The Internet is full of nonprofit Facebook groups, Twitter accounts, and blogs that haven’t been updated in years. Instead of vibrant, useful communities these places are ghost towns a la “The Walking Dead.

How does this happen? Many nonprofit leaders believe if they build an online site the traffic will follow quickly and easily. But the Internet is not the “Field of Dreams,” the 1980s fantasy film about a baseball diamond in a remote Iowa cornfield that magically attracts visitors. The Internet is more like the community celebrated in the 1940s holiday classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and the time and effort it took to create those relationships.

Here are seven steps we’ve used to help our nonprofit clients like Reclaiming Futures grow online communities that attract tens of thousands of visitors every month:

Set Goals

Launching a Facebook page or other social media account is easy. Knowing what you want to do with it is hard. Before you hit the “publish” button lay out written goals based on your organization’s strategic plan that address the needs of the people you want to attract.

Identify Your Audience

Be clear about who you want to reach and the actions you want them to take. Define target groups narrowly. General public is not an audience.

Know Who Matters

Who are the online leaders in your field? Find and engage with them regularly through blog comments, retweets, and Facebook shares. You’ll build important relationships and deliver valuable content that will keep your community members coming back for more.

Solve Problems

Start with the needs of your audiences. What are the common questions asked by the people you’ve targeted? Each topic could be the subject of a blog post, a Facebook share, or a Tweet. By solving the problems you will serve your community and attract new members.

Engage Early and Often

Check your community pages regularly. Don’t let comments or questions go unanswered. Every response strengthens your relationship with the commenter and can inspire further conversations.

Don’t stop with just your nonprofit’s own online platforms. Regularly visit the websites and social media channels of the influencers you’ve targeted and who matter in your field.

Monitor, Measure, Repeat 

What does success look like? It may mean connecting with the top online leaders in your field, increasing awareness among targeted audiences, or growing donations. Each of these outcomes is measurable. Use surveys, Google analytics, and other tools to track your progress, understand what’s working, and adjust accordingly.

Invest for the Long Haul

Building a community takes time, lots of time. And while the work is happening in cyberspace, it’s no different than building a relationship in person. No organization expects to attract hundreds, much less thousands, of members and other supporters overnight. Recognize that you will need to invest the same kind of energy into your online relationships.

Need more suggestions? The Databank blog has a set of excellent tips for nonprofit community managers.

How has your nonprofit grown online communities? Share your ideas and experiences in the comments.