Hope you’re well, enjoying the longer days and that glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. Coming up we have:
A write up outlining a playbook on how to build an online community (more below)
I’ll be hosting another panel, this time on Product-Led Growth, more info coming in the next few weeks
Community rules everything around me
I was lucky enough to host a discussion with four of the best community builders around Erika Batista (OnDeck), Ben Tossell (MakerPad), David Spinks (CMX / Bevy) and Mac Reddin (Commsor). We discussed why community building is taking off right now and how to think about seeding and growing your online tribe. This post will provide a framework on how to build your own community, whether for a startup or an individual creator.
Community building = power to the end-user
It seems like everyone is building a community right now. The early days of the internet and web were about connecting with some groups of people around common interests. This trend is not new but has seen increasing momentum as a response to companies becoming more data-driven, a new generation of online participants being focused on inclusivity and a pandemic that has starved us of connection.
Why build a community?
Good question. The benefits of building a community are multiple and it’s important founders truly internalise their reasoning for wanting to build one (v it being the trend ‘du jour’). Community can be a partially self-sustaining and organic part of your organization where you can foster close interactions with stakeholders such as customers, prospects, advocates or people merely passionate about your common interest.
“I think that the, the reason to start a community needs to be outward looking, you can't really go into its thinking you know what's in it for me” Erika
The benefits of a scaled, sustaining community are significant. They can range from customer advocacy, virality, increased loyalty, product roadmap development, increased retention, brand affinity, lower acquisition costs, customer support, amongst others. Ultimately, a successful community can be colossal and critically can grow virally, the holy grail in startup land.
Playbook on how to start your community
Whilst every single community should be different, there’s a common framework that founders can use. The clear advice from our panellists is; 1) put community at the core of everything you do, and 2) be unique in catering to your audience
1 - Understand that community is your product
Community should be woven into many of the key functions of your business. Our panelists were adamant that community has to be baked into the product, the company and relevant stakeholders as a whole. Community is not a bolt-on.
“Community strategy needs to be embedded in the product from day one because your community is an extension of your values, product, your whole aesthetic” Erika
For a community to thrive it needs to be in symbiosis with your startup, your product and all the relevant stakeholders. Have everyone on your team as active participants and responsible for the interactions and health of the community.
2 - Find your unique ‘common interest’
Obvious advice, though often ignored. Your community should be focused around delivering interactions which are unavailable elsewhere - become the go-to-place for that conversation or content type.
“the trend right now, at least what I've seen is that it's moving more from what I've called a community of support to a community of interest” - Mac Reddin
Firstly, founders need to identify what the ‘common interest’ is. What are you uniquely placed to discuss, share stories about, provide guidance on, surface insights and ultimately connect peers around. Is it connecting designers who share plugins like on Figma or showcasing builders and connecting them with product fans like on Product Hunt?
Figma’s community is centred around shared creativity and plug-ins
Content type: you can also be unique in the way in which you connect people. Make sure to have an understanding of the native mode of communication for your audience and foster community using that format. Be it chat, voice or video - go to what is native
Lower friction: optimising for specific tooling (eg Slack v Whatsapp) is less important than creatingthe ‘lowest barrier to interaction’. It’s less about finding the perfect tool, it’s more about finding the easiest on-ramp to connection
Build hypotheses: much like you would when building a product, continually put together assumptions to test about your community
3- Start with a small group of evangelists
Build your community around the ‘common interest’, your shared interest, passion or mission. Whilst you want to go as narrow and niche as possible early on - make sure you have an eye on the broader mission or purpose. Going small before going big allows you to iterate, learn and foster interactions within a bounded space.
Find true believers: early on, make sure to find early evangelists who embody what you’re looking to seed within your community. As a founder, engage with them, build personal relationships and foster them into the early community. Importantly, make them feel like them being early to the community has outsized value - give them a sense of ownership, status and privilege
Your eventual goal is to move from initial heavy lift traction to some virality - as the community grows and organically pulls more people into it.
4 - Seed the conversation and build positive reinforcement
At day zero of the community, you as the community builder need to be extremely intentional about the types of behaviours and interactions you foster within the community.
“the earliest days are 100% of the time just like being very, very hands on bringing in group of people together around some sort of common passion or culture or set of values” David Spinks
These early cultural behaviors and norms will be replicated and reinforced through time, leading to either positive or negative growth. To foster positive growth, make sure you’re deliberate about how you engage, what you celebrate and the language you use interacting with others.
