Building a community might seem like a monumental task. When folks come to us for advice on this, their number one question is always something along the lines of, "Where do I even start?"
The good news, I tell them, is that you likely already have. Those trust-building conversations you've been having with customers or prospects? The events you've hosted around your product or with industry experts? The consistent lines of communication you've kept up via newsletters and blogs? They're all community-building activities, and you've got them down. Now all you need to do is get these people talking to each other in addition to you.
But before bringing everyone together, you need to do a bit of groundwork — a few basic steps to set yourself up for success. I always find it helps to compare building a community to building a product. When you're first starting out, you'll want to get feedback early and often, build with your users, and be transparent to help build trust. Your earliest community members are like early adopters — they're invested in what you're building, have strong opinions, and will help determine how everything evolves (for better or for worse) as your community develops.
You may read this and think, "shoot, my community already is in flight" but fear not — it's never too late to get back to basics and build stronger foundations for your community. Some of these will naturally evolve and should be revisited every now and then too, like your engagement strategy, your community guidelines, and keeping a pulse on happenings in your industry.
So, with that in mind: here's a checklist of everything I'd do to get a new community off the ground.
The Community-Building Checklist
Don't be afraid to experiment and iterate, since all companies and communities are different. The steps below don't necessarily need to be done in this exact order, either (although I do recommend sticking to it where possible). Do things in a way that makes sense for you.
Understand the purpose your community serves.
Why are you taking the time to build this, and why are people going to be interested in what you're building? What business goals does your community serve? Here's some additional guidance on community-market fit.
Align your community values with your business values.
If there's a significant disconnect, you run the risk of community goals not being met, poor adoption, and conflicting priorities. Community members will feel it, and attrition may be high.
Determine how you want members to behave.
Create guidelines/rules/a code of conduct to encourage that behavior (and don't forget your ToS and Privacy Policies!). Create an internal guide for how you will respond to members violating your guidelines.
Create a high-level engagement plan.
This should include things like events, content pieces, newsletters, social media, discussion prompts, rituals (like weekly conversations on a particular topic, check-ins, hangouts, etc.), and opportunities to work with and promote members of the community.
Do industry research.
What communities already exist that are similar to what you're trying to build? Where are they successful? Where are there gaps that you could fill?
Figure out how you want your members to engage.
Do you want people to have synchronous or asynchronous conversations (or both)? Do you want people to write and share long-form content or have casual conversations? This will help you determine what platform(s) you need for your primary community space(s).
Find 10-20 people who represent the type of member you want in your community.
These should be people with whom you already have an established relationship, but if necessary, you can branch out and find others who embody your ideal member. Share your ideas for the community and see what resonates with them. Once you have selected your community platform, invite them and work with them to seed content and conversations. Be sure that they're receiving value in return for their efforts.
Create content your members will care about.
There's a little bit of guesswork that goes into this upfront, but ideally, you'll have at least a rough idea based on the conversations you've been having with potential members. If you can, try and create a good amount of content upfront and seed some of it before members join your community space, and slowly trickle the rest (based on the engagement plan you've already created) while you focus your efforts on other areas of community-building.
Even though you've primed early members of your community to care about what you're building, consistency is critical to build habits and to keep you top of mind. Eventually, you won't have to rely on this as much, but it's important during the early stages. You may get little to no direct engagement on what you are doing, but stick with it and you'll eventually start to see a return on your efforts.
Find your evangelists.
These are people you trust and know you can ask favors of them. If you need some additional participation or someone else to write something for a change, ask them. But be sure not to abuse their kindness, and make sure they're getting something out of putting in the extra effort.
Connect your members.
Make time to facilitate 1:1 or group connections with your early members. You'll need to continue doing this as the community scales, so try and keep track of details about individuals so you can make better, more targeted connections as the community grows. These relationships and intentional connections help form a special stickiness for your community.
Check in at regular intervals when you're first getting things off the ground to make sure that you're headed in the right direction. You should always plan on getting feedback and using that as a basis for iterating, but you can do it less frequently as your community becomes more established and active. Try not to make specific promises about what you will/can do based on the feedback, but do let people know how their responses will impact your thinking and planning even if you can't implement some or all of the recommendations.
More often than not, community building takes time. You may not see a 'return' on your investment within the first few months, maybe longer. It can sometimes feel like shouting into the abyss, and it's also typical for participation or engagement to feel very low from what your expectation may be. Rarely will you find a community that has 80-100% active members — anywhere from 10-50% active membership is totally normal. So perhaps my most important piece of advice? Nurture your community, and give it time to grow. Eventually, you'll start to feel the value your community brings to your entire organization.
We're here to help
None of this is foolproof and you'll need to play around with what works best for your community and your organization as you start working your way through this list. If you ever feel stuck and don't know what to do, you can always join our community of community pros and get support from people who have been in your shoes at some (or multiple) points in their community-building journey!