news sites?

Does it require a blog?

How did,, and others take off?

Is community building intertwined with building a blog?

For example, consider SmashingMagazine and its related forums, ProBlogger and its forums, TechCrunch and its comments section, Jeff Atwood and Joel Spolsky are famous bloggers and so on.

Does it require specific social engineering?

I found the Joel Spolsky’s talk on StackOverflow very interesting from this perspective.

He talks about how they took into account that “Environment and UI influences behavior.”

StackOverflow environment behavior

He talked about the 9 things they used as core of the design of the site, and this specific design leads to the high return-rate on the community site. And I can attest to the fact that it does indeed work. It is a brilliant piece of social engineering. But then again, as he says, this particular model works only for professionals in such a field, and in this case, programmers.

StackOverflow nine aspects

Do watch the talk for more insights.

Are there some specific guidelines for it?

I am yet to read Yaro Starak’s “Membership Site Mastermind” or Chris Guillebeau’s “279 Days to Overnight Success” guides, but I see that they touch upon this topic in detail.

Maybe they’ve already solved this question?

Your Thoughts?

What are your thoughts? What do you think it takes to build a community?

  • How did become so popular among travelers in India?
  • How did become so popular among internet users in India?
  • How did get so many MBA students?

Is it sheer good content and number of years? Or being the first-to-market? Or is there more to it?

6 thoughts on “How to build an online community?

  1. Its nice post and the replies can be really interesting. Here is mine one:
    The points you put here are really interesting and also the examples. As per my understanding we need at least one out of these to make it successful[Actually didn’t miss any!]. If I am to prioritize these pillars/fundas of the success I must count the “being the first-to-market” in your particular domain or you may be a replica of something in different geographical region [this is what many Indian Startups do, nothing much wrong ]. Then if you are not First to market you must go for the referral or kind of promotional event or conduct your own and displaying your “credibility icon” here can make your image as that of the leaders. Blogs and news for communities otherwise what is that people will discuss! The offline presence may help but not needed always. Another thing that I will like to put is – it must solve the well known problems in the particular domain, when people really need it they have to use it and I don’t think we have solved all the problems in the world! And on top of that we are yet to find what actually are the problems?
    Thanks for such nice post!

  2. In response to your twitter status (but too long for twitter so posting here)

    Not a boring topic, but I can probably think of a few reasons.

    Most of us can only speculate about the “why” part of it. In the case of some companies there may have been probably some defining moments but in most cases i think it was word of mouth lack of competition (in quality). Pagalguy and indiamike succeeded because of that IMO.
    Most of us are lazy, would happily consume and probably think about this, if YOU did an analysis on each of these companies supporting some points. But for anyone who is not interested/thinking about building a community this topic is not interesting enough to spend time on analysis.

    When you solve a problem, you can get passionate users and community. Look at the no of comments for your trackeverycoin post :)

  3. I have tried building a small community at EventsBangalore. Its a chicken and egg problem to build a community driven site. Start with friends and depend on word of mouth. I think that is the best way to start.

  4. @Prakash Well, I agree that it should attempt to solve a problem, but even if it does, growing a community is still difficult. Thanks for the thoughts.

    @Manu Valid points :) … I guess there are not many people and startups who are interested in community building.

    @Thejesh Great to hear from someone who’s actually tried this before. I guess the consensus is that a core set of users is a major factor for the long-term viability of a community.

  5. Hi Swaroop,

    Good analysis on building communities.

    This post from Seth gives a good perspective on building communities or in Seth’s term Tribes.

    In my view the most important factor in building communities is content and persistence.

    It doesn’t happen over-night but if things are being done diligently it will happen sooner or later. What is needed is critical mass, once thats achieved chain reaction will start.

    All other factors you mentioned does help, if the person has authority on the subject then it will be a matter of bringing the off-line community into online world.

    From perspective of, I started it with the view of sharing interesting news and articles on Indian Startups with others.

    Its my small step to spread information on buzzing Indian Startup scene. Its a not-for-profit venture and all the proceed from google ads on the site will be donated to charity, in a way it will serve 2 good causes.

    Though its just a beginning but people do seem to have started liking it, if we go by followers on twitter which is over 1000.

    And yes, if you find anything interesting please do share it at


  6. @Vic I agree with “content and persistence”, but find it unsettling that it is too generic an answer, but perhaps that’s all there is to it :)

    I do agree with StartupBuzz being popular, but to be honest, I think it lacks a community, because I find very few comments on the articles, and that’s the part that actually makes Hacker News worth visiting.

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