Updated on January 7, 2022
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 aren’t professional community builders will assume that communities can be run based on good intuition alone, or may even feel that being strategic about community is 'inauthentic'.
This isn’t the case. Strategies are absolutely necessary to help Community Managers run communities effectively at inception and while they grow. Strong strategies empower Community Managers to infuse the community’s authenticity into other parts of the business.
With that in mind, here's my systematic approach to developing a community strategy. We teach this process in our C School Foundations and Essentials level courses, and dozens of students have successfully used it to produce community strategies for their organizations.
Whether you're building an entirely new community, you're new to managing this particular one, or you're looking to refresh your community — it's never too late to develop or revisit your strategy.
This initial planning phase involves outlining your community's why — the reasons it does or will exist. You’ll look at how the community will serve both its members and your company’s goals. To kick-start this process, ask yourself the following questions:
Your answer could look like this: I’m building this community for project managers, who will have a space where they can connect with other professionals in the same field.
If your community serves a group that is different from your company’s core customer base, it's worth taking time to define your target audience and build personas.
Be as specific as possible when doing this. Include demographics, psychographics, and personal details. Humanize your persona(s) with details about their goals, motivations, and frustrations.
It’s likely that most, if not all, of the company’s departments will reap the benefits of community. You could, then, have multiple answers to these questions.
In other words, do your answers to the first two questions above align? For example, if everything the company wants is transactional (i.e. get survey results, answer tickets), but you think the most valuable community for customers will be about best practice sharing, that could be an issue.
If the wants are at odds, you may have to develop a more comprehensive plan to meet both or de-prioritize one while you focus on the other for a time.
Your organization will already be collecting and reporting top-level business metrics — things like monthly recurring revenue, customer lifetime value, new subscribers, etc. Make a list of the metrics your community can positively impact, which can help when you plan content and events for the community.
There is no ‘right’ answer for this. Each community’s potential impact on metrics will depend on a combination of factors such as your product, company goals, and community purpose.
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 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. Defining what success means at different stages of your community’s lifetime will help you set realistic expectations within your company.
This is something many community pros miss. The idea (or myth) that community is nebulous and un-trackable means even experienced CMs seem to default to hypothesizing about their community in the dark.
It doesn't have to be that way. In this research phase, you will:
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 questions on everything from your big-picture plans to platform to the kind of content you hope to produce. You could also run some of your ideas by users/prospective community members to see which ones are feasible.
Your company may not have a full-fledged community, but they may already be bringing people together in some way or another. You can look at things like virtual and in-person events, customer counsels, or ambassador programs to see what resonates with your community and what you can improve or do away with. You can also analyze this against your user interviews to see if there are gaps to fill.
Look at your direct competitors' community efforts to determine what your members expect and how you can expand on what already exists. This is un-skippable for CMs working at big brands who want leadership 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 and see if there’s anything you can borrow from them. For example, if one of your goals is to help members make using your product a habit, you could look at fitness communities to see they support building habits and skills.
The next step in your community strategy is to create a plan for the types of community content you’ll produce, and how often you’ll share it.
Some of this work can and should happen during the research phase. As you get a clearer picture of what content you might offer in your community, you can run these ideas by interviewees or look for where your ideas overlap and exceed competitors' communities.
In this phase you will:
You should create content for your community at the day-to-day, weekly, monthly, and annual level. Not all this content will be equal — day-to-day content should consist of things you can create often and with minimal effort (such as simple engagement prompts or questions), while annual content (such as summits) will require months of planning and has the potential to reap high rewards for both you and your members.
Your community may have access levels (free and paid, or based on skill or experience), and your content plan should map the different types of content based on these access levels.
If your community has a paid member level, creating exclusive content or learning opportunities can add extra value for paid members. In addition to this gated content, your plan should also include content that will be available to all community members, including those who are on a free member level.
You can also create content that’s open to a wider audience or customer base who aren’t community members to spread awareness about your community and help draw in more members or customers.
While your high-quality content pieces are best staggered (for consistency, and your own sanity) it’s worth making sure that you launch with at least one piece of highly desired exclusive content. This will give your members a look at the quality of content they can expect and the value the community will bring to them.
I like to call this phase, known in the industry as a ‘roadshow’, socializing your strategy — how you communicate and share these ideas internally within your organization 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:
Spend some time talking to people in your organization about your community. Is there someone with power in your organization — preferably an executive — who is bought in from the beginning? Having them in your corner from the get-go can be invaluable if you need to convince leadership.
Choose one or two stakeholders from each department and meet with them to get department-specific feedback. 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’re sure you won't change.
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. Your strategy needn’t be set in stone, but you will be more likely to get approval if you can back up your recommendations with concrete data and a solid direction forward.
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 everyone has the opportunity to weigh in and give feedback, even if they won't necessarily do so.
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.
A large part of this phase will depend 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:
You have many platform options to choose where to run your community. Again, there is no correct answer for this and differs for every community based on your purpose and needs.
In his talk at the 2021 Community Club Summit, Senior Product Manager (then-Senior Community Manager) at GoDaddy Andrew Claremont goes into detail on how to choose the right platform for your community by asking three questions: What do you need? What are your options? What do you, as the expert, recommend to stakeholders?
Your content plan might require you to also engage with members outside of the main platform. You’ll need other tools or software to make this happen. For example, if you plan on hosting virtual workshops, you'll need a video calling software like a pro Zoom account or similar. If you have a newsletter just for your community, you’ll need a MailerLite or Mailchimp (or other email marketing tool) account to build your mailing list.
For any flows outside your wheelhouse, you may need help from your company’s 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.
Step into your members' shoes — what does it actually feel like to log in to this community for the first time? Things might work perfectly in the admin view (i.e. your view) but be a confusing or frustrating experience for your members. Testing this before launch will give you a chance to eliminate bugs and create a smooth user experience. I'd also recommend having several coworkers create accounts and giving them a small checklist of things to try (log in, create a post, reply to a post, etc.) as a quality assurance process.
This phase is effectively creating 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:
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.
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.
A well-thought-out onboarding sequence can go a long way in making new members feel welcome and involved in your community. You can do this in multiple ways, such as sending a series of emails, encouraging them to engage in the community by introducing themselves, making a post, sending a personal welcome message, and so on.
Welcoming new members is the first step to engaging them. Build some engagement plays into your content calendar (like rituals or a tagging strategy) to ignite the spark with new members and ease them into becoming active community members.
Your community strategizing isn't over once you've completed these steps. 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, you should continue to re-evaluate elements of strategy as you grow — so that you're always acting with purpose.
Community strategy is one of the concepts we unpack in C School, our 12-week Community Manager program, and all students must produce and pitch a community strategy as part of their portfolio in order to graduate the program. In this hands-on course, we offer education, mentorship, and independent practice — everything you need to land a full-time job in community or grow in your role as a CM.
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 email@example.com. 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.
The resource you need to share your community strategy with key stakeholders.
The resource you need to share your community strategy with key stakeholders.