Starting a community comes with some hard questions. What if no one shows up? What if there are no conversations? Will my members come back?
In our experience, the communities that are able to overcome these difficult questions use some common patterns to bring structure to their community building efforts. Below, we’ll cover five of the most effective patterns we’ve seen.
Set the table 🍴
Someone once explained to me that starting a community is like hosting a dinner party. You want the music on, the table set, the wine uncorked.
You do not want the front door locked, the dishes in the sink, and little Mary playing the bongos on little Jimmy’s head.
For a new community, setting the table begins with three important steps:
1. Identify, empower and reward your core members
Community engagement is a power law distribution. Every successful community, regardless of its size, has a group of core members that catalyze the majority of engagement. You should identify who those core members are as soon as humanly possible.
If you already have a product or audience, you may know who these people are (your power users, ambassadors, referrers, advocates). If you don’t yet know who these people are, they’re very likely to be your early adopters, the people your message resonates with most strongly.
Once you’ve identified some potential core members, speak to them and understand what motivates them. Explain to them what your vision is for your community, and see if it resonates. If there’s a match between what they need and what you need, personally invite them into your community and help them understand how they can get involved. When they do get involved, engage with them and make sure they’re recognized as leaders in the community.
Not all of these people will end up being the core members of your community. But some of the people in this group, if you’re lucky, will be the culture carriers for what is to come.
2. Seed your community with content and conversation
One of my favourite quotes is, ‘Someone always has to go first.’ Whether it’s a relationship, a conversation, or a community, someone has to go first to create activation energy. In this case, it’s you that needs to go first.
If you already have your own content (blog posts, videos, podcasts, etc.) bring it into the community for your members to engage with, discuss, share and bookmark. Organize it into collections that are based on topics that your community is likely to care about.
If you don’t have your own content, bring some of your favourite things from across the web to spark conversation, and encourage your members to share their favorites.
3. Keep it simple
Community is an emergent phenomenon and it’s very difficult to predict the direction that it will take ahead of time. Many early communities will survey all of their potential members to understand what they want from the community, then set up many channels reflecting all of those needs. We do not recommend this approach!
Instead, focus on your core members to start, keep a very small number of channels, and let new channels and content emerge over time as you learn more about what the people who have made the commitment of joining and engaging in your community care about.
Know your people 🤝
Another unforgettable line from a community consultant I once spoke to: "People tell me that they want their community to happen 'organically', which, translated, means they want a community without having to do anything."
Community does not happen organically. Community is an exercise in creating value for community members, which comes from understanding what your members want from your community.
The best way to understand how to create value for your members is to speak to them. The best time to speak to a member is before they join, so you can determine if there's member-community fit.
Understanding your members at this stage will serve as the foundation for all future community building exercises, starting with…
Extend a welcome 👋
In How to Make Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie famously wrote: “Remember that a person's name is, to that person, the sweetest and most important sound in any language."
In the early days of a community, asking members to introduce themselves is too passive. At this point you’ve spoken to this member, you know something about them, and you’re in a great position to welcome them to your community.
Take the opportunity to show them you’ve been listening. Set up an #introductions channel, and instead of waiting for them to introduce themselves, introduce them to the rest of your community. They can fill in anything you’ve missed.
Follow up ✅
You’ve spoken to your early members and have introduced them to your community. You have a good sense of what they care about, both from your initial conversation and from the way that they engage in your community. The next step is to make sure you’re following up.
Take the time to use your community tool’s tagging feature to record member interests, or record them manually in a spreadsheet. When something comes up that this member will care about - a conversation that’s relevant to them, a piece of content they’d be interested in, a new member from the same industry - make sure they get tagged.
A thriving community retains its members by consistently offering value. Your responsibility, ideally facilitated by your community tool, is to ensure that valuable content and conversations are not only created, but are also easily discovered by those who will benefit from them.
Create a cadence 📆
Successful communities help their members to build a habit of returning to the community to find those things they value. One of the most powerful ways to build that habit is to create a predictable weekly cadence of programmes in your community.
You might find it’s effective to do weekly updates one day, member spotlights on another day, and events on yet another day of the week. The point is not that every day must have a program - the point is that members should know what to expect from your community, so that they can build a mental model of when and how they want to interact.
If there’s one common theme to all of the ideas above, it’s that community is primarily about creating value for individual people on an ongoing basis.
Starting and growing a community is the process of figuring out how to create and deliver that value to your members. If we’re honest with ourselves, that’s often a long, messy process that rarely happens on the timeline that we expect it to.
But by bringing a bit of structure to that process, we can both make it more likely that we succeed in building community, and give ourselves some comfort in our day-to-day community building efforts.
At Superwave, we're working hard to build a product that acts as a partner in building and growing your community. If you'd like to learn more, you can sign up via the button on the top right!