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How to Build a Highly Engaged User Community: 9 Tips

Want throngs of people interacting with each other on your website or app? Take some cues from this super-popular app.
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You've got a rocking product or service and people are starting to take notice. But you want more than just a handful of super-loyal fans--you want an army of them engaging with and promoting your brand. But how do you make it happen?

Take some cues from Tim Weingarten, CEO and co-founder of The Hunt, a shopping app launched last year and backed by Ashton Kutcher and Tyra Banks that boasts a community of 2 million users who help each other find outfits for sale in the real world that somebody might have seen posted on a social network. According to Weingarten, at $15.5 million in funding The Hunt is the most highly funded company of its kind as well as one of the most-used mobile shopping apps with more than 2.1 million "hunts" started and followed per week, most of which are solved in just one day. Here's his advice on how you can get throngs of engaged users.

Forget extrinsic incentives.

The underlying motivation behind user participation and engagement should be because they enjoy it. For example, because The Hunt users love shopping they actually want to spend time helping others find fetching things to wear. "A lot of entrepreneurs would assume that if you pay people or give them cuts of the action or you make economic incentives that will help you build a community faster and will get people to do whatever you want them to do--sell things, buy things, create content, whatever," he says. "We strongly believe that extrinsic motivations will backfire and that the most long-term sustainable franchises are built off of intrinsic motivation."

Encourage authentic and positive communication.

While some online communities may be popular in the short term thanks to snarky commenting, Weingarten says a community built around people interacting with strangers should be focused on authenticity and positivity. It's the reason The Hunt expressly encourages users to "Say something nice" when making comments on other people's hunts, as well as lays out on its community page that jerks aren't allowed and any post that's disrespectful or unkind will be removed without warning.

Offer a good balance of utility and fun.

The Hunt solves the problem of seeing a photo of something but not knowing where to buy it, but utility alone isn't enough to draw hordes of users who want to engage with each other. Doing so has to be fun, as well. "The best communities come out of the systems where there's an entertaining element so it's enjoyable but there's also a strong utility so it's practical," Weingarten says. "If you have too much of one and not enough of the other people can burn out."

Don't ask users to spam their friends.

Weingarten says the era of asking users to bring their social networks with them--import their Facebook friends, for example--has passed. "All of these community-driven user-generated content sites out there that are relying on you as a form of virality to import your friend graph do not work any longer," he says. "People are tired of doing that and want immediate value without having to spam and market to all of their friends."

Offer "single player mode."

By that, Weingarten means a person can use The Hunt without knowing anyone on the platform or having any kind of social clout. "When they join The Hunt for the first time they can start a hunt and know nobody in the system, not be an influencer, not be someone famous, not winning a popularity contest and yet they can get treated equally and get value at that sort of single player mode," he says.

Stick with a core demographic.

The Hunt users are 90 percent female, with 55 percent between the ages of 18 and 24. And while it might seem to make sense to widen that demographic and appeal to men and older people, Weingarten always pushes back on that idea. "When you join for the first time and you look around at the avatar photos of the other members [and] at the hunts they're starting you say to yourself, 'Yeah, these people have similar tastes as me. I belong here. I feel like I fit in," he says.

Foster a democratic playing field.

Nobody likes popularity contests--other than the few people winning them, that is. So instead of rewarding the users who have the most followers or get the most engagement on their content, treat all users the same. Because The Hunt users tend to be normal people with average incomes and budgets Weingarten says they particularly appreciate knowing that their hunts will get solved even if they're not necessarily one of the cool kids.

Forget about forums.

When users of The Hunt interact with each other they do it within the confines of a particular hunt, not on a separate forum. "The interaction is all about how do we get this hunt solved with better answers and higher quality answers and that enhances our value proposition. So we believe when you're building a community or a sort of social app or website or whatever you can't just say 'Oh, well that means we have to have as much interaction as possible we can put it anywhere. No. I think it has to be linked and within the context of your value proposition."

Succinctly communicate your value proposition.

What makes your offering so great? Can you clearly articulate that value to any kind of audience, whether it's investors or employees you may recruit? If not, how can you expect your community to do the same?

For example, The Hunt users can start their own hunts as well as follow or solve other people's hunts but all the brand's key messaging focuses on starting hunts, which Weingarten says is the core pain point for users. "We don't talk about discovery, we don't talk about personalization," he says. "We've had our users experience that but we try to keep the positioning really narrow so that they will repeat our positioning and tell their friends 'Oh, when you see a photo on Tumbler or Instagram or Pinterest, this is how you find products that match.'"

Last updated: Jun 30, 2014

CHRISTINA DESMARAIS

Christina DesMarais is an Inc.com contributor who writes about the tech start-up community, covering innovative ideas, news, and trends. On Google+, add her to one of your circles. Have a tip? Email her at christinadesmarais (at) live (dot) com.




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