How to build a thriving community that fosters meaningful connections
Community cultivates strong relationships with and between your biggest fans, unlocking authentic engagement in spaces where members are inspired, heard, and seen.
As a creator, cultivating a community is one of your biggest opportunities. Bringing together people who share similar values and interests into a community space that’s engaging, authentic, and safe is an incentive that can turn fans into members – and members into lifelong supporters of your work. What’s more, a community doesn’t just serve its members: “My Patreon community is one of my favorite places on the Internet,” says musician and Patreon creator Natalie Gelman. “It’s a big part of what keeps me going when things get tough.”
So many creators find that their communities are a huge part of what makes their creative work sustainable and fulfilling, but knowing how to foster and lead one that’s built on meaningful connections can seem daunting, especially when first starting out. This guide covers how to leverage community in your strategy, how to lead from a place of care and thoughtfulness, and some best practices for moderating and managing your community’s unique culture.
Know what you’re building
Let’s begin by first recognizing the difference between a community and an audience. An audience is a one-way communication between the creator and a fan. The audience receives something – an experience, a piece of art, a work – and the interaction is one-way. “Audiences don’t feel like they’re at home,” says Jack Conte, musician in Pomplamoose and Scary Pockets, and CEO of Patreon. “They feel like they’re at a show, and afterwards they go their separate ways.”
A community, on the other hand, is a group of people connected to one another around a shared value or purpose that communicates across a network of connections. Like Jack says: “With communities, there’s a sense of intimacy. There’s a feeling of belonging to a group, a feeling of home. It’s not just a two-way conversation, it’s a multi-way conversation.” Community can mean the relationship can be between the creator and the community member, but it can also mean the one between community members themselves: strong friendships that often originate from shared admiration for a creator and their creative output.
Both communities and audiences are valuable, and neither are more important than the other. What is important is understanding the distinction, because they each require their own methods of cultivation and energy from their creator.
With communities, there’s a sense of intimacy. There’s a feeling of belonging to a group, a feeling of home. It’s not just a two-way conversation, it’s a multi-way conversation.
Clarify why you’re building a community
Understanding the “why” will help inform the “how” of your strategy for creating and fostering a community. There are a variety of motivations for building out a community space. Here's what a few Patreon creators had to say:
Create a safe space for authenticity
People join communities for a sense of connection, belonging and purpose. It’s a great place to share as much of your authentic self as feels comfortable to make connections with community members and encourage them to do the same with each other.
For creator Jodi Ettenberg, that authenticity is a gift that keeps on giving: “When a spinal tap left me disabled in 2017, I wondered if my community would come along with me as my life was so different. They have done so and more, rallying behind fundraisers, asking questions about the conditions I have, and seeking to learn more about how life has changed. I've been so humbled by their support, and my hope is that, in sharing with them, it helps them feel less alone in their grief or losses or life changes.”
Foster self-sustaining community engagement
Communities offer the opportunity for your members to connect with one another and create friendships – an offer that provides value beyond your creative work, for everyone. Ryan McManus, creator and host of Cast Party, a Dungeons & Dragons podcast, has firsthand experience when it comes to witnessing just how impactful community can be when it comes to engagement. “Our members host birthday celebrations and collabs for other members, game nights, virtual slumber parties, Live Listens for every new Cast Party episode, virtual hang outs, drawing sessions, and so much more! They build each other up, while showing kindness and acceptance for all.”
Gather and reach your core fans, on your terms
On social media feeds, you’re required to create for an algorithm and hope that your content reaches the right audience. But when you build a thriving community, it can become a driver for your core fan base to engage with you and your creative work. Whether through Patreon posts, emails, community chats or 1-to-1 messaging, or other community spaces like Discord servers or Facebook groups, you’ve got a direct line of communication to those who care most. Creator Rachel Maksy knows firsthand that constructing an affirming space on the Internet for her community has benefits that continue to ripple outward: “My favorite thing about my [Patreon] community is how supportive they are. I can come to them with the most random, ‘un-asked for’ idea and they are always so excited. That allows me to feel so free in the projects I choose to make and helps me branch out to try new things and not feel ‘tied down’ to one type of content."
Understand your role in the community you’re building
Being a community leader can feel like an intimidating role to maintain, especially when it’s only one of many hats you wear as a creator. Below are some insider tips from fellow Patreon creators to help you learn how to set the stage for an authentic and safe environment with your community.
