How to build and maintain a thriving community

Founders, savvy marketers, grassroots leaders, small-business owners, large-business leaders — this guide is yours for the taking.

Build a thriving community from scratch: a how-to guide by 6 proven leaders

This one’s for the creators, grassroots leaders, and savvy marketers. For the small-business owners and large-business leaders. We’ll cut to the chase: this guide is for aspiring leaders of thriving communities.

At Superwave, our mission is to bring more communities into the world. So this isn’t a sales pitch. It’s a guide that we hope will help you to build a sustainable, long-term community.

It’s for anyone who loves to “grow in the same direction as other people,”as our friend Rosie Sherry, Community Executive Officer at Rosieland, so eloquently said. Rosie Sherry,

Get ready to learn how to start the community of your dreams.

We interviewed six people who are leading thriving communities as we speak:

Rosie Sherry
Community Executive Officer
at Rosieland
Kyle Hagge
Director of Community at Morning Brew
Shanna Gregory
Chief Program Officer
at Women Who Code
Christina Garnett
Principal Marketing Manager,
Offline Community and Advocacy
at HubSpot
Bri Leever
Community Strategist at Ember
Katie Ray
Director of Community
at Metadata

These admirable folks have built communities rooted in authenticity and care.

So we’ll lean on their expertise for the balance of this piece to take you step-by-step from the ideation of your community through its launch and beyond.

Let's get started!

We’ll cover:

1. What to consider before creating a community.

2. How to beta test your community.

3. When and how to launch your community.

4. Ways to keep the community engaged.

5. Which metrics to measure along the way.

1

Dream up your community 
with intention

Understand what community means

The first step to starting your community? Get to know what community is and isn’t. Community is a place where individuals collectively create value for each other. Think your favourite sports team, your monthly book club, or your close-knit professional network.

Defining what community is also means understanding what it's not.

For starters, your social channels aren’t community. Speaking to your audience on LinkedIn through thought leadership posts is a great way to introduce your team and establish brand awareness. But people can’t engage in sustainable conversations with each other or with you in the comments on social media.

Community invites belonging and trust. It’s relational, and, as Kyle noted, “many to many.”

The precise definition varies from company 
to company, but here’s how top marketing leaders define community:

“Your audience is one to many. Community is many to many.”
Kyle Hagge, Director of Community at Morning Brew
“Community is a group of people who have one to many commonalities and are there with a common purpose. They tend to strengthen their love of that commonality by being together.”
–Christina Garnett, Principal Marketing Manager, Offline Community and Advocacy at HubSpot

Define your community's purpose

When brainstorming your community model, take a step back to think about why your community exists, and what value you believe you can deliver to your members. You can ask yourself a few questions: 

What is the one thing I can do to create value for my members? 
How can I consistently create value to keep members coming back?
How will I know that I’m being successful in delivering value to my members?

Today's best communities are emergent — built from scratch with a core group of managers and members steering the ship. They’ve got strong foundations, with plenty of groundwork laid for connection. As you’re defining your community’s purpose, work to strike a balance where you’re focused enough to be perfect for some folks and not for others.

“Common purpose draws everyone together in communities. But what gets people 
to stay is when they experience their values aligning with other members — that is what ultimately sets them up for longevity,” says Bri Leever, Community Strategist at Ember.

One final note here: Be sure to take your purpose a step further with formal documentation for members. Women Who Code’s community operates by a Code of Conduct with member guidelines and policies.

“Everyone should have a Code of Conduct, but also a very intentional way of following through on it,” Shanna says. “There need to be consequences if someone violates it. If you don’t start out with a strong sense of identity for the community or an emphasis on diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging, it’s really easy for communities to fizzle out.”

Choose your platform

So, you now have the ‘why’ behind your community. Next up — selecting your community platform. We think of community tools as existing in three segments:

Social

The platform sets the rules for how communities are built and operationalized: Think Facebook, Linkedin, Instagram, Twitter, etc.

Modular

The platform leaves it to the community leader to decide how to build and operationalize the community: Think Slack, Circle, Discord and Mighty Networks.

Intelligent

The platform acts as a partner to the community leader in building and operationalizing the community:
Think Superwave.
New

Over the course of the last year we've had hundreds of conversations with community people, whether community managers, founders, marketers or creators. The consistent theme we hear time and time again is: Will my members come back to my community? 

In our opinion, the reason that members come back to a community over the long term is because they perceive that they're receiving value from the community. It's not much more complicated than that.

To that end, your community tool should play a major role in helping you to understand your members, to create value for them, and to let them know when something they'd value is created.

A great way to help members find things they value is to personalise their experience. That can be through explicit actions, like following a channel or a member, or via implicit signals based on their behaviour in the platform.

