Four Steps to Building Community the Right Way

by Emily Jasper on January 25, 2012

Ellie Scarborough, founder of, may be an expert on mending a broken heart, but she does all of that because she listens to her community. I had the opportunity to gain insights from her, and here are her best tips:

Contrary to popular belief, building a bustling and cohesive community online is neither simple nor self-sustaining. It takes time, strategy, persistence and a deep belief on the part of the founder that the content is absolutely vital for it’s members.

To put it another way: Founding a community is like birthing a child.

It’s an emotional ride and there’s a constant nagging that you just might mess it up in some way. You inherently know that to do it right, you’re going to spend a ton of time learning from others who have done it before and even more time finding your own way. You’re not going to expect anything from it financially, at least for a while. Yet, you’re going to have to love it through all of the brilliance and the bratty moments. And, there will be both.

But, there are certain things you must do as a business owner if you want to create a space online where people share, unite, and most importantly, grow in numbers.  Here are my four tips for before you build it, when it’s ready to launch and once it’s in use:

1. Identify a need

On the day I graduated from college, it never would have occurred to me that, at 32, I’d be running an online community of over seven thousand women focused on forgetting their exes and finding their inner bombshells.

But two years ago, I created Pink Kisses, a site for women going through heartbreak, for a very simple reason: I had just experienced the toughest breakup of my life and simply couldn’t find smart, thoughtful tools and conversation to help me start heading in a bold, new direction. I knew I had to create a space where women could kick their heels off, let their hair down and get real. I started asking everyone (including the barista at my coffee spot, and any random woman I happened to ride an elevator with) if they’d be interested in the kinds of tools and tips I wanted to offer. Overwhelmingly, the answer was yes.

If you’re not 100% sure how real the need is for your community, just ask. People will be pretty honest about where they will and will not spend their valuable time.

2. Model what you want

While building Pink Kisses, I discovered that if I wanted other women to open up about what was going on in their own lives, I had to be honest about what was happening in mine.

The best online communities are safe places for sharing.  So I decided to put my story of heartbreak on my website, for anyone to see. This helped catalyze story-sharing from my new community members, and also ended up being the perfect ice-breaker. It gave members an excuse to ask me questions, relay horror stories of their own, and eventually, start a larger dialogue together about the process of breaking up and moving on.

I knew that nothing I wrote or created could ever be insincere if I expected the same out of my members. So if you test everything you create in your community by setting the example – always with an attitude of sincerity and openness – you will be on the road to success.

3. Spread the word

Just because you’ve decided to build a community doesn’t mean people will automatically join. In the first year after launch, you have to make it your number one mission to let the world know you exist. Because, let’s be honest, they won’t otherwise. With so many distracting sites for women on the web, you have to be able to grab their attention and hold it long enough for them to fall in love with your budding community.

How? You can start with social media campaigns that can create buzz even before you launch. Decide which two social media sites are the best places to connect with your intended audience, and get to work telling everyone you know to connect there. Start a month or so before you go live to have an audience already interested in your brand. Stay authentic, be real and let people know what your brand stands for – without being “salesy.” Let people feel like they’re part of something, like they’re getting a sneak peek. Then, once you’re launched, get them to help you grow. That’s exactly how we built our incredibly involved & loyal Facebook community.

Also, get your story out there on traditional media fronts: TV, radio, blogs, newspapers, magazines… don’t be shy. Within a month of launch, I was on the TODAY Show talking about Pink Kisses. In the first year, I told my story everywhere from COSMO Radio to The Wall Street Journal.  Online, I wrote for the Huffington Post, Crazy Sexy Life and more blogs than I can count. I never said no to an interview and never stopped looking for opportunities to partner with other websites or outlets to get the word out.

4. Listen to what your members are saying

The people engaged in your site are your very best source of information. So once you’ve launched your community and shouted its existence from the rooftops, pose your members two simple questions:

  • Ask them what’s missing.
  • Ask them what they love.

Not only will they want to share, they’ll be even more loyal members if they feel like their voice truly matters, and that this community is built around their expressed needs.

On a more macro level, we’ve made a conscious effort at my company to continually study the emotions, experiences and patterns that emerge around breakups. Every time we conduct a survey or a focus group, we are amazed at what we’re able to discover about how we can better serve our community. Often, I’ll pick up the phone or write an email just to see how my members are doing.

As you can see, collecting community feedback can be a very involved (but crucial) process.  So create a strategy around asking for feedback, and be sure to do something each month to keep you in touch with the pulse of your community. Never miss an opportunity to learn more about your members or your opportunities.

The takeaway: women are social creatures. We crave a sense of community and enjoy sharing our lives with others. But, there are tons of places we can now go online to dish. If you want to break into the realm of building an online community, you have to be bold, focused and you have to create something worth visiting. Once you’ve created the ideal space, you have to tell the world about it. With all the noise, it’s not enough just to sit back and wait for members to find you. Build something incredible, bring people to it, engage them in their contributions big or small. And always, always, always ask for feedback.