After building at least a handful of communities from nothing, and consulting on several others, this is the approach I take to starting a community.
1. Understand Company Goals & Build A Community Strategy
Learn what the company wants and expects out of building a community. This is important because you’ll base your tactics and objectives on these goals. Pro tip: Interview the lead of every department.
Here are a few that are common:
- Sales & Marketing leads
- Exposure for a Movement
- Customer Success/Support
Learn about customers – what do they want out of a community, what do they need to be successful with the company product and in their positions. Find out from the company’s point of view. Connect with the customers who want to help with growing the community to start building those relationships.
Tie company goals and customer goals together into one strategy with metrics, objectives, and tactics you’ll use to be successful. A one-page strategy is short enough for everyone in the company to read.
Format: Goals > Objectives > Strategy > Tactics > Metrics
Pro tip: on groups for your new community: keep it general until there is a strong demand from the community to add subforums or groups. Each of these subforums/groups are communities in and of themselves, you’ll need to treat them as such, and to have to do that from the beginning is just too much for one community professional.
2. Founders Group & Seeding Activity
Build a team of founders who will help you seed content & activity. Ask internal teams who are the best customers to connect with: who have been most successful, who wants to provide recommendations & testimonials. Who are the biggest fans?
Reach out to these customers/fans, you need 20-50 people, this is your community founders group, they will help you build an active community.
Reward them for participating. Offer them swag, teaching opportunities, 1:1’s with executives. Learn about their professional goals and make it a point to help them be successful, while also aligning these goals with the goals of the community.
You want the community to look active as you invite others to participate. That means recent posts and comments. I schedule who is going to post on a given day, invite them to a calendar on Google, and on that day, I message them to ask them to post.
When new posts are made, tag/mention other members (who’ve agreed) to respond. (I keep a spreadsheet of my founders’ group with topics they want to comment on).
Pro tip: Do not leave it up to someone to post, show up, etc, this is very manual and you will be more successful by going out of your way for each person.
“Starting a community is a very manual project. It’s building relationships, posting, curating, responding, emailing (anyone who posts/comments), messaging on other sites, connecting, phone calls, interviewing, scheduling, testing, and making everyone feel important.”
3. Scheduling Events & Inviting Potential Members
A major benefit of working with an existing company or group of people is they already have connections you can work with, they probably have social profiles and many have email lists. You really aren’t starting from scratch.
Once you are ready to start inviting others to participate, I suggest also starting to hold events. There are many activities to choose from; AMAs, Interviews, Video interviews, Roundtables, Masterminds, Barcamps, Panel AMAs, Braintrusts, Webinars, Workshops, Challenges, Courses, Classes, Masterclasses, Happy Hour, Exclusive events with internal team members.
Ask your founders what they’d like to 1) attend, 2) host, 3) have liked in other communities.
When you start inviting others, you want to test your audience. 20 new accounts at a time is small enough to reach out to each of them and help them learn about the site, connect and ping them when a topic they are interested in is posted, and add them to segmented email lists for commenters and posters.
Based on your social profiles, your community roles, and the specifics of your cohorts, you might want to invite 50-200 at a time. The most I’d invite at once is 1000 because that’s a lot of people to have join at once, you can’t spend the time to build a relationship with each one, they’ll fall through the cracks.
4. Your Metrics & Dashboards
In order to make sure your community is a success for both members & the company supporting it, you need a dashboard to show you how things are proceeding.
For some, this means a spreadsheet and manually collecting data, for others who are using an off-the-shelf solution they already have some dashboards. Either way, these are the metrics that I like to track from the beginning.
- New members
- New poster
- New commenter
- Daily active members
- Weekly active members
- Monthly active members
- Total new posts per day/week/month
- Total comments per day/week/month
- Traffic out
- Leads created
- Email/social traffic
I’m looking to see what my members like, what topics or events are popular, what days of the week they visit most, how many new members I’m getting, etc.
5. Rewarding & Recruiting Additional Founders
The founders’ group that helps you build the foundation of your community will change over time. Some members will get busy with other responsibilities, some will want to do additional work with you, and as the community grows you’ll meet others that want to be involved behind the scenes. My advice is to let them, as long as you can manage it.
This group is a community of its own, and it needs content, attention, rewards, motivation, etc. I try to post twice a week in the founders’ group; usually, a post sharing something upcoming about the community, and two asking for their feedback or a question about them and their lives.
I also post to them when there is a lull in content and need new posts or comments. I heavily suggest this is done through pm so that you are upholding those relationships and having conversations, not just blasting everyone and hoping a few will answer. People like to be sought out, to see that effort has been made to connect with them, to know they are thought of.
Over time you’ll want to consider adding gamification, automating some of your posts, and working on an onboarding sequence to help them (and you) move through their introduction to the group.
6. Your Internal Community
Building a new community for a company also requires you to spend time with the internal teams, I reference this as the internal community, and it’s part of the job. The soonest you accept this and make it part of your schedule/routine, the easier you’ll find it to get the support, contributions, and future investments you’ll need.
The most common question I get about internal teams is; how do I get them to contribute to the community? The answer is, it depends. It’s not easy, they have their own jobs, their own metrics, and goals they have to hit and the community is likely not one of them. You have to get them interested and make it worth their time to contribute and invest.
How? Start with asking what the community can do to support them and their goals, how you could help them be successful, then deliver on that. Set up a monthly cadence of communication and keep them up to date on how the community is progressing.
From the beginning, I connect with each department lead and then prioritize based on who I can help and who I need help from, then add in others as I’m able. But it always starts with what you can contribute to their success. Once you’ve delivered on this in some aspect they can justify making time to help you.
There is a lot of work to prepare, start, and grow a new community. This post is a skeleton of how I approach this. One area I purposely left out was choosing the platform. I’ve found that a lot of companies already have platforms they are working with for various reasons, but I’ll write another post about choosing the best platform soon.