And there are some other things you might want to consider: will the community be truly white-labelled, or will my members have to create an account with the community platform? Will I have access to a branded app, and how much will it cost?

Whatever platform you decide to use, just remember to keep it simple.

“It all comes down to the members, and you have to build for and with them,” says   Christina.

For extra guidance, consider how your potential members already behave online:

The best approach is to choose a platform that’ll feel familiar to what members already know, so they can thrive right off the bat.

Do I have existing content I can leverage?
What is the one thing my members will value when I launch?
Do my members already participate in virtual events?
Create value

Identify the programs you'll use to create value for your members

Now that you've have a theory of what will be valuable to your members, and have chosen a platform, you can start thinking about the programs that you'll use to deliver that value on an ongoing basis. We recommend starting with just one program (workshops, product updates, member spotlights, etc) and validating that it's something your members will respond to before adding more programs.

The best way to figure out if a program will be valuable to potential members it the most obvious one - talk to the people who you think are likely to be members. If you need some help with interviewing customers, check out The Mom Test.

At HubSpot, their community is made up of customers who want to share their thoughts and provide feedback with the HubSpot team. It’s all about taking care of and educating their people.

“It’s an opportunity for members to act as a think tank,” says   Christina. They get to be in the same virtual room with people who have just as much experience as them. They’re able to ask those tough questions that get left behind in forums. And they get to be the hero of the story.”

Women Who Code also emerged from a need for space. Women in the tech industry wanted a place to gather, share resources, and move to the next level of their careers with support. The community focused and delivered on these needs for its members.

“Having people who you can look to and representation in a community is really important and inspiring,” says   Shanna.
2

Beta better: Let’s talk about the test phase

Beta testing with potential community members informs how the platform lands after launch. In our opinion, this step is vital. Start by interviewing potential members to find out what they’d  value in a digital community space. Try to identify the small group of people who you think can be leaders in your community, and ask them if they'd be interested in that role.

This beta testing often unfolds naturally. Marketing brand Morning Brew, which now boasts 4.5 million subscribers, began as a simple newsletter that struck just the right tone for its audience. The newsletter snowballed into other avenues like social media and podcasts. As the need grew, the team leveraged the audience they’d already built and created a community of motivated career climbers.

Traditional beta testing for businesses uses customer feedback, surveys, or interviews to inquire about brand and product sentiments. Take Metadata, for instance. The team founded their community with a small beta group. These engaged members encouraged others to apply via word of mouth, and the community began to grow organically. Three months later, they announced the community at DEMAND, their annual conference attended by 7,000+ marketing leaders, and it really took off.

Developing frameworks for — and with — your community during the beta test phase also pays off. For instance, the first few Metadata community members shaped its rules and guidelines.

“This idea comes from education, where teachers are being told if you have your students build these rules, expectations, and guidelines, they have more ownership in it,” says   Katie Ray, Director Community at Metadata.

For less business-y, more personal communities, take notes from Rosie. She bootstrapped a community for software testing professionals, in part by starting great conversations via email in her earliest days.

“I guess I did what marketers would call marketing, I had an email list. But I did it all thinking about the people's needs, you know. What are they interested in? What do they want to talk about? What's actually going to pull them in? What are the things that they care about?” says   Rosie.

This groundwork and research almost always makes it easier to scale your community down the road.

Have you considered using Superwave to bring your community to life?

We help you understand your members, and we help your members find the things they care about so they'll keep coming back week after week.

3

It’s go time — 

launching your community

Starting a community is that perfect blend of energizing and terrifying. But if you’ve kept your members top of mind at each step, trust the foundation you’ve set. You can always iterate and evolve as you go.

In fact, you can’t totally predict member behavior in your community, even after all the interviews and beta testing. The energy and knowledge of its members drive community, so part of launching is about letting go of a balloon and watching it fly.

Launch day is officially here! But wait, have you considered...

How you can start small?
Who are your core members?
How you can consistently create value for members?

Set expectations early

It’s vital to understand a few basics of human psychology and motivation to make your launch as close to perfect as it can be. After all, if you design your community without members’ needs factored in, you won’t get the connection or culture you’re looking for.

“Our environments have been perfectly designed to give us the outcome we’re currently experiencing, and this includes your community,” says   Bri.

Try to understand which actions you want your members to take (sending a message, sharing a resource, getting a weekly workshop started). Ask your core members to take the lead in initiating these actions, so that other members will follow. Then, go in with a growth mindset: Test, iterate, and reflect to shape what’s working and what’s not.

Christina recommends thinking like a new member when starting 
a community. “There’s so much human behavior and behavioral psychology at play, so really put yourself in their shoes,”   she says.

Delve into your suite of offerings,
and ask yourself:
  • What existing content do I have that I can utilise to get started?
  • What do my potential members care about?
  • What actions would I like them to take (sending messages, joining an event, connecting with each other, etc)
  • What programs can I run on a regular cadence?