Andy John’s post on building content flywheels is must read
Create positively reinforcing behaviours - want people to share their experience? Share your own first. Want people to recommend tooling for data infrastructure? Share your own findings and celebrate when others do the same. You should not only be looking to build conversation but also genuine friendships within
Do things that don’t scale early: Onboard people in cohorts, populate the forum with the first 20 or so people, then layer in more people as the dynamics of the conversation skew positively. Whilst heavier lift interactions will not scale through time, importantly they should provide your community with a firm foundation as you move towards the community being self sustaining
Test hypotheses: remember to relate observations of your community back to your initial hypothesis, adjust course if necessary
5 - Measure your community’s value and iterate
Measuring the health of your community is key. The core challenge is really understanding across which dimension(s) you measure. David breaks down the measurement in the ‘SPACES’ acronym which stands for Support, Product, Acquisition, Contribution, Engagement and Success (post here for a full breakdown of relevant metrics by category)
Get buy-in, concentrate on one dimension and then extend outwards: initially concentrate one area of measurement for your community, align with management on this in order to get buy-in. Once comfortable with this, think about extending out to other areas which are relevant for your startup
What metrics are important to measure for the community: the most common of these are ‘active users’, ‘new signups’ and ‘engagement’
Which community metrics are important for the organization: whilst community metrics are evidently ‘community focused’ leadership tends to focus more on ‘new customers’ and ‘retention’ as markers of community health
Iterate: your community is likely to change through time. Your goal is to go from a niche to a broader community conversation. Much like your product roadmap, you should iterate your community based on feedback and observed behaviours. Importantly, you need to find your own ‘community-market fit’
Can we apply this framework to a real life example?
Hell yeah. Let’s use Product Hunt, seeing as you’ve likely used it and our guests have been close to its creation as both early community participants and Ben had been their ‘Head of Community’.
“Me and my friends would often share new apps and products with each other. But I realized there was no place on the internet [to surf] the day’s newest, cool product launches.” Ryan Hoover
Seeding Product Hunt
“Ryan Hoover would host for people who loved the product, and it was just literally a brunch with 30/40, people that were in tech, and we hang out and talk about products, but there was very clearly a vibe, a tone and an energy, and a culture in those events that was very positive and supportive” David Spinks
Bringing people together over their ‘common interest’; early days were in-person brunches where people shared products they liked. Whilst not scalable this provided PH with an engaged and qualified early cohort of evangelists
Lower barrier to interaction: Ryan spun up a group on Linkydink (an email link sharing tool) which created a newsletter shared amongst disparate community members, all of which had a similar passion for tech products
“[....] Ryan said: “Hey, you all are like the biggest experts and you hear about all these cool products. You know, could you send me any new products that you find and it was a thing called linky dink”, it was just a little forum where we send them a URL and a quick description, and he put it into an email and then it just grew and grew from there and eventually they launched the website and then it blew up” Ben Tossell
Growing the community
From newsletter to website: This eventually turned into a fully-fledged website where the community was native to the product. The creation of the site allowed a shift to an embedded chat format. Product Hunt concentrated on serving four user types; Product Enthusiasts, Makers/Founders, Investors and Journalists and concentrated community feedback into making the product better for these personas.
Make early users feel special: PH used a number of tools to make them feel special such as giving them invites for other members, triggering signal with special profile badges, and providing them with exclusive invites to pull more people into the community
Encourage them to share experiences: PH worked closely with founders of startups who launched on the site. This allowed them to increase learnings, feedback loops and further encouraged founders to evangelise and be active in the community
The community becomes self-sustaining: PH encouraged members to host their own offline events across the globe, brunches and meet ups. This allowed for members to connect authentically with other users on their ‘common interest’. Importantly it had a lasting effect on engagement, retention and advocacy on a global scale
Hiring and Reporting
Community managers are in demand right now. But how should startups think about hiring specifically for your community? Firstly, startups need to understand that hiring a community person isn’t a magic bullet, secondly they need to get to grips with goals and deliverables. A key question many companies have to answer is whether you should hire a dedicated community person or just empower your most engaged community member(s).
“the community team, their job is to facilitate relationships between the members of the community. That's what a community teams job is, but if you silo building community to just a community team, you're going to run into challenges and that community team is going to really struggle to get buy in and get the resources and staff that they need” David Spinks
Remain active: if you do hire a community person make sure everybody in the company is still active within the community. Hiring a community person does not absolve management from maintaining, partaking in the community itself:
Reporting: be deliberate about who the community person reports to, make sure they have a direct bridge to management so that your community is not siloed from measurement and strategic decisions. Whist in the very early days reporting into the CEO might be feasible, you should figure out through time who the most relevant functional report might be
If you enjoyed this please share with someone you know!
David has a book out in a few weeks ‘The Business of Belonging’ which you should pre-order
If you want more case studies, see the 30 case studies thanks to David
Growing the Product Hunt community
Andy Johns on how to create content flywheels
Commsor’s Community Tooling landscape