On building community

I was asked the other day about how you build a successful community. So I thought I’d share how I think about it, in broad strokes.

To start with, a lot of my thinking was deeply inspired by the books Get Together by Bailey Richardson, Kai Elmer Sotto, and Kevin Huynh, The Business of Belonging by David Spinks (which could have done a much better job of crediting the many folks who’s ideas appeared in the book as his own), Building Brand Communities by Carrie Melissa Jones, and People Powered by Jono Bacon.

Do you even need a community?

First, I tell every person I meet who’s building a community to make sure you need a community. Many treat community-building like a checkbox and something that has to be done in their organization (this is especially common in SaaS companies), and fall into the trap of building communities because everyone else is doing it or because it’s part of the so-called playbook for SaaS, and that’s a mistake. I think this is best summed by in the book Get Together (which I suggest reading) in which they say that you build community with not for. Too many folks build for, so no one shows up. Not surprising if it’s not a community your audience needs.

Who is your community for?

Second, you have to know your who and hone in on that. That means some community discovery (not unlike product discovery) to uncover the problems, needs, pains, and opportunities you could solve for. In many ways, the more niche the who is, the better. Some start broader and hone in on it over time, others like RevGenius (revenue folks) and Goldcast (event marketers) have been laser-focused on a specific audience from the start. Know your ideal community profile (riffing here on ICP). This in turn will help you signal to others who belong and also ensure that your community has a clear value proposition to offer those who join. Note: Those problems, needs, pains, and opportunities from your community discovery in turn can shape the programs, tactics, and things you do together. Hang onto them, you’ll put them to work in my fourth point.

What kind of community is it?

Third, you need to be clear about the kind of community you’re building and what it’s there to do. A support community will be very different from a community that is a community of practice or a community of product. The expectations of what people you’ll have, what you’ll do together, and so on, will change drastically. A lot of the identity will also come from this — whether that’s the visual identity and language and tone used, or whether that’s built off of the identity of the people who participate in your community.

Experiment, experiment, experiment. Get your flywheel spinning.

Fourth, you need to experiment to find out what others want to do together. Building communities is iterative, and not something that happens overnight. That to me comes from content (that adds value for the community), events (that drive anticipation and participation), and stuff to create connections (a mesh of the people in the community and real bonds and friendships too sometimes). Here too many make mistakes, making the content all about them, not their community (you want to get away from always extracting value). Each of these in turn gets your flywheel spinning and helps you build community. There will be misses, there will be wins, and there will be things that do ok, maybe work for a while, then get dropped because the people or target changes.

Build a community that creates value beyond relationships

And lastly, you need to think about how your community will contribute to your business if your community is part of one or is a business in it’s own right. Community needs to be an engine of growth too. Connect with your GTM teams, make community part of every conversation, help them uncover new people to talk to, new opportunities, and expand their reach and audience size. A community team’s job is to put our arms around the people we want to bring closer and when done well this can be huge for any brand.

A final thought

To wrap up, I want to share these wonderful steps laid out in the book Get Together.

  • Find your people
  • Do something together
  • Get people talking
  • Attract new folks
  • Cultivate your identity
  • Pay attention to the folks that keep showing up
  • Create and supercharge the leaders
  • Celebrate wins together
  • Repeat, repeat, repeat

They speak volumes to the simplicity of building community, but you also need answers to each — Who are the people? What will we do together? What are people talking about? How will and how can we attract others? What identity is surfacing? Who’s showing up and how can we supercharge them? How will we celebrate or are we?

Hope this helps. Would love to hear what you think and how you approach building community.