Start small

Now that you’ve spoken to your early members, it’s tempting to think that you have a great understanding of what your community will need and it’s time to spin up 10 channels for each topic of discussion. But hold on just a moment....

When launching your community, launch small. Have a couple of channels or spaces where the conversation can be focused. Don’t overwhelm your members, and allow the topics for new channels to emerge organically from the conversations and  content that’s resonating with members.

When it comes to community, focused energy  is always better than diffuse energy. Starting small will help you to get off on the right foot.

Extend a (personal) welcome

You know that feeling: The one where you find an incredible community of leaders to join. But when you enter, it's crickets. You don't feel welcome or a part of the community.

Welcoming members to your community is a critical part of activating a new member. Ideally, in the early days, you already understand something about that person and can introduce them yourself. As your community grows, you can think about small cohorts of community members who can get to know each other at a deeper level, and onboard each other.

Your welcome can also include your Guidelines or Code of Conduct, which is a powerful way to set expectations for how to behave in your community, and to help members understand how they can get involved.

“We lead with our Code of Conduct, which states that we’re an inclusive community, and anyone who supports our mission can participate in some way,” says ` Shanna.

Lock in your member onboarding experience

Welcoming a community member to your community isn't the end of their onboarding experience. Onboarding is a great opportunity to better understand what your members want from your community.

You can bring a structured approach to understanding your members by customizing the fields on member profiles. Metadata asks the basics, like name and title, and then provides content opt-ins. Are they most interested in webinars, masterclasses, or in-person roundtables?

“[Asking great questions in the application] is how we plan a lot of our community content, programming, and events,” says   Katie.

The onboarding experience also sets the tone for what a community member can expect. You can’t assume your members realize how to participate or tap available resources if you don’t guide them. The first 30 days of engagement and activity are often the most predictive of how participants engage with your community long-term, so it’s important to nurture members regularly early on.

Take onboarding a step further by developing a plan for the first 90 days, just as Metadata does for their community. This move extends implementation into a phase where members engage with other members. They get face time with Metadata engineers and gain a drip campaign of knowledge they might not have gotten from a standard onboarding experience.

One last thing here: consider building a meeting or event cadence that meets the group's needs. Whether it’s a monthly AMA or weekly fireside chats, develop a system that best works for your members and helps them to build the habit of returning to your community on a regular basis.

4

It’s time to grow, intentionally

Growing a community isn't just about adding new members. It's also about keeping your existing members coming back, and deepening their engagement over time. Each of these is important to creating a sustainable community.

To bring new members into the community (or remind existing members of what they’re missing), leverage your existing assets (your members, your conversations, your content) to reach out to potential members.

If you're starting a business community, those assets include your product and your existing customer base. Morning Brew often gains community members after they complete one of their courses.

“You have to get really clear with your value proposition to target new audience members with a mission statement, benefits, and ICP,” says   Kyle.

New members also join through word of mouth from your best advocates — other connected, growing community members. They vouch for the community from the inside. If you give them a great experience, they want their friends to join them. Tagging members on community social pages gives you another point of access to their networks, while they get visibility and a feel-good shoutout in return.

Identify and set expectations for your power members

A healthy community needs both internal team members and external power users to create the sparks that lead to engagement.

Your internal team members can drive conversations and add clarity where there’s confusion to help people who get stuck.

Your power members are the ones that will be the culture carriers for your community. Put time and energy into crafting frameworks and easy-to-consume details for the users who want to be mega-involved. Metadata, for example, celebrates and rewards the volunteers who guide the community.

These power members become the face of your community by providing structure, reducing overwhelm, and setting the tone for interacting. Show appreciation for these community members by publicly sharing their successes, designing a private community subset for them, or offering perks like designated events.

Metadata makes it as clear as possible why their core members should take on a leadership role in their community:

“We make sure the reasons they are giving back to the community are clear to them,” says Katie.
“You might start out as I did: I wanted to make friends in a new city and broaden my network. It became clear to me that there were all these other benefits to leading the community.”

Plan events for your people

Launching a community is a big win. But how do you bring your members together to deepen their connection over time? Consider events.

The word ‘event’ can be scary, implying a lot of time and effort in preparation. That doesn’t have to be the case. You can set up workshops around content or conversations that have been popular in your community, lowering the bar to get started.

For Rosieland,   Most of our first speakers would come from the community; they’d volunteer, and people knew their names, so it’d spark a big gathering. The first event we did was amazing because all these people had known each other for years. That was a really good vibe.”

Women Who Code hosts its annual CONNECT conference of global tech leaders. In the summer, they offer development summits with themes ranging from mobile and web development to blockchain data science. These events empower members to network and build stronger connections.

