Getting first active users

Table of contents

  1. Search engines
  2. Advertising
    1. How advertising works
    2. What to advertise?
    3. Key principles of banner advertising
  3. Word of mouth
    1. Invite people to participate in the community yourself
    2. Do not hesitate to ask users to invite their friends
  4. Other sources of new users
    1. Partnership programs
    2. Giving public speeches

Inviting people to an empty site is risky. At the same time, there is no reason to wait until you have all the content on the platform. When you have some initial content that defines the topic of the community and the culture of interpersonal communication, it is the time to start attaining first users to the community. Making users get engaged and stay in your community will take some time. Throughout this period you will need to continue posting content on the platform.

Communities at different stages are interesting to different types of people. Users of a particular type join a community, help grow it and make it attractive to the next stage users, and then often leave the community. In the initial stage of a community our goal is to find such users who would want to create a lot of content on a platform that has little activities and organize the platform for others.

An online community operates correctly when it consists of people with mutually complementary interests who work together. The success of launching an online community largely comes down to the ability to maintain the balance of interests when there are still few users. The most critical problem in this regard is that usually the balance of interests is expressed in an imbalance in the number of people of different types. To keep the interests balanced we need to constantly monitor the community and attain users of a certain type based on the current needs.

There are three main sources of new users for an online community.

  1. Search engines
  2. Word of mouth
  3. Advertising

Search engines

For many communities, the main source of new users nowadays is still search engines. To make search engines send you traffic you need to have content on your platform. In online communities almost all content gets created by users themselves with very little or no participation from the managing company. The primary influence that a community manager has over the community comes down to encouragement to post high quality content, providing all needed tools and setting correct goals.

Search engines are the main channel for attaining new users in the long run. At the same time, when your community is completely new and does not have much content, there is very little reason to expect any sane traffic from search engines. Over this period we compensate for the lack of traffic from search engines with other channels for attracting users, like advertising, word of mouth marketing, and other techniques.


The key advantage of using advertising is its flexibility. With advertising we can target users of a particular type when we need some specific content depending on the current balance of user interests.

How advertising works

Paid advertising is most effective at the very early stage, while no one knows about your community yet. Here is how it works:

  • When no one knows about your community, advertising about it can be shown to everyone from the target audience and those who are interested will use the advertising. The costs will be the minimum.
  • When some people already know about the community, in order to get the same number of users going through the advertising as before you will need to show more advertising or do it in a more targeted way. So the costs get higher.
  • At some point, most people in the target audience will know about the community and will not go through the advertising and even if they do, they will be returned users but not new ones. This is the moment when the costs of getting new users by advertising becomes unreasonably high.

For the same reasons, advertising becomes more expensive as the amount of traffic you plan to send to your community through advertising channels increases.

Please note that it is almost impossible to justify advertising expenses from the business perspective. The value that an average user brings is very close to zero whereas the spendings are quite tangible. Here one needs to understand that we advertise a community because other channels of new users are either even more expensive or aren’t yet working. As soon as search engines start sending you people who create an account and post something on the platform, you can shut down advertising. If you have a more efficient way to attain new users than advertising, use it.

What to advertise?

When you are working on creatives, consider advertising the following:

  • Experience a user will get in your community. You need to think about existing user roles in your community, consider what motivates each type of user when they act on the platform and what kind of experience they seek to have. Advertising this experience will have the biggest response from the target audience.

  • Social impact. Many people want to have some positive impact on the people around them. They will join your community if you can clearly articulate how by helping you makes them have a positive impact on the world.

  • Mission of the community. This is the unique value proposition of your community.

  • Content and users. Interesting content and the opportunity to socialize with interesting people are the goals in themselves.

Key principles of banner advertising

  • If creatives can contain graphics, use people’s smiling faces. Faces are what humans pay attention to first and remember the most.
  • Use niche and specialized keywords. They attract people’s attention and increase visibility of the advertising.
  • Any advertising should have a call to action. Call to action is something you want a person to do, like registering, posting, sharing, etc.
  • Send people to the page that contains the action that you call them to take. This increases the conversion rate.

Word of mouth

The best ever marketing is when users recommend the community to their friends and colleagues. People especially trust those who use the product they recommend themselves. Personal invitations are much more effective than any communication aimed at a wide audience.

Invite people to participate in the community yourself

One of the ways to attain first users is to manually invite people yourself. Use existing communities, Facebook groups, chats and other places where people who could potentially be interested in your project communicate. On these sites, you need to identify those who create a lot of useful content and contact each of them individually asking if they want to join your community.

Some things to consider.

  • Look for specific types of people that you lack at the moment in terms of the balance of interests. The community must provide opportunities to act right away for the people you invite.

