Building online communities: lessons learned from 10 years of running BookMachine

Laura Summers
Opinion - Publishing Wednesday, 1st July 2020

Laura Summers has some tips on how to keep your audience engaged

Sometimes it takes a seismic change in market conditions to force us to transform how we work. Regardless of how you feel about social media, or whether you enjoy using Zoom, most of us have increased the time we spend online interacting with others; without it, staying connected would be a challenge.

As a result, an increasing number of virtual publishing-related groups is emerging: from online book clubs for readers, to support groups for those who wish to join the industry. People are sociable by nature and need these interactions.

"We have seen membership numbers increase by 25% since lockdown"

A "connector" is someone who knows large numbers of people and frequently makes introductions. Since lockdown, there has been a real demand for this skill, as unless someone sticks their neck out to introduce people it is all too easy to keep to our own circles. Chance meetings are less likely to happen without physical book fairs and in-person networking events - but that doesn't mean we shouldn't branch out and get to know others.

Connecting with experienced professionals is crucial for people in the early years of their careers. We all need to learn from our peers - and this is so much harder to do from home. And for anyone living alone throughout this crisis, there is so much value in being able to tap into a regular community of like-minded people.

It's exciting to see people setting up their niche communities online. The early stages of reaching a new group can be extremely rewarding, and people working from home can be quick to engage with and offer support to new initiatives.

But beyond the initial launch buzz, if you are planning to run a community, or have already set one up - large or small - you need to keep nurturing it, and to have a goal to keep members connected. The most successful groups are taking people with a common purpose on a journey and helping them to connect.

We have been running our community, BookMachine, for 10 years. That's 10 years of organising events, connecting industry professionals, dreaming up themes and topics and ways to keep people engaged. We have thousands of subscribers to our mailing list from across the industry, and have seen membership numbers increase by 25% since lockdown. Here are a few things I've learned.

Regular communication is best
Even if you work on your online community only on a Friday, for example, it's better to space out your communication with scheduling tools. If you decide to communicate infrequently, then keep it consistent. Your community will trust you more if they know when to expect their updates. It also helps you to hone your voice.

Keep refreshing your programme
Showing up regularly is half the work. If you keep things the same people will get bored. Start afresh regularly, look at what you are doing and what works best and keep tweaking it until you find the perfect formula that your audience loves. Then ask a few questions and change it again. Can you bring in new people and ideas throughout the year to differentiate what you are doing from last year? Of course there is no need to change things just for the sake of it; but making small improvements all the time will gain you trust, as it shows you are moving things forward and listening to feedback.

Find your inspiration outside the industry
The world is your oyster with an online community. There is no need to focus on the publishing industry for your inspiration. What are other industries doing? What really stands out? To keep innovating, stop looking at other book clubs or publishing organisations, and search further afield. It will give your community a better experience, and make you stand out.

Lift as you climb
Give back constantly. Help your members and offer advice, but also lift others who are trying to get projects off the ground. Cross-promote and share ideas, and leave a helpful and open trail of communication with everyone you speak to. Give out your email address, and when you get a spare moment, answer the emails. It's much more fun to build a community whilst others are also getting more successful around you. Keep lifting as you climb, and the good will will help you grow.

Laura Summers runs BookMachine, a fast-growing community specialising in book publishing. BookMachine's mission is to provide publishing professionals in the UK with knowledge, ideas and connections to help them to progress in their careers.

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