Take time to spark conversation
Especially in the beginning, your community is here to engage with you. Post conversation starters, host an AMA (“Ask Me Anything”), or share something personal to spark conversation. As your community continues to get to know each other, they’ll start interacting without you needing to play host or matchmaker – but everyone can use a little inspiration now and then. Says Danny O’Dwyer of Noclip, a video game documentary production company, on the creation of his members-only virtual community space: “[Our Discord server] encourages patrons to communicate with each other, allowing the bonds of our community to strengthen, even when I’m away somewhere on a shoot or fast asleep after a long day streaming.”
Clarity in messaging is key
As the community manager, you’ll help set the tone and model the behavior you expect in the space. Community guidelines are the rules that help set expectations of what is and is not allowed in a community space. They help inform your community members as to what behaviors are encouraged or not permitted, while also exemplifying etiquette best practices to help keep your community safe and orderly. For example, guidelines could ask all community members to be respectful and civil to one another, or to prohibit the sharing of personal information like phone numbers and addresses to help keep sensitive information private. Make sure your community guidelines are clear and pinned somewhere easily accessible so that everyone can revisit them when necessary. Visit the Patreon Creator Community Discord server for more examples of community guidelines and to chat with fellow creators about their experience building and moderating a community space.
Ask for help when you need it
Once your community has been established, you can ask model members to help take on some of the moderation and engagement responsibilities. That can include helping everybody stay organized, mediating conversations and enforcing community guidelines, or providing information or recommendations to members. Make sure to thank these model members by recognizing them as official moderators, sending special notes or merch as a thank you, or hosting virtual meetups just for them to get their feedback and ideas on how else to engage with your community.
Moderation can be taxing and overwhelming, but when you authentically engage, enable everyone to participate, and enlist your community to co-create a safe and welcoming space, you can help prevent burnout and make community management a sustainable practice.
Enlist best practices for fostering a thriving community culture
Here are some best practices for setting the stage for a thriving community that has positive impact on both your members and you, the creator.
Set a shared purpose for your community
You don’t need to set a tangible goal – it could be broad and never-ending, like focusing on discussions about movies – but a shared purpose focuses participation around what is most relevant to the group. It gives your members a clear reason for why they’re there and what they can expect to discuss. Creator Conrad Thompson, founder of Ad Free Shows, discovered how their podcast listeners came together in a group chat over shared interests: “People from all over the world, with different backgrounds, occupations, and personal situations, all coming together over this one thing they all have in common – their love of old school professional wrestling. The [Patreon] community chat has helped us further strengthen the interaction and relationships among our community.”
Schedule when you’ll interact with your community – and stick with it
When members know that they’ll get the connection or support they’re hoping for, they’ll interact with your community space more often. On the other side of the coin, it can feel discouraging if they don’t get a response when they engage with the community. Blocking out time to make sure your presence is felt can help you stay consistent, and it may even energize you to connect with other people if you’re working solo.
Celebrate a shared sense of identity and belonging
When people see themselves as an accepted and valued part of a group, they develop an identity as part of something larger than themselves. It’s important for people to feel united and welcomed with others in the community – so making space for members to share about themselves, connect with one another over common interests, and develop personal relationships is vital. Belonging leads to more trust, respect, cooperation, and support between members. Musician Ben Miller, aka Wrekonize, knows this better than most: “[The Wreking Crew community] has come together to help community members in need, which I was extremely humbled by. The community has really become like a family to me.”
Understand that safety is a quality built over time
In order to want to interact with online communities, people need to feel comfortable and safe. People worry about not saying the right thing, getting negative or rude responses, or feeling misunderstood, so it’s not uncommon to take several months to participate in a community space. Be patient with establishing your values and showing up consistently, and authentic engagement will evolve as trust is built.
Building a community benefits everyone
Leveraging community in your business strategy can lead to relationships that fuel your practice, unlock fandom around your creative work, and build spaces where people feel heard and seen. Whether you’re connecting over shared interests and values, or over the fact that you’re all “just a loving group of weirdos becoming each other’s chosen family,” according to creator Christopher Thompson of podcast Unfiltered Friends, building a community can be a tool in your creator belt that helps you – and your members – thrive.
Want to connect with other creators? Check out A. Clubs, Patreon’s accountability groups for creators, by creators.