The kind of community you start will directly relate to the benefits you will see from your investment.
Since 80% of startups are now saying they have a community, it’s important for those considering starting a community to understand the options in front of them.
There are several types of communities you can start, I hope to explain them, their differences, and benefits in this post.
Let’s jump in…
Social Media Community
Sometimes social media management is considered community. This just refers to your public profiles on Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, etc as communities. However, fans of social media profiles don’t usually see these as community at all, they are more like broadcasting platforms.
But it is good to have these profiles and they are useful in getting traffic, sharing news, and showing the personality of your business. The main benefit of communities (building connections) is difficult to achieve on these profiles and therefore the feedback you might hope to get is quite low, let’s call it feedback level 1.
Getting started: Easy & Free
Pros: You should have the accounts for public appearances anyway.
Cons: You won’t get most of the benefits of having a community.
Example Communities: Taco Bell, McDonalds, Oreos
A lot of SaaS companies have support communities and these are generally support forums where members can share their questions and answers in a public area. The company can monitor for wrong answers, and uses the forum to save costs on support, as well as to find the biggest gaps in their documentation.
This is a great way to get your feet wet in community without spending too much and while seeing a cost savings for your support department. However, feedback here only comes from customers who have an issue or problem so it tends to be negative and it isn’t a true representation of how your audience feels about a given issue.
Relationships built in this forum tend to be between the company and their most active helpful users.
Getting started: Easy and tends to be included with your support software
Pros: Save money on answering support questions publicly and getting help from users.
Cons: Little feedback or conversation that helps drive the company.
Example Communities: Square, Ebay Buyers, Vox Media
This next level of community can be quite intense. It involves carving out exactly who you want to serve among customers. It might be your entire fanbase (such as free and premium users) or just your users.
You will see a bigger investment if you decide to include your entire fanbase, and you will also get the lucrative feedback, relationships, and business development that comes with community.
If you decide to stick with your users only, you will have fewer topics and discussions, however this is still very valuable because all of the feedback comes from paying users. On the other hand, when you allow anyone to join your opportunities for business development considerably grow.
Getting started: Harder, consider a real community platform
Pros: getting a true understanding of your customers/users and their needs
Cons: large time and monetary investment
Example Communities: Codecademy, Evernote, Buffer, HubSpot, Trello
Probably my favorite type of community, a topic community is one that goes beyond your company and is seen as an authority for a certain topic. The topic could be dog health, WordPress, data science, AI, sales or marketing. Really any topic fits for a topic community. Membership isn’t specific to your customers, meaning your exposure can grow exponentially. And your opportunities for innovation from these communities are the highest.
On the other hand, these communities tend to need the highest level of investment, meaning multiple community managers, loads of content, events, and partnerships. However, all of the biggest opportunities come from these communities.
Getting Started: Hard and expensive you’ll need a platform that can scale.
Pros: Exposure to entire industry, highest level of innovation
Cons: Expensive to start and run
Example Communities: Inbound.org, GrowthHackers, Startup Grind
Service/Product Provider Community (Marketplace)
Among marketplaces, a lot of companies have adopted communities for their service or product providers. The point of these groups is to bring people together who are providing the items for sale, that a company profits off, by putting these groups together the providers learn from each other. The company learns more about the providers’ needs and can create programs and content that help the providers grow, thus helping the company increase revenue.
In these communities the community manager focuses on helping the provider succeed, and aligning company departments with the needs of the providers. This could mean working with design, product, customer success, changing sales policies, etc. Stories and feedback from providers will also help in marketing and sales, especially when it comes to increasing business development opportunities.
Getting Started: Requires internal dedication from marketing to bring awareness to providers.
Pros: Specifically linked to ROI
Cons: It can be difficult to get other departments on board with changes.
Example Communities: Udemy, Udacity, eBay (powersellers), Creative Market, Airbnb
A developer community usually focuses on bringing developers together to either contribute to a project (often open-source) or to get them to rally around your product (which falls under the user community above). Here I’ll focus on open source contributions as it’s a major trend.
