Community building is a journey filled with twists and turns — if only there was a roadmap you could use to help you navigate them.
Well (you see where this is going, don’t you?) we’ve developed something that may help. Enter: our guide to the stages of community growth.
The stages of community growth will, of course, differ from community to community and depend on everything from community type (is yours a Community of Practice, Product, or Interest?), the resources at the community builder’s disposal, and a whole lot more.
However, having a route outlined can be incredibly valuable when it comes to keeping your community growth on track, especially if you’re just setting out on the Minimum Viable Community (MVC) track.
In this guide, we’ll answer the question: what should a community builder be doing when to maximize their chances of building a thriving community?
The community life cycle starts when the idea to build one is planted in your mind. From there, the work begins: to bring your community vision to life, and through commitment and consistency, grow it into a fully functioning hub your members will want to stay in.
We’ve broken up the different phases your community could go through into five stages: egg, hatchling, teenager, adult, and extinction/rebirth.
Here’s what you can expect and how to handle each phase.
At this stage, your community may not even be a fully formed idea.
But this doesn’t mean that you’re not keen to dig in and figure out why you’re thinking of building this community in the first place says Chief Community Officer at Commsor and The Community Club, Alex Angel.
“It is at this stage that you have to answer the three whys: Why are you building this community? Why will members want to join? And why will they want to stay?” she says.
Got that sorted? When you know why you’re building your community, it's time to create your community member personas to figure out who your ideal members are and where they’re spending their time. They may be reading newsletters, on social platforms, in existing communities, or elsewhere. How can you reach them?
This is also a good time to start researching the landscape and understanding where there are opportunities to fill a gap. Are there any competitors? Find out who they are and what are they doing well or poorly and how your community can fill those gaps.
“This is the pre-work phase of building out your community or MVC and is really important to establish as early as possible,” says Alex. “Once your community is in flight and there are members doing things in it, it becomes more difficult to shift objectives or personas for the community.”
So how long should this phase last? One to six months is the sweet spot for getting your ducks in a row, Alex says.
“Once you’ve figured out why your community exists, who you want to join in, and what you’re going to do to get ‘em to stick around, it’s then time to get the ball rolling.”
The point after your planning and where you’ve answered all these questions is when your MVC comes alive.
Next, you'll want to choose your founding members. Got some people in mind? Reach out to them and make sure they know that you’ll be building the community with them. Members will get more value out of the community if they can contribute, and the earlier they join, the more impact they’ll be able to have.
At this stage, you may still just be tossing around the idea of having a community, so hiring a Community Manager may not be absolutely necessary — yet.
“If you aren't fully committed, you don't need to hire a CM,” says Alex. “But if you are fully committed and you know that you're absolutely going to build something, that's when it makes sense to bring a CM as this part of the process, so they're not just inheriting a partially baked idea and can help influence direction and objectives.”
You’ve broken out and are ready to start growing.
For SVP of New Products at Commsor Brian Oblinger, the point where you finally launch and start bringing more people into the fold is where your MVC graduates to fledgling community.
“The work you do to get something live and start testing your hypothesis is finally here,” he says. “Everything after this is in service of improving and growing your fledgling community to what it will ultimately become.”
Don’t just launch something and let it sit there, he warns. “If you don’t do any work on your community, it's probably not going to be very compelling. You should focus on constant improvement and always be moving forward.”
Worried everything is a little too quiet? Don't worry — at this stage, that intimacy is a good thing, Alex says.
“There may still be periods of minimal activity while people get their bearings and understand how they’re supposed to participate, but those moments are brief and few and far between,” she says.
If you hired a Community Manager in the previous stage, they would settle into a more predictable ‘keep the trains running on time’ mode and will be focused on execution, explains Brian.
“As you grow, someone to focus on content development is often the second most important hire an organization can make,” he says. “Content drives viewership, membership, and engagement, but is also one of the most difficult aspects of communities. Bringing someone that can both write and coordinate others is important.”
