Building a Community Driven Company in Four Stages

‘Lean’ and ‘agile’ are the buzzwords of this generation of entrepreneurs. You can’t go 5 minutes in a conversation about someone’s startup without talk of validation, feedback loops, customer surveys, and iteration.

There’s an industry that has been very good at this for a long time, without much recognition: The games industry. I’d like to walk through some of the history there, and how it applies to startup development now.

The role of ‘community manager’ is becoming popular in web startups, focused on growing a brand’s fanbase through social media and content. It’s an unfortunate corruption of much older job description, in which building loyalty and value were held in favour of pure growth metrics.

Community management was birthed in the games industry, around 1995 — necessitated by the rise of MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role playing games). These games revolved around vast online communities, and someone had to be responsible managing their happiness and ensuring the company extracted the greatest possible value.

The role of community manager quickly spread beyond MMORPGs into the rest of the games industry. Now any online game now has a range of community tools, including forums (message boards), chat channels, and a community manager to supervise.

Most importantly, it became common logic to hire a community manager early. Not just pre-release early, but actually amongst the first hires. Community managers would build the community around a game often two to three years in advance of release. They would keep this community constantly engaged with development, up to date with work-in-progress, and involved in the direction and vision.

Analytics tools weren’t as widespread, and it fell to community managers to take the temperature of the community in more human terms. Functioning as a two-way conduit, they would communicate development to the community, and compile feedback reports to deliver back to the developers.

This, in effect, is a fantastic example of lean and agile methodologies, where development is guided by a captive audience of potential customers and has to remain responsive and flexible. It’s been standard across an entire industry for at least a decade, and not many people actually talk about it.

When I was asked how to approach building a community driven software company, creating products tailored to an established audience, it proved fairly simple to apply the games industry experience…

The following four steps will instruct you on how to go about building a community around your brand, from which you can extract far more value than any mailing list or social media following.

Step 1: The Foundation

Start by inviting valuable (potential) users into the forum of your choosing (message board, Slack group…) where they can interact directly with you and other members of your team. Be proactive about getting their input, respect the time they give your product. Be open for ideas on how they would shape the forum itself, too.

Build this group slowly and carefully — hand selecting the right people from your following, and inviting your existing members to refer others. It will take a formidable amount of work to grow your active user-base, and a careful balancing act: Scale fast enough to maintain interest, slow enough to keep it on the rails.

At this point, you want to make sure that you (and your team) are the most active members of your community. Get involved, be great hosts, promote discussion, and encourage debate and knowledge sharing. Being given a voice in the process is why people will join, feeling valued will ensure they stay.

Expand the forum inch by inch, as the observed demand dictates. Maybe add a section for discussing related news, technologies, or potential use cases — which ever issues are too dominant in the ‘general’ channel.

Subdivide further only when it becomes necessary to slow things down by spreading the activity out.

Pay attention to which topics get engagement with these users — as they are a great sample for your wider audience.

Step 2: Going Public

Now you need to make the delicate flip:

  1. Create a private section of your forum for your early adopting members to continue interacting with you directly and provide feedback as usual. Ensure this section holds your attention consistently.
  2. Offer moderator positions to appropriate members. Create a rule-set that makes sense for your community, and a set of values to operate by that are crystal clear and appreciated.
  3. Open the rest of the forum to the public, with all of the existing content and activity. Create a welcome thread with introductions to you and the team, and invite other existing members to join in. Act as a concierge to your first public sign-ups.

By this point you have set the tone of your community internally with your early adopters, and you have them on-side to help keep things tidy once things are opened up. This allows you to focus on growth, for now.

Step 3: Growth

There are three tried and true methods for growing communities:

  • Running contests within the forum with some decent prizes, for your community. You can use this to add some gamification to forum activity, incentivise the desired behaviour or increased engagement.
  • Smart content strategy, focused on the issues your members have demonstrated interest in. Feature strategic people or brands where it will give you exposure to an audience of more potential members.
  • Advertising your community and celebrating their existence through content and social media. Write community round-ups that summarise activity, feature members, promote and run meetups, and engage with them on social media.

Start pushing whatever content strategy you have going on to strengthen the top of your funnel. You want sufficient traffic to your front page that enough of it converts into registered and active members. You can still guide individuals into the community, but there will be less and less time for that.

Your goal is that you can get a lot of the easy wins with the early adopter types to begin with, leveraging partnerships, running contests, and using the launch hype. As that begins to fade you should be building up your social media traction and traffic to the page in order to ensure a steady stream of new members in future.

Step 4: Maintenance

Community management best practices are not something I can fit into this post, other than perhaps:

  • Be sure that the rules you laid out are a good fit for your community.
  • Ensure that you are consistent and fair with how those rules are enforced.
  • Know exactly what value you offer to your community, and execute on it tirelessly.
  • Always be looking for new ways to engage, reward and entertain your community.
  • Remember your early adopters and moderators, and show you are grateful for their efforts.
  • …and perhaps most important: Instil a sense of identity in your community. Make sure they know why they are together, and what commonalities they have.