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9 Tips to Grow Communities Around Ideas

A few weeks ago I was asked to speak at AToMIC Conference by Strategy Magazine here in Toronto about building communities around ideas. It was a great conference with a lot of brilliant creative people, both in attendance and speaking.

I had the opportunity to speak about crowdsourcing ideas online and growing successful communities around those ideas. We’ve learned a lot after launching several SoapBox communities, so it was a great time to share those learnings. Below are 9 tips we’ve extracted out of successes and failures of our communities. While we’ve learned many of these from SoapBox communities, which engages people around ideas, they are general tips that can be used for almost any community tool.

Conversations Require Participation


Building a community online revolves around having conversations. The conversations mainly happen in text form, but can also be heavily visual if that’s what your community cares about (more on that later).

A successful conversation involves not only talking, but also listening and responding. I find it helpful to draw on a metaphor here. Imagine the community wasn’t online and you were talking to a few community members.

They were telling you some great ideas and thinking deeply about your company and brand. If you don’t respond or ask follow up questions and instead you just stand there, silently, the community members will look at each other and eventually walk away.

Online conversations happen the same way and, although they are asynchronous, they still require participation from you in order for the conversation to have meaning. Commit to responding before starting the conversation.

Know Yourself/Brand/Company

9tips-frameOnce you’ve decided to engage in a conversation you should proactively decide which conversation you want to have. You, as a community leader, have the opportunity to frame the conversation in the way that you want. Make sure you frame it in a way that will end up working well.

Ask yourself why you are aiming to create a conversation in the first place? Ask yourself what your goals are? And what your business can do to accomplish these goals? Can you commit to trying publicly? Once you have an answer to these questions ensure that the conversation is build around these parameters.

As a hypothetical example: don’t launch a product feedback form that takes product input if you don’t make the product. You can’t commit to actually changing the product (it’s not really yours), eventually your community will grow frustrated that you’re not really paying attention to them.

Know the Community

Now that you know all the areas you should talk about look back at the community and learn what they want to talk about. Your community will want to talk about things that are important to them — they also don’t know about the invisible lines behind your brand. The Community doesn’t know about union issues, department politics, or supplier relations. When choosing a conversation topic look at what the community’s goals, interests, and mindshare are around this topic. Plan for them to pick the conversation up and take it in the direction that makes sense for them.

Know the Participants


This is non-obvious, obvious point: Large sample sizes don’t necessarily mean representative samples.

Here’s an example: Say you want to engage your employees internally. You have 5000 employees and, in general, they care about their compensation packages, medical coverage, product, and marketing. You launch an online community for them to discuss these topics freely. 1000 people sign up in the first week. Understand that these 1000 people are of the demographic that knows how to sign up to things online, wants to sign up to work discussion forum, and has something to say on that forum. Those participants are of the same community group, but have slightly different goals and knowledge basis.

Optimize the Conversation You Want

This part is simple once you’ve explored the above tips. You know what types of conversations you can participate in. You know the kinds of conversations your community wants to participate in. Build your community around what they want to talk about, and allow them to talk about that freely. Listen and respond in a meaningful way, and make them feel like co-owners of the conversation.

The Community Owns Itself

During the conversation remember that you are a community leader. Not the community owner. Communities own themselves and choose their own leaders (ie: they leave if they don’t like the current one). Don’t force them to do things, join them in doing things. Unite the community. Make them feel like they’re making a difference.

Have Community Tools for a Reason

Have you ever gone to an absolutely dead message board? Or a thriving one? The difference isn’t the technology — online communities are the opposite of “build it and they will come”.

Understand that community members are people with real lives. They will participate in conversations that have a purpose. Make sure your community tools have a purpose then make sure there is enough traffic going to them.

You can literally ask yourself, “What is the point of this tool?” If the answer is “I don’t know” or “for the community to talk to each other” your tool is doomed to vacancy. Give them a reason to use the tools.

Be Human

It’s easy to think of your community as 300k likes, followers, or users, but remember that each number in the total is a real live human. Real humans have faces, names, jobs, job titles, and just like in real life they enjoy seeing the face of the person they’re talking to.

Don’t be afraid to have your business leaders be themselves in the online tool — in fact I’d encourage it. Try to avoid using a “brand” account. Most likely, the community is used to getting the corporate approved responses. This could be their opportunity to feel important and listened to. Feel free to give that to them.

It’s ok to say “no” to the community as well, just also be sure to educate them on the “why”. If there isn’t a good “why” you can’t do something then you might be experiencing the same frustrations that your users are. Try to be in their shoes and understand that frustration.


Conversations can grow stagnant over time. Make sure you’ve left the community with a great impression and then revitalize the conversation with a new main topic or goal. These renewal events are great measure of the communities response to the last conversation. If you never listen to the community they wont come back — if you do, you’ll keep the conversation going.

Track, Measure, Compare

A final tip is to track and measure all of your key performance metrics from day 1. However, caution yourself against “vanity metrics”. Vanity Metrics are stats that can only go up. They can only get better. Stats that only get better only show you one side of the story and give you no warning that things are going poorly.

Look at active monthly users, not total users. Track ratios of data types or compare data over time. Your true insights come after you realize how to make those numbers go up and go down.


Do you have any tips about engaging communities with ideas? Share them with us in the comments or tweet us @SoapBoxHQ!



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