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5 tips to build a community for your startup

HootSuite Community manager Sharif Khalladi speaking at Social Media Week Berlin

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At this year's Social Media Week Berlin, HootSuite's community manager Sharif Khalladi shared his company's secrets on how HootSuite quickly built a sustainable community. Since he shared his 'secrets' with a 50-odd person crowd at the Social Media Week business and PR hub, he gave the audience free reign to spread them further. Here are five key ingredients that have contributed to HootSuite’s success.

HootSuite was founded in 2008 in Vancouver as a response to the growing importance of social media platforms – and no way to manage them. HootSuite is a social media dashboard that allows users to simply keep track of their social media profiles in one interface. In four years, its userbase has grown close to 5 million users, using these five pieces of advice.

1. Aim for excellence: be extraordinary

The first step to building a strong community is to give the members a reason to be there. Your community centres around the product, and if it is not amazing, the people won’t come. Invest time into developing an extraordinary product, with all of your developers in the same room.

'Some companies outsource some of their development to other (cheaper) countries. All the HootSuite developers sit in the HQ in Vancouver,' said Sharif, and work on improving the product together.

'Improving‘ is also a key word: Building an extraordinary product means making sure it’s always the best it can be. Keeping an eye open for new talent too, Sharif advised, can be an affective way to stay amazing.

Beyond the product, there are many things that a company can do to stand out from the crowd. At HootSuite, they quite naturally receive many questions about social media. To continually address this need, they created HootSuite University, a learning portal for users to access information about social media platforms.

Third, companies can create an extraordinary company culture. HootSuite is very open: all employees can be reached at any time, and can be asked anything.

2. Be where they are: go local

'HootSuite is a global company, just because we’re on the web,‘ said Sharif. For this reason, it’s even more important to go local. 'I came to Germany today, not just to talk to you, [but] because we want to see what Germans want.‘ Going to where the people are will help a company build strong relationships with their customers and clients, and in turn allow them to build a strong community of user-advocates.

Customizing the content and communication strategy for different markets is also important. HootSuite is in 27 languages, allowing users to feel comfortable with the product.

They have done this by allowing their members of their community to help them.

'We often receive comments from users saying 'Hey, I love HootSuite, I’m in Poland, can I translate it for you?‘’ said Sharif. 'There are people willing to work with you on a result that benefits [everyone].‘ Using your existing community to localize and expand the network is extremely effective, and turns users into marketers.

Going local also means being physically present. Since 2008, HootSuite’sHootUp – like a TweetUp – is a real-life meet-ups that takes the relationship from online to offline. They have had over 100 HootUps all over the world, and they have been invaluable in creating a large and strongly knit community. In short, have fun, be open, and be social.

3. Invite them into your company’s family

Sharif then spoke of all the messages HootSuite often receives from users telling them how much they love their product and what they do. Rather than just thanking and forgetting them, HootSuite established an envoy and ambassador program, inviting all walks of life from all over the planet to be involved in the company. 'They are already evangelizing the product!' These ambassadors and envoys can organize HootUps, manage a country's twitter account, or contribute in anyway they feel they can.

For a relatively small company with a community of almost 5 million, these ambassadors are essential for local communication and continuing to engage thousands of users.

Moreover, the HootClub program conveys an image of openness and trust, which are qualities that are well received when building a faithful user base.

4. Say you care, and mean it: make your community feel special

Appreciation and fan-mail should go both ways. If a user tweets about your product or compliments you, show them that their feedback is valued by sending them a token of your appreciation. HootSuite often sends enthusiastic users stickers or t-shirts to Thank you for letting us know, we’d like to thank you for that.

As Dave Olson, community director of HootSuite says, ‘[they] conquered the world one hug at a time.’

Make sure your community knows their opinion counts. Create a feedback forum where your company can read what you community is asking for or needs from your platform, and, where possible, implement it.

To date, HootSuite has implemented 683 features suggested in the forum, and 999 ideas are currently being voted on.

5. Love all equally

Love all of your community members, regardless of how involved they are in the company . Whether you're a free user or have a pro account, Sharif stressed that they are all part of the same community. ‘Community is for everyone!’ he said. ‘You don't even have to use social media! Tell us if you want to be part of our HootClub. We'll decide if we're a fit or not. But we can still be friends.'

The last, extra piece of advice Sharif imparted was short and sweet.

‘If we tried to push our product on people, we would never have made 5m users.’

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