Community is universal. We've all been part of one in some shape or form — which is, I suspect, a big part of the reason so many communities are started without a strategy.
We all have experience with communities in the cultural sense. Even those who are not professional community builders will tend to assume that communities can be run based on good intuition alone, or may even feel that being strategic about community is 'inauthentic'.
This is not the case — strategies are an absolute necessity for our communities to help us run them effectively at inception and while they grow. Strong strategies for communities are actually a part of what empowers Community Managers to infuse the authenticity that comes from the community into other parts of the business.
Why communities need a strategy
- It forces us to choose a tactic, even if it's the wrong one — which lets us measure what works and what doesn't.
- It also forces us to actively de-prioritize out-of-scope ideas, even good ones.
- It ensures our actions in community are aligned with our goals for the larger business.
- It makes us consider best practices in context, vs. relying on boilerplate tactics.
- It helps us confidently communicate our work and outcomes to others.
With that in mind, here's my systematic approach to developing a community strategy. Whether you're building an entirely new community, you're new to managing this particular one, or you're looking to give your community something of a refresh — it's never too late to develop or revisit your strategy.
Components of a community strategy
Goals and measures of success
This initial planning phase involves outline your community's why — the reason it does or will exist. To kickstart this process, ask yourself the following questions:
1. Who, outside of the company, is this community for? What do they get out of it?
This could be a statement like "This community is for project managers. It's a space where they can connect with other professionals in the same field."
If your community serves a persona that is different than your company's core customer base, it's worth it to spend some time defining your community persona or target audience. When doing this, be as specific as possible — include demographics, psychographics, and personal details to humanize your persona(s). Here's a guide to community personas to get you started.
2. Who inside the company is this community for? What do they get out of it?
For example, "Our product team is looking to research what our customers want and our marketing team is looking to source content ideas." Most likely, the community will serve as a shared resource that has some use to most, if not all, internal departments
3. Are there any conflicts between what we want to get out of this community as a company and what our members want to get out of this community?
In other words, do your answers to questions 1 and 2 align? For example, if everything the company is looking to get out of the community is quite transactional (i.e., get survey results, answer tickets), but you think the most valuable community for customers will be about best practice sharing, that might be an issue. If they're at odds, it might mean you have to develop a more comprehensive plan to meet both needs, or de-prioritize one while you focus on the other for a time.
4. What are the main metrics my company already tracks? Which ones does this community have the biggest potential to impact?
These will be figures your colleagues will already be reporting on in team meetings (think things like monthly recurring revenue, new subscribers, churn, etc..)
5. How will I measure success at launch, in the first six months, in the first year?
This is true with many projects, but in a community context, what's important (and possible) to measure will vary at different phases of maturity.
For example, within your first six months, it'll probably be very meaningful to track new members and community adoption; after two years, you might find it more insightful to focus on how existing community members perform on company health metrics (like lifetime value) vs non-community members. Measuring success in stages will help you set expectations for your teammates on what they can reasonably expect community to deliver, and when.
Research and validation
This is something that so many community pros actually miss. The idea (or, I'd argue, myth) that community is nebulous and un-trackable means even experienced CMs seem to default to hypothesizing about their community in the dark. But it doesn't have to be that way.
In this research phase, you will:
1. Audit and analyze any existing community efforts
Your company may not already have a fully-fledged community, but they may already be bringing people together in some way or another. You can look to things like virtual and in-person events, customer counsels, or ambassador programs.
2. Do competitive analysis
Look at your direct competitors' community efforts to determine what's expected by your members and what opportunities you have to expand on what already exists. This is un-skippable for community managers working at big brands who want buy-in. Nothing convinces people more than "our competitors are already doing it and we're behind."
You might also want to look at exemplar or model communities that fall outside your industry — in a perfect world, what kind of community would you like to create? And is there anything you can borrow from them?
3. Model different types of communities and running the ideas by internal and external stakeholders
Present your plans to prospective community members and your colleagues and team leads to see which they find the most appealing.
4. Conduct user interviews
If you do one thing in your research phase, it should be this: interview members who fall into your target community persona to validate what you're considering offering. This should include questioning on everything from your big-picture plans, to platform, to the kind of content you hope to produce.
Content, feature, and gating plan
You'll find a comprehensive guide to community content in this blog: Community Content: How to Build Your Community 'Snack Table' — but below are basics for this facet of your strategy.
It's worth noting that some of this work can and should happen at the same time as your research and validation. As you start to get a clearer picture of what you might offer in your community content-wise, you can begin to run these ideas by interviewees, or look for where your ideas overlap & exceed competitors' communities.
In this phase you will:
1. Determine content cadences
That is, what you'll be creating for your community at the daily, weekly, monthly level. More on this here.
2. Decide which of your content will be gated
This means figuring out what types of content and learning opportunities your community members will only be able to access through the community, and which you'll open up to your wider audience or customer base.