It makes a lot of sense to bring developers together for this reason and the relationships are dually mutual. Not only does a company get the contributors who will build apps, addons, and plugins for their tool, and usually for free, but the contributor gets experience for their resume and in some cases builds a plugin they can charge for, jumpstarting their own business.
A successful community manager in this type of community will understand how to drive people to contribute without being paid. This is no small feat, but in a world where developers are often looking for projects to beef up their resume and experience, it can certainly be done.
The biggest issue may be whether developers will see the benefit in helping your community specifically since there are so many open source projects out there. This means you need a killer product that is easy to work with and highly useful for the audience it was made for.
Getting started: Harder to start and get momentum
Pros: Helps grow exposure for your product
Cons: Difficult to build the foundation of contributors
Example Communities: WordPress, Mattermost
An internal community, also trending, is one that focuses on building the community inside a company. This is usually helpful for innovation, communication, HR, recruiting, and customer success.
In many companies, the employee/contractor base is massive with hundreds to thousands of people who rarely interact. This causes a lack of communication and camaraderie around the products and services, and a lot of great ideas are overlooked. People tend not to know what is happening in other departments and there is a lack of growth among the company because of poor connections.
An internal community manager will help work between departments to bring people together, to share news, hold employee events, and build relationships. This is a wonderful way to get your entire company employee base on the same page, but it takes time to build and gain momentum.
Getting started: Difficult to build momentum
Pros: Communication improvements throughout the company
Cons: Time intensive
Example Communities: HubSpot
Community Platforms to Consider
While most community platforms are fairly similar, I am writing about the 3 most commonly used by startups, please consider how these platform limitations will affect your future startup communities.
This community isn’t necessarily different from the 3 listed above but I single it out for the limitations of the platform, and because of the limitations you’ll want to really consider whether this is the best place to host your community.
The basic limitations with Slack are the inability to link to conversations, losing conversation momentum once it’s stalled, too many notifications, and losing your history.
Since a lot of what is valuable for a community lives in past conversations, you’ll want to think about whether Slack is the best place for your community. The major benefits of using Slack are that a lot of people already have Slack on their devices, and the real-time conversation is enjoyable.
You can learn more about running an active, successful Slack community in my post here.
Getting started: Free and Easy
Facebook has a free groups option that a LOT of companies use to start their startup communities. It’s free and most people are already on Facebook so it’s easy to add them.
However, a lot of community managers do not like using Facebook Groups for these reasons:
It’s hard to engage members – once a member skips a few of your posts in their newsfeed you disappear from their feed. No engagement = loss of exposure.
No data on who is active – seeing who is active and how members are participating is a manual practice, you can’t possibly keep track once you have more than a couple hundred members.
No ability to connect with ROI or CRM data – if you want to pull stats to share with management, you won’t be able to, so this can really impact your inability to grow.
No user privacy – Facebook uses your groups to sell more ads, and their privacy policies are basic at best.
There are other pros and cons to using Facebook and I’ll be writing about them next week, so stay tuned. And if you are already using Facebook groups, I will be covering how to overcome some of the limitations.
One last platform I want to point out is Linkedin Groups. I haven’t recommended using their platform in years but I still see people bringing it up and wondering about using it.
The problem is Linkedin really bombed on using groups and most are abandoned for lack of engagement, lack of content, or lack of interest. There are few (if any) notifications, no control over your community for marketing to them, and few people even consider using Linkedin Groups anymore.
They had a real opportunity to make something of professional groups, but for now I wouldn’t recommend the platform to anyone.
Communities can take on all shapes and sizes, but it’s up to you to guide and manage your community to grow it into the asset you have in mind. Hopefully, these community types help you understand what benefits you’ll get from choosing what direction you want to go it. If you’d like to further discuss, message me here.