Last Updated on December 10, 2021
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I’ve been building communities both online and offline for several years now. Some small communities that are tight knit with <10 people regularly meeting, others that have scaled to 500k+. It’s certainly been a journey.
It’s not easy! So much value can come from building great communities if you put in the work and have the patience (most of you probably won’t!).
Here are the high-level concepts that will help you go far in your community journey. This is the 20% that leads to 80% of the results.
1. Start With A Purpose/Niche/Commonality To Gather Around
This should be fairly obvious, but it is critical. People need to have a strong commonality to gather. Could be a belief, similarity, or pretty much anything. By definition, communities cannot include everybody in the world. Figure out who are the people you want in the community and who are not.
Be intentional about why somebody might join or stick to your community as well as how you onboard people.
There are many ways to approach this. For some communities, it’s about status initially. If you curate a very select, exclusive group of people and make it invite only to people who meet a certain bar, people will want to be around the people in the group. People are coming because of status in their common interest. For this, you might have sort of invite-only system to start or an application to join. You eventually scale it up because at some point the community becomes valuable because of the scale and utility of people there, but the initial attraction is status.
For other communities, the utility or friendship or any number of other reasons may be the reason. If the reason is friendship, you may opt to onboard people as cohorts so that people in the community will immediately make friends right out of the gate. If it’s utility, you may need to answer a lot of questions first to get the ball rolling.
For your community, have a thesis about why people would join. Design your community strategy around this.
Getting this right is really important, so it’s in your best interest to get this right. Interview potential community members to see if this purpose or niche is interesting (the great thing about doing these interviews is that this is also lead gen for your first community members). You can also run experiments by testing things with a email newsletter or landing page.
2. Don’t spend too long choosing Your platform
Unless you’re building your own system or your community is being hosted directly as part of your product, choose an established platform where your target demo will feel at home.
For example, if your audience is teens, you probably wouldn’t want to use Slack to host your community. Or if you’re building a community of business executives, you probably want to steer clear of a Snapchat Group Message. Generally, Discord, Slack, Circle, Facebook Groups, or whatever you want to use, choose the one your audience will feel most at home or the one that you think you can build the best community on.
Remember: Software doesn’t build community. People do.
3. Manually Invite People And Make People Feel Special
The early community members help set the tone for the rest of the community so it’s critical to choose your early community members wisely. You should be reaching out to people manually with personalized messages to invite them to the community. If you already have a large audience to port over, great. That’s fine. But you should still choose a select number to join early and write personalized notes.
When I say personalized, I really mean personalized. Not just a “Hey Bob, I want you to join this community” type note. I mean really personal. Like “Hey Bob, I saw your Tweet about the Red Sox the other day. I hate the Red Sox too. Anyway, I’m reaching out to you because…”. It should feel like you’re sending them this message and them alone. Make them feel special.
Why is this important? Because you want early users to stick around, be active, and set the tone. They are much more likely to do so if the outreach is personal and warm than if they were part of a big group bulk email.
This leads to onboarding too. The best communities are very hands on with handholding people, especially in the early days of the community. Hop on calls with the early members, do group walkthroughs, etc.
4. Have A Space To Introduce People. Tag People To Get Them Involved
Get people engaged when they join. Have them introduce themselves. Have them get involved in discussion topics. Tag them and ask them for their input. Get in the habit of tagging people (not in bulk, don’t tag 1000 people at once). Tag specifically. Like you’re asking them specifically that question. That helps get the ball rolling. Get them in the habit of interacting with you and with each other. Especially with each other.
5. Make A Engagement And Content Plan. Be Consistent.
There are many ways to approach this part of the community. Generally oversharing may be better than undersharing in the early days of your community. This is the plan I usually follow for my communities that works well.
Have a plan for what to do: Daily, Weekly, Monthly
Daily: Every day (or almost every day), there should be something really light to engage with. This might be a poll, discussion question, simple prompt etc. You can try different things out to see what works for your community. This is the MOST important of the 3.
Weekly: Come up with some themes for every week. Things like “Fanfic Friday” where you showcase Fanfiction on Friday. Or highlight a community member every week.
Monthly: Monthly things can be a bit bigger. Like a monthly contest or prompt.
Once you have this strategy down, feel free to experiment and try new things.
In the early days, you need to rally the troops and be the first to participate. When you ask a discussion question, tag experts and ask them to respond. Respond to things yourself as well. You need to do everything you can to build the momentum.