“Our conferences are a great way to showcase diverse technologists from all over the world, and the speakers at our events are bringing in new members to our community,” says  ` Shanna. “Being able to share that with the community and put recordings online for 
anyone who missed it has been really valuable.”

Events also give individuals the opportunity to engage at different access levels. By joining a community and participating, members take advantage of all the exclusive perks, like presenting a talk or messaging a leader they admire for virtual coffee.

☝️Pro tip: If you’re starting a community as a business, trade your top-of-the-funnel ads for engagement and activation programs that give back to your community members. This could look like offering event swag, booking leading speakers, and designing community events.

Avoid burnout as a community manager

It’s thrilling and rewarding to watch your community grow. 
But it’s exhausting, too. As a  community manager, burnout can leave you resenting your work while detracting from the community’s health.

Burnout prevention needs to go beyond meditation and other self-care tactics. Here are some ways to prevent it:

Know your triggers – Get a sense of which job responsibilities burn you out. This helps you self-monitor and know when you need to step away for a moment, or a day.
Feel your feelings – Whether you talk to your manager, best friend, or therapist, create a designated space to feel your feelings and process what comes up at work.
Protect your time – Be hyper-protective of time. For 30 minutes, step away from your computer and phone, and take a walk instead. Safeguard that time. Can’t find 30 minutes in your day? Start with five.

Create a feedback loop

Your community won’t grow if it’s not devoted to what your members want. Creating a feedback loop integrates members’ opinions into building a stronger community.

Feedback creates ROI for your community, too. Giving community members more opportunities to share their suggestions boosts buy-in and retention.

You don’t have to explicitly ask users for their feedback; you can also gather observational data. Collect screenshots of individuals posting about the community or its events, putting them in one central spot. This ‘comment bank’ will help you ideate on community enhancements and make the experience better.

Remember, all feedback is good feedback. If community members voice concerns, you have the opportunity to support them through prompt responses.

5

Make the most of your metrics for community success

Community is a beautiful landscape to understand your audience better and try new things that could help them. After a community launches, leaders often focus on vanity metrics, like the total number of members. But there’s more to determining the inner workings of your community.

Quantitative data: what works, what doesn’t Useful quantitative metrics for measuring community health include:

Weekly active members

Whether or not members come back on a weekly basis is the thing that matters most. All other engagement metrics will be downstream of this metric.

Weekly contributors

A community is a network, and a contribution from one member can spark engagement from many other members.

What's popular

Which conversations are your members getting involved in? Which content is landing?  Understanding what's working can help you deliver even more value.

Most / least active members

By identifying your most active members, you can reward them to encourage them to keep it up. Following up with your least active members can bring them back into the fold.

Feedback

Are you talking to or surveying new members? Tracking your feedback can be a great way to make sure you have the pulse of your community.

Qualitative: the why behind
the numbers

Quantitative data is steadfast, but don’t sleep on qualitative. This nuanced, rich storytelling informs how your community evolves.

“It’s important to have that perspective of those KPIs, but they’re going to shift. Because at the heart of it, community runs on vibes. 
As the manager, that’s what you’re actually paying attention to:  What does it feel like in here today? How are people reacting?” says Christina.

Here’s how to gain great qualitative data:

User interviews

Community leaders with product experience (PX) or user experience (UX) backgrounds are no strangers to the user interview. These one-on-ones highlight members’ perspectives on your community’s gaps and wins. You can also ask members: How has the community enhanced their life or career?

Post-event survey

Like product surveys, post-event surveys open the lines of communication. Make sure to include open-ended questions like, “What was your favorite part of today’s event?” or “How could we improve this event in the future?” This makes attendees feel valued and gives you valuable insights to improve programming.

Assess the vibes

Yep, we’re including a vibe check as part of this list. Many things you can’t control, from market conditions to global events, affect member engagement. And bad or good days create a ripple effect that shifts the collective mood. Frequently check in to see how your community is feeling.

Community-building never stops

That’s the guide! We hope it helps you grow a community you're proud of, whether you’re starting one as a passion project or for your business or for some other reason. Community growth is a dynamic process requiring empathetic listening, guidance, and trust — and with this guide,
you’ve got the basic tools you need to do all three.

As a recap, today we 
covered five important steps based on six powerhouse community leaders:

1.

Dream up your community with clear value in mind

2.

Beta test by listening closely to your earliest members

3.

Launch with clear actions and a warm welcome for members


4.

It's time to grow, intentionally

5.

Measure the value you’re creating for members

At the end of the day, communities are about relationships at scale. As a community manger, your job is ultimately to understand what your members value, and to deliver on their needs.

We’d love to be a part of your journey. We built Superwave to act as a partner to community managers, instead of giving them an empty space in which they need to figure out every detail.

Ready to supercharge your community efforts?