3. Propose a plan for when various content cadences will launch
While your high-quality content pieces are best staggered (for consistency, and your own sanity) it is worth making sure that if you are launching with at least one piece of highly-desired exclusive content.
4. Define access levels
If your community will have access levels (free and paid, or based on skill or experience), figure out how different content features map onto those different levels.
I like to call this phase socializing your strategy — how you communicate and share these ideas within your organization internally, and in some cases, externally with your highly engaged members or advocates. Once you've waded into the strategizing process (and have some research and recommendations to show for it) this phase will take place continuously throughout the rest of the process.
This will require you to:
1. Find your champion
Is there someone with power in your organization who is bought in from the beginning? Having them in your corner from the get-go can be invaluable.
2. Meet with leadership to share your research and recommendations so far
Don't jump the gun on this one. The last thing you want to be doing is pulling higher-ups into the weeds with you. Don't wait until your strategy is set in stone, but at least until you have some concrete data, and a plan for moving forward.
3. Get buy-in from other departments
Choose one or two stakeholders from each department and meeting with them to get department-specific feedback. Again, don't pull them in too early, or you'll risk your project snowballing out of scope. Be clear about what's already decided and what you're looking for feedback on — don't ask teammates to share feedback on project elements you are sure you won't change.
4. Ask to present at a company all-hands or team-wide meetings
This will add gravitas to your work, and help your colleagues understand how big of a deal a community project is. It's also a great opportunity to make sure that everyone has been given the opportunity to weigh in and give feedback, even if they won't necessarily take it.
5. Make sure your strategy documentation is publicly available
However you choose to present your research and plans (a document, a slide deck, an internal wiki...), make sure it's easily accessible for anyone in your company, organized in a way that they can easily navigate, and you can easily reference.
Technical and implementation plan
This phase will depend a whole lot on your organization and how much technical support you have (or don't have). For many CMs, the below will be fait accompli. But if you do have the opportunity to get your hands dirty on the technical side, this phase requires you to:
1. Determine the main software platform your community will run on
Senior Community Manager at GoDaddy Andy McIlwain has guidance on this in his talk at our 2021 summit, How to Choose the Right Platform for Your Community.
2. Determine ancillary software your proposed community needs
For example, if you plan on hosting virtual workshops, you'll need a pro Zoom account or similar.
3. Coordinate with technical collaborators
For any flows outside your wheelhouse, you may need help from the technical team. It's worth identifying these needs as soon as possible, and pushing to make sure you have access to the project owner if you need ongoing tech support to help you resolve problems as (and when) they come up.
4. Testing login flows
Step into your members' shoes — what does it actually feel like to log in to this community for the first time? You don't want to be launching a community having only seen and experienced it in admin view. I'd also recommend having several co-workers create accounts, and giving them a little checklist of things to try (log in, create a post, reply to a post, etc.) as something of a quality assurance process.
Activation and rollout plan
This is effectively a roadmap that lays out all the decisions you've made in the steps above, outlining what is going to happen when.
In this phase, you may need to:
1. Determine what channels you'll use to market your community (if any)
For most people, this will likely involve tapping into the main mode of communication between your company and your customers/prospective members, like a newsletter, or social media.
You may also want to target a small group of people you'd love to have in your community, and give them a personal invitation. A little one-to-one communication can go a long way.
2. Decide who will be invited to the community, and when
It's never a bad idea to start small. In fact, many community pros will recommend you intentionally limit the speed at which a new community grows. However, this is not always possible in practice, and if that's the case, it's OK — it just means you need to make an effort to layer relationship-building on top of an "open the floodgates" moment.
3. Develop an onboarding sequence for new members
This might involve a series of emails, encouraging them to engage in the community by introducing themselves, making a post, and so on.
4. Develop a plan to activate new members
This will tie into your content calendar, but it can be helpful to define several engagement plays (like rituals or a tagging strategy) to ignite the spark with new members.
Last, but not least
Once you've completed the following steps, your community strategizing isn't over. Strategies aren't a one-time thing to develop and deliver. That slide deck, wiki, or document you created should be constantly dusted off and built upon as you continue to learn about your community and your members.
Even if you have an existing community, elements of strategy work, the steps above, should be re-evaluated continuously as you grow — so that you're always acting with purpose.
Want to learn more?
The above is one of the concepts we unpack in C School, our 12-week Community Manager program. In this hands-on course, we offer education, mentorship, and independent practice — everything you need to land a full-time job in community.
If you’re interested in applying for a C School cohort, apply here if you’re looking for your first job in community. If you're already a CM, apply here. We've also launched a course to help experienced CMs transition into leadership roles. You can find out more here.
These are rolling applications, so you can apply now even if you want to participate in the future.
You can also email questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. This program was built to help community folks break into this field and make their start in a way that enables long-term growth. If it's up your alley, we can't wait to hear from you.