Seven steps for building and maintaining a thriving online community post-COVID

While 2020 was undoubtedly challenging and, yes, ‘unprecedented’, the benefit of a crisis is that it forces us to innovate. And, for many small businesses, the ultimate COVID-19 silver lining has been the transition to online and the ability to extend their business’s reach.

Physical borders and foot traffic don’t define your audience anymore—you can build a thriving community with anyone, anywhere, thanks to the incredible reach and connective power of social media.

But before we get into the nitty-gritty of how to do this, it’s important to first understand how the coronavirus pandemic has affected consumer and community expectations of small business.




Small business and the Australian community: A reciprocal relationship

In The Next Chapter for Small Business, a Forrester Consulting study commissioned by Xero, nearly nine in 10 Australian consumers (87 per cent) agreed that small businesses play an active role in shaping the culture of their local community. The fact that this is higher than the global average shows the unique regard that we Aussies have for small business.

When asked why they purchase from small businesses, 39 per cent of respondents stated that they wanted to contribute to their community and support the local economy and local jobs. Meanwhile, 69 per cent of consumers reported that they felt proud of the businesses in their communities and would feel a personal loss if those businesses were to close.

But this relationship works both ways. The majority of consumers and small business owners agree that small businesses need to establish a strong connection with their local communities to survive and thrive.

Fostering online communities just as important

During the pandemic, online purchases made up 36 per cent of all Australian spending, while 32 per cent of respondents were interested in engaging with small businesses virtually—that’s a six per cent and 10 per cent increase on pre-pandemic levels, respectively. Growth in these areas is expected to continue as more people embrace the convenience of online.

In short, to ensure your business is sustainable and successful in 2021 and beyond, you will need to put as much care into fostering your online communities as you do your local in-person ones.

Top tips for building a thriving online community

Building an online community is all about uncovering the magic of small business—which is the human element; the face behind the business. But you’ve got to be strategic about the content you’re posting to get this right.

These are my top tips:

1. Consider the bigger picture. For franchisors, the first step is to consider the brand you’re operating under and understand what you are and aren’t allowed to do.

2. Think about businesses you follow and why. Over a couple of weeks, note down what interests you about the businesses you follow online—is it their imagery, their values, their stories? Think about how often they push their products, and the balance with non-product-focused content.

3. Know your audience. Think about where your communities exist and what social channels you can use to reach them. You don’t have to be on every channel, but you do need to understand why people go to them, what they’re looking for, and when they’re most active.

4. What and when to post. Analytics are fantastic for helping you decide how and when to engage. For example, at Xero we know that our online community tends to be focused on business, with a greater appetite for educational, product-friendly content earlier in the week. By the end of the week, we can start posting more fun content and stories.

5. Don’t be afraid to show who you are. People choose to support small businesses because of the face behind the business. More often than not, this is your unique selling point, so don’t be afraid to be human. Be honest, be authentic, be vulnerable. You’ll build a really strong community when you show the highs and the lows.

6. Get people talking. People joining communities are seeking support and connection, and it’s up to the moderator or owner of that community to get that engagement and conversation flowing from the very beginning.

Think about how to encourage conversations between community members—for example, a wooden toy business might pose the question to its Facebook followers: ‘What’s on your Christmas list this year?’, or ‘What were your favourite childhood toys?’. This generates great sentiment and authentic conversation and gives people a reason to come back.

Other options include doing polls, Q&A sessions or Facebook live streams. I personally love it when businesses I follow do an ‘Ask me anything’ event, because I love hearing real stories, where it’s not about their product but what makes them tick. We do this a lot in our Xero community.

7. Feed the beast. The worst thing any business can do is start a community and then ignore it. It has to become part of the day-to-day running of your business, which means setting aside time to think about content, what you’re going to post, and when.

The power of an online community is the two-way communication it provides—and the benefit and challenge for businesses is that instantaneous connection and reaction.

Always set expectations with your community and be honest about when you will be able to respond. Facebook provides this information already, but on other channels consider including in your bio that you are ‘really busy running your business but answer all online queries between 5pm and 7pm’ (for example).

I know I get frustrated if a business I’ve messaged on Instagram doesn’t get back to me within a few days and there’s no explanation of why. It causes me to lose interest, trust in the business and the sense they value me as a customer.

Along with a heightened regard for small business within the community, COVID-19 has provided an excellent opportunity for small businesses to think differently about how they build followers to support their business. Don’t be afraid to experiment. The desire to innovate shouldn’t stop as we slowly start to plan for a COVID normal 2021.


Sticky business: A community-building success story

Xero customer Sticky, a family business making delicious candy treats, is a great example of a business successfully harnessing this power of community to survive and thrive during the pandemic.

With foot traffic to their counter at The Rocks in Sydney grinding to a halt, and all their weddings and corporate events cancelled, Sticky owners David King and Rachel Turner faced the prospect of shutting down after 18 years in business. With nothing to lose, they began streaming their production live on Facebook and Instagram, and suddenly their audience and potential customer base exploded. Then, in a stroke of genius, their daughter suggested setting up a TikTok account.

David was initially sceptical—even asking “What is TikTok?”—but they gave it a go, and the engaging visuals and fun, quirky stories they posted were a big hit with the channel’s audience. The different demographics and focus of the three platforms worked to nurture and cross-promote one another.

Now, with over 2.8 million TikTok followers and reposts from the likes of Snoop Dogg, business is booming. They’ve hired new staff, expanded production levels and started the ball rolling on international exports.

“Whether you’re in Florida, Copenhagen or Sydney, we’re like the local business,” David said of the effect of their online community-building efforts. “We might be on the other side of the world, but we’re your local lolly shop and you know us.” 





About Erin Chancellor

A senior communications and community professional with more than 15 years’ experience in ASX-listed Australian and Asia-Pacific digital, financial services and professional services companies, Erin is currently Xero Australia’s Head of Community. In this role, Erin is responsible for community management and strategy for Xero’s thriving Facebook community of almost 6,000 accountants and bookkeepers. Erin has significant experience in cultivating online communities that encourage two-way information sharing and establish connection.