Examples Of Things To Do
Here are some ideas for things you can do to really get your community moving.
Greeting Newbies: Every day or every few days, go through your list of new followers, and tag them in the welcome thread comments. Encourage them to introduce themselves.
Daily Discussion Questions: A fun question related to your niche every day to get them engaged. The more connected your questions are to your theme, the better. You can often find good examples and sources for inspiration by looking on Google and Tumblr if you need inspiration.
Events, Contests Or Giveaways: Monthly or weekly contests and events are a great way to get people involved. This varies for every niche.
Highlight Great Stories From The Community: Find awesome stories shared from within the community and share them regularly. It’s a great way to get people involved and get people excited about getting more involved.
Mentorship Network: Mentor members of the community. Even better if you can get top community members and experts to mentor other members.
When You Have A New Community
Communities are hard to build from scratch. They require a lot of patience and consistency.
There may be a long period of time with 0 engagement. This is normal.
Keep rallying people towards your community. Keep encouraging people to join and participate.
The ball eventually starts rolling. Just keep being consistent.
Empower People Who Keep Showing Up
Look for the people who are doing special stuff. Maybe they’ve taken over some responsibility in the community. Maybe they’re helping others. Whatever the case, when you see these people, shower them with love. They are the unicorns that really help the community flourish.
There are so many things you can do here, but this step is absolutely critical. Make the people who are being active feel like super stars. Feature them in places, make them feel heard, give them special powers, give them special badges, etc.
A community is not a 1 to many broadcast audience. You broadcast already on your social media pages already. This isn’t the place to do it. Community is for building connections. Heavily encourage people to interact with each other. That’s why we do all of these events, discussions, and other things. To get people to interact with each other eventually, to provide sparks that could potentially lead to a fire.
Set Community Guidelines Early
You should figure out what you want to allow and not allow and share the guidelines somewhere. You’ll point to this when conflicts arise. It’s good to have guidelines set when you’re small. The guidelines will change as your community grows.
As You Scale
As your community grows, here are a few things that will get your head in the right direction:
- Great moderators and community leaders make or break your community: Have more moderators than you need, pick good people to lead, and really shower them with love.
- Remove bad actors: You’ll know who they are. You’ll debate whether or not you should remove them even though they may be on the line of what’s okay. You probably should remove them.
- Little things become big things: Issues that are small within communities can get back really fast. Be careful about what you let fester.
- Be prepared for spam: There will be spam at some point if you grow your community to a certain scale. Most platforms have word filters to help you automatically prune out spam. Every time you catch spam, find key phrases that you can filter for in the future. Over time, you can catch a lot of spam with those automatic filters.
Really Good Community Building Books
If you want the real meat of community building, I’d highly highly recommend these books. These books will spark a ton of new ideas and give additional frameworks for how to think about community building in addition to what I’ve shared above.
This book is a great starter for anybody getting into community for the first time. A lot of actionable tips as well as a great intro into the important pieces of community building. If you want a great comprehensive early guide to community building, this is it.
Who should read this: If this is your first time really building a community, this is a must read. It’s packed with examples and ideas.
Building Successful Online Communities: Evidence-Based Social Design by Robert E. Kraut and Paul Resnick
If you’re looking for a tactical list of things to try or more experiments to run, this is a good book for you. This gives you a huge list of examples and research studies on various communities, sharing what worked and what didn’t.
Warning, if you blindly try to apply these, they won’t work. Make sure you understand the fundamentals of what makes your community tick before implementing experiments.
If you already know what makes your community tick, this book might just give you a nice burst of inspiration.
Who Should Read This: Advanced community builders looking for more inspiration and ideas for design
Buzzing Communities: How to Build Bigger, Better, and More Active Online Communities by Richard Millington
An older book, but still filled with absolutely great information. A great early guide filled with tactics and examples.
In addition to general guiding ideas, the book shares a lot of specific tactical advice for how to execute a well-run online community.
Who Should Read This: Both beginner and advanced community builders will find this interesting. Advanced builders will know a lot of what is in this book already, but will still likely pick up some interesting ideas and tactics.
Provides a nice structure for how to think about communities and how to build communities. In my opinion, this book doesn’t have as many concrete examples as some of the other books on this list, but the framework is still very useful as a way to think about and brainstorm for communities. From what I’ve heard, a number of large community oriented startups use the 7 Principles for some of their brainstorming.
Who Should Read This: Anybody looking for a solid high level structure for thinking about communities.
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Book summaries, notes, interviews, and more!
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