Community is not a feature on a list
As part of my digital daily work, I have worked on a lot of innovative project briefs from startups to bigger firms. As far as i can remember, community features have frequently been part of these briefs (as late as last week). Founders, IT and marketing managers are still adding « community » as a feature requested in M.V.P.
Before Facebook was Facebook, adding community features was limited to forums, comments, maybe rating, but since seven or eight years, it kind of always mean building a friends list, having a messaging or chat solution, a complete user profile, pages or groups, on top of a main feature such as a wall, a forum, a question board, etc.
If you recognize your MVP in this, let me stop you for a second. Community is not a feature, it is an entire spirit that you need to build from the ground up by starting removing any so called features and going back to what is a community and what is its purpose for your product: ie bringing user closer to one another with common interests. That is how facebook, linkedin, twitter or pinterest started, as simple products targeting a specific userbase, with a common interest at their heart: student profiles, professionals, real time news and image collection.
Provide value on single user interaction first
If your will is to build a community, then you must start by defining the values that this community shares, what is their common interest, what problems they are facing as a community.
Most products can start with zero community features. Starting from the main feature allows you to concentrate on what differentiates your product from others, concentrate on learning user needs and behaviors on that single user interaction feature in order to bring value to your users.
Build, test and refine features that will allow them to be active on a recurrent base and generate them value without requiring another user to participate in that process. Make sure these features are aligned with your product philosophy.
Build your community from outside
Building community features means competing against Facebook “features”. There are small probabilities that you will be able to create a solution better than theirs in order to retain users on your product. Doing so is going to take a lot of time, money and efforts.
You don’t need to build theses features to start building your community, you can do so on top of their products (Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, …). As long as you are driving the conversation, you will be able to gather users around you, follow multiple user interactions, analyse them. Test and learn on how to provide them values, gain brand recognition, and grow traffic to your product. All this can be done without a single line of code!
Combine what you learn into a great product
Only when you feel that your product offers the right single user interaction value and that user acquisition is starting to get viral through existing social networks (which is the base of any community based business model), then you can start working on such features internally. They will grow user retention and accelerate user acquisition through features that empower users to reach further than their first circle.
But don’t reinvent the wheel, user and contact apis are here to connect and migrate automatically friends list. Comments apis are here to bring the discussion from where it naturally takes place to your product (yes people only communicate on those plateforms, even wordpress and tumbler post comments sections have become deserts in favor of facebook, linkedin, instagram or slack). This will allow you to avoid the “last man on earth” sensation and give to your product’s content some reach outside of it.
Of course this vision is not the only way, i’m sure you can find many examples of companies that have been doing just the opposite and have succeeded, but be ready to fail at some point, most have. This vision is a more pragmatic one, avoiding burning time and money learning through a long and complicated design and code process to master multiple user interactions.