  • Invite people gradually to be able to correct shortcomings if you have any.

  • Invite those who write a lot. Contact them first.

  • Send personal invitations. Create an invitation template that briefly outlines the mission of your community and the experience awaiting users on the platform. Review all messages of the person you want to contact and tailor your template based on their interests. Greet the person by their username, describe where you found their contact information, explain why you decided to write to them particularly.

  • Personalize an invitation based on the user’s role in the community. Different types of users see the value a community gives them in different ways.

  • Be ready to discuss your community and answer the follow-up questions, talk in detail about the mission and the current audience.

  • Respect people’s choices. Don’t get into an argument if they turn you down.

Looking for people and inviting them personally is one of the most time-consuming ways to grow a community. At the same time, it usually has the best conversion rate. Most of the people one invites will visit the community and try to do something. People usually are happy to help if you offer them something actionable and interesting.

Please note that most online communities have an imbalance among the most active participants towards experts who usually help others. Such people rarely start discussions themselves. In order for the community to work properly and people to stay engaged, besides inviting experts you need to simultaneously attract those who will initiate discussions, most probably, through other channels.

Do not hesitate to ask users to invite their friends

Virality is what we strive for at any stage of community building. When you ask users to help you promote the community, consider the following.

  • Communicate from the perspective of the mission. The mission is a description of a proposed solution to some social problem that bothers users a lot. Users came to your community to solve this social problem in the first place. It is totally valid to ask them to help solve the problem by inviting some other folks to the community. Recruiting others becomes just another way to contribute to the success of the group.

  • Ask for specific actions. It could be sharing a link on social networks, writing certain things via mail, sharing information about the community with colleagues, etc. Make sure that your platform has all necessary integrations to enable users to easily do what you ask them to help with.

  • Emphasize the importance of everyone’s help. Explain that even a minimal contribution to spread a word about the community will help.

  • Ask for help regularly from the first day of the community, even if you don’t have many users yet. Users will read your posts later and generate “deferred actions”.

  • Ask for help sincerely.

Other sources of new users

The primary success criteria for launching a community is when it has a constant influx of new users to the platform with no actions from the community manager. Our task is to do everything possible and as quickly as possible to get to that tipping point. When planning your promotion activities, give preference to low-cost initiatives that require a minimum of your personal involvement and maximize the reach of the target audience. It would be even better if the preferred initiatives can be repeated and scaled up. Here are a few ideas.

Partnership programs

The essence of affiliate programs is to exchange the audiences with some other projects. You need to find non-competing projects that have a similar target audience who might not know about your community yet and negotiate with them to direct their audience to your platform in exchange for something else. When panthers start sending their audience to your platform you need to make sure that everyone who comes to your platform does some actions.

Partners do not need to have their own dedicated community platform; it is totally fine if they host their community on some third party platform. For example, if a potential partner does blogging on some popular site.

It is easier to find partners among projects that are trying to grow as well, large companies and non-profit organizations. The reason is that projects under active development use every opportunity to grow their product, whereas large companies have enough resources for altruism and helping those whose missions are aligned with theirs.

Always pitch your community to potential partners from the perspective of the mission and benefit to the public that your community brings. Communities at an early stage are rarely of commercial interest to others. Mostly partners will help you grow the community for the same reasons as your users do: because of its mission.

Finding a decision maker in another company is a difficult task for an outsider. You need to try to look for people in your community who are in some way connected to a potential partner. If there are such people, ask them for an introduction to the decision maker.

Here are a few examples of good affiliate programs for a community at the early stage:

  • Conducting contests and competitions, when the essence of the competition is some activity in your community, while a partner announces the contest among its audience and directs it to your platform.

  • Placing advertising posters in public spaces where your audience is. At the entrance to the office, in the cafeteria, on the general notice board, etc.

  • Exchange of links, or so called “information partnership”, for building up backlink mass and stream the users from the partner’s platform to yours.

Giving public speeches

Strive to spread the word about your community wherever you can. Starting from large specialized conferences, ending with user group meetups. Online and offline. When you give a speech, share a story that is about the community itself: the mission and problems being solved, the core mechanics of the platform, social norms, etc.

You’ll likely be able to find some users who are willing to speak on behalf of the community. Support these volunteers in any way you can:

  • By providing them additional information, statistics, previously unknown technical details, etc. Any information that might help them to prepare a good speech.

  • By providing them swag. Prepare and send the speakers the necessary handouts that they can share with the audience after the speech. Notepads, stickers, t-shirts, etc.

  • Tell the story about the speech to the community after with photos, videos. Make it appealing to others to speak as well.