How to grow an awesome community to fuel your social startup

When you’re starting a social company, building a loyal and engaged community is paramount. But that can also be one of the most nuanced and challenging elements of launching your startup.

As employee #6 and community director at Polyvore, I’ve had the opportunity to watch our community grow and build relationships with many of our early users – some of whom have been on our site for more than six years now. Today, our site attracts 20 million unique visitors per month and our awesome community has created more than 100 million collage-like “sets” that are shared across the Web.

But like all social startups, we started with a community of zero. So what does it take to grow a strong, engaged audience? We’ve focused on four core principles that have helped us create, nurture and grow our global community.

1. Community starts from within

The first step is to recognize that there is no company without its community. Community is the DNA of any social-oriented business, and it’s important for your entire company to understand, appreciate and celebrate it.

You can do this by incorporating a community section into new hire orientations. You can also celebrate community successes as a company by sending around community love letters, successes and stories. You can even make your users part of your office decor.

For example, our office walls are decorated with “sets” created by our users and love letters they send us. It’s a good daily reminder of why we do what we do.

Recognizing the importance of your community and celebrating it regularly throughout the company creates a culture that will help foster its growth.

2. Listen with open ears

Embrace your community’s feedback. Read every email, comment and suggestion, and reply to them! Your community interacts with your product on a regular basis, so it’s important to understand what they like — and don’t like — about it.

Go the extra mile and proactively reach out to your users from time to time to solicit their thoughts about your product and your team. Our team has delivered a number of product launches and feature updates based on popular demand from the community. User feedback can and should help shape your product and the company.

Consistently ask for feedback and user stories over social media. By acknowledging community feedback, your users will be empowered to have a voice because they know that they are being heard.

3. Give them the personal touch

Take the time to thank your members for all they do for your company because they are your greatest brand ambassadors. Be on the lookout for members who are making an impact in your community, and reward them for it.

You can celebrate user stories and achievements by sharing them across your site through a blog post or on your homepage. You also can keep in touch with users on birthdays and anniversaries with your product.

Personalized gifts and hand-written notes are an easy way to give thanks. And if budget permits, community appreciation events are a great way to get individual feedback, learn about their experiences, and make your users feel special.

You can also send out a curated newsletter that’s specific to a user’s taste and interests. That personal touch can really delight users. They go the extra mile for you, so you should for them! These relationships are key to building a loyal community.

4. Make their dreams come true

Encourage your community members to follow their dreams and help facilitate that in any way you can. While you’re building your dream company, remember that your community is working to reach their dreams right along with you.

Support that, and they’ll support you. Find out what your users love and see if there’s a way to encourage that in a way that’s beneficial to both parties.

For example, we recently sent users to New York Fashion Week to cover shows like Rebecca Minkoff, Cynthia Rowley, BCBGMAXAZRIA and more. Last year we also flew users to London to visit the NET-A-PORTER headquarters and meet top fashion designers. Whenever possible, help open doors for your users and their successes will be yours, too.

While every company is different, community is at the core of any social business. By recognizing its importance, listening, giving thanks and celebrating successes, you can create and grow a loyal community of your own.

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