Your community is growing up — but you still have much to learn.
At this stage, you’ve validated that your community is viable and you’re ready to bring more people into the fold. You’ve done some iterating to your programs and engagement strategies and they’re ready to be stress-tested by adding in more members and participants.
“This is a good time to spend some time refining your onboarding process. A good onboarding experience is critical to getting folks engaged,” says Alex. “There’s a delicate balance between overboard and not enough when it comes to onboarding. Ensure your members understand the purpose of your community, how they can participate, what resources are available, and how they can get in touch if they need anything.”
As more members join, onboarding can be an ideal time to understand people’s motivations for joining your community. As they join, ask a few (but not too many!) questions about why they’re joining and their expectations as a member.
Also, make sure that you have put community guidelines in place so that your members know as they enter the community what behaviors are acceptable or not.
Depending on the type of community and the persona it’s serving, much of the CM’s job will involve moderation and reactive work rather than proactive work.
Ideally, they’ve had the opportunity to establish processes and have some additional support, but often that may not be the case.
For smaller communities, the CM may still be responsible for outreach, though that becomes less and less of a need as the community grows explains, Alex. “The same goes for content creation and prompts — they’ll still need to facilitate most of what’s happening in the community, but they will start to recognize super users and people willing to put in the extra effort that you can start to rely on and work with as close collaborators.”
Brian adds that because of all the tasks the CM is taking on at this stage, it might be a good idea to start thinking of hiring more community specialists, such as:
Community Program Manager, Community Engagement Manager: As programs begin to stack up and it becomes very difficult for one person to manage the CM may break it out into a specific role and hire someone to focus on it full time.
Community Program Manager, Community Events Manager: If your strategy calls for meetups, user groups, or other events, the CM may also elect to have someone manage those programs as a specialty.
Community Content Creator: Depending on whether or not a community pro who focuses exclusively on content has been hired yet, now would be a great time to get this specialist on board.
Get ready to roar and lead the herd.
Your community has found its stride and is active without relying on the CM as the only contributor to engagement and program management. The biggest difference between the growing stages and now is that there is less in-the-moment work that’s needed on the CM’s part, and their role shifts to a hybrid role of maintenance and long-term strategy.
They may still run many of the programs and be the face of the community, but there are enough members and people who are invested in the community that the CM can focus on other things. That includes maintaining relationships and empowering active members to take on some of the CM’s former responsibilities (like onboarding, program management, or events, depending on the structure of your community).
At this point, you’ll want someone who can focus on long-term strategy (which may be the CM you’ve had since the beginning, or you may need to bring in someone with a broader skillset such as a Director or Head of Community), says Alex.
A community operations hire is also necessary to manage the community stack. “Remember, not all CMs are skilled data analysts, and you’ll get more mileage out of having someone to partner with the team to pull trends and insights, such as a Community Analyst,” she says.
All good things come to an end, right? Not always.
Some communities don't last forever and that shouldn’t be perceived as a failure on your or your team's part. There is always an opportunity for a relaunch or to start again with much more experience.
Whether it’s stagnation, migration, re-launch, or outright death, this phase is usually not fun for community professionals.
“There are a number of reasons why an organization may decide to sunset a community, says Alex. “It could be a changing business model, shifting strategies or priorities, community wasn’t providing value or was targeting the wrong personas, etc.
“It’s likely that the community itself is still active in some capacity, and it becomes the CM’s responsibility to coordinate a shutting down process internally and externally,” she says. “There is usually a period of time where data is saved or exported, and a comprehensive message is shared with members letting them know different milestones and the final shut-off date.”
What if you could build your community as part of, well, a community?
On April 4, 2022, we’re kicking off our own MVC Challenge, a six-week community-building challenge in which we support community builders in getting their very own community off the ground.
Intimidated? Don’t be! Our team will provide worksheets, tips and tricks for engagement and understanding trends, guides for what success looks like, weekly prompts and check-ins, and more!