By Duncan Lock.
You have a software project and some users - perhaps even a contributor or two. How do you grow this into a sustainable, thriving user community? Here are some top tips to help you on your journey.
1. Get the word out
The more people who know about your work, the more who can get involved. This starts with content. Start a project blog and write about what you are doing and why it would be useful for your users. Write around your topic and be helpful to your audience. Tell your story, and their stories, and show how useful your software is.
Knowing your audience is crucial to writing. Either choose a real person you know, or imagine a specific person and speak to them through your writing. Argue with them, convince them, explain to them. Choosing a specific audience is not only much easier than writing for everyone, it is also much more direct and powerful. Above all, your writing should be teaching your audience something that they will find useful. If you can't do that, tell them something fascinating. If you can't do that, keep trying.
To write well, do your research and check your facts. Structure your writing and your arguments carefully. Edit and edit again, then go away for a while, come back and polish. Make sure you pay attention to details such as spelling, grammar, headlines, paragraphs and language.
A lot of snake oil is peddled in the name of SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) but the reality is fairly simple and straightforward. You need to make great content, and ensure it is accessible to all. With that in mind, here is a great guide to the basics from the horse's mouth - Google.
2. Know your community - and be visible.
Make sure you engage with people in your niche, and do this regularly. Find out what your audience's favourite sites are, such as Reddit, Facebook, Google+, forums, blogs and so on. Once you've found your readers, chat with them, make friends, have fun and be an active participant in the online community. Encourage feedback, reply to all the comments you get, take suggestions, work out what your audience likes and write more of it.
3. Invite them back to yours
Have a main site where you can host all the features - such as blogs, forums and content - that you use to engage your community. You now not only have something to link people during discussions, but somewhere you can invite them to participate in comment threads, contests and promotions.
4. Be persistent and consistent
As the old cliché goes, behind every overnight success there are ten years of hard work. Your community will drift away if you do, so keep it up and be consistent. Make a target that's realistic like making sure you can engage with people in your community every day, or every week.
5. Follow the Data
Decide on what success looks like for you. For example, this might be a certain number of new visitors joining per month, or a minimum number of comments every week. Next, measure your progress using Google Analytics. As a rule, you should check the stats no more than once a week, see what people liked and didn't like - and discover how they're finding your site. Do more of what works and less of what does not.
It is a marathon, not a sprint - but the benefits mean it is worth it. If you want more details and guidance, you can check out this great guide from MackWebSolutions, The Truly Monumental Guide to Building Online Communities.