Community Doesn’t Just Happen

Building community requires intentionality and hard work

In my earlier post Building Community for Fun and Profit I talked about how I’ve worked to align the interests of the Offline First community with the economic interests of my employer in order to create a business case for investing in meaningful tech community building work. I outlined a few key pieces to making this approach work:

  1. It has to start with an individual (or individuals) who has a genuine interest in a particular technology or approach.
  2. The economic benefits of building and growing a community around this technology or approach must be made obvious to the company (or companies) involved.
  3. The company (or companies) must recognize that community is not something that they can buy off-the-shelf and that community won’t “just happen” without a lot of intentionality and paid hard work.
  4. The company (or companies) must work to recognize the diverse motivations of each member of the community and continually seek to align everyone’s interests.

I want to explore the third item a bit more: the level of intentionality and hard worked needed to build community, as well as what “community building” even means.

Somewhere around the height of the Web 2.0 era (perhaps around 2005) the idea of “building online communities” became fashionable. It’s easy, right? Just create a space for some user generated content and next thing you know a community will magically spring up out of nowhere, right? Lots of people tried this, but most failed at their efforts. What went wrong?

One of the biggest myths about community building is that a company can create a community around themselves or one of their products as a quick-and-easy way to build brand loyalty. Building community is neither quick, nor easy, nor a guaranteed way to build brand loyalty. Community building is the long road, not the shortcut. It’s the path you take when no other approach will work. Building and sustaining a community is a long term investment with no promise of an immediate payout. Traditional marketing approaches can often be more effective with less of an investment. So, why bother investing in the hard work and intentionality needed to build community?

Developer Relations (which includes Developer Advocacy and Developer Evangelism) is a field of work that exists because it is usually very difficult to reach software developers through traditional marketing and sales approaches. It’s not that you can’t market to software developers, it’s just that we tend to be very skeptical and tend to have different patterns for trying and buying products than non-developers. Put simply, very few companies have learned the fine art of bypassing developers’ bullshit meters. Apple and Google are two of the rare exceptions, meaning that most developers don’t apply the same level of immediate skepticism to what Apple and Google say as they do to what other companies say. To be fair, a big part of the reason for this is that Apple and Google have put a lot of effort into being perceived as trustworthy by developers.

If traditional marketing doesn’t work with developers, then how do you reach developers? One answer is to build communication channels and trust with developers through community building. Some companies try to build a community directly around their company or product. There’s a certain economy of scale and threshold of utility that must be reached before this approach can be effective. Microsoft and Twilio are two examples of companies that have been successful at building a community directly around their offerings. There are multiple representations of these communities, but for just two examples see the Microsoft Most Valuable Professional (MVP) Award and Twilio Doers.

An alternative approach is to build a community around something that is tangential to your company or product. IBM Cloudant is a great fit for Offline First apps. By helping to build a community around the Offline First movement, we are growing developer mindshare around an approach to app development which lends itself well to one of our offerings. You can’t capture all of the value created by a community that isn’t built directly around your company or product. However, some of the most sustainable communities are those that are built around a diverse coalition with a shared vision and shared goals. Many of the most successful open source projects are maintained by cross-organizational communities (see, for example, the hundreds of Apache Software Foundation projects).

Recognizing this is not going to be the quick-and-easy path, you’ve decided that investing in building community is worth the potential rewards of addressing a previously unreachable market by building trust and opening up communications channels. What do you do now? The first step is to hire people with community building experience. An experienced community organizer can bring a high level of intuition to the table learned through doing this sort of work day-after-day. However, here are a few things you can think through to get started:

  1. Values: What values are you bringing to the community? What beliefs and values do people in the community already hold? Every action you take and every decision you make in relation to the community will be rooted in these values. You don’t get to be apolitical and build community at the same time. For example, do you value a diversity of perspective and thought? Then you need to have an opinion on things such as Codes of Conduct.
  2. Vision: What is your worldview? What worldview are individual members of the community coming to the table with? For example, my worldview (when it comes to Offline First) is that most web, mobile, and IoT apps would provide a much improved user experience if these apps were built with an Offline First approach.
  3. Mission: What are you ultimately trying to accomplish? What are the individual members of your community trying to accomplish? For example, I want the Offline First movement to have the same level of impact on web, mobile, and IoT app developers as the Mobile First movement had on web developers.

Social graph by Dmitry Grigoriev, on Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Let’s step back and define what “community” even means. At its most basic, a community is a cluster of connections between individuals. Healthy communities are made up of both strong and weak ties. Often you will find a small number of individuals at the “center” of the community with more ties to others in the community. People will move in and out of a community, becoming more or less connected to others within the community. This is perfectly normal. Don’t try to control it. Don’t stress too much about it. The best you can do is provide opportunities for people to strengthen their connections with others in the community and to create opportunities to help bring new people into the community.

When it comes to the nuts-and-bolts of community building, you have many options including (but certainly not limited to):

  • Organizing Events: One of the most effective ways to build community is through face-to-face events. My experience is that stronger bonds are created out of smaller events than out of larger events. Once you have a community started, larger events can help to grow that community. Consider partnering rather than going it alone when organizing an event. This immediately expands the community before you’ve even hosted the event.
  • Participating in Events: Before you go out and organize your own events, consider participating in others’ events. There are lots of ways to do this. Propose a speaking session, workshop, or tutorial for an upcoming conference (make sure your session is on topic for the event and of interest to participants).
  • Participating in Social Media: Social media (e.g. Twitter) can be a very effective community building tool. Leverage the network effect of existing communication channels used by members of your community, rather than trying to get people to use something new to them. In other words, don’t go and build your own platform and don’t try to attract people to a platform that a critical mass of the community is not already using.
  • Participating in the Open Source Software Ecosystem: Consider releasing your work under an open source license unless there’s a compelling reason not to. This could be your core software, supporting packages, or software that makes integrating with your core software easier (e.g. client libraries).
  • Publishing: There can still be benefits to having material that is more “push” than social interaction. For example, the Offline First website has material to help people learn about Offline First and instructions on how to join the Offline First Slack team. The Offline Camp Medium publication has a ton of great material written by participants (Bonus: Medium is also a social media platform).

Whatever approaches you decide to take, be sure to work closely with people that have community building experience. Creating thriving, functional, and diverse communities requires a unique set of skills. When done right it can look easy. It is not.

The significant investment in building community can be well worth your efforts. Your work to build a community that you do not control can help build trust with developers. You can open up communication channels that wouldn’t otherwise exist. Use these communication channels wisely. Don’t just use it as an opportunity to talk about your great new features or products (unless you’re absolutely certain that these features or products are of immediate value to developers in the community). Certainly don’t use your connections to market irrelevant products or services to developers in the community—that’s a quick way to find yourself on the fringes of the community. At its best, community provides an opportunity to co-create your offerings with developers by attuning yourself closely to their needs.

Participants in a Food Systems Hackathon workshop hosted by Code for BTV. Photo by Jason Pelletier, on Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).