By Saish Rane with help from Louisa Mesnard & Marc Rougier
We defined community and spoke about the importance of building one in the last article and just how relevant it is in 2022 with founders, executives and managers alike wanting to invest in Community and make it a pillar of sustained competitive advantage to startups.
Elaia is interested in this phenomenon as we see it not only in our portfolio companies as mentioned previously but also in the market as a multiplier for the product-led growth strategy.
Additionally, we have also built a community we call Elaia Family and have assembled 300+ founders & CXOs of exciting tech startups & scaleups in our portfolio to come together and exchange best practices, resources and much more through regular interactions!
Now, after having focused on the “why” we like community and why you should build one, let’s now start discussing “how” we set up a healthy, thriving community from scratch.
Define “your” community & who owns it
Community can mean a lot of things and as we saw previously, the baseline of a community is just a group of people with something in common.
The important part here is to understand that it can have different meanings for different kinds of companies. A 12-month old B2B SaaS company won’t have the same use and definition of community as a 10-year old company in biotech would.
To take an example from the previous article, Traefik Labs has a thriving community on GitHub and Elevo is right in the midst of building one for DHRs, hence it’s not as easy to do a side by side comparison between the different communities.
No matter the differences, one aspect to keep in mind is that community ≠ audience, while audience is a passive receiver, community is an active participant and you’re essentially empowering people to help each other. Every business needs to care about community even though they are not necessarily “community-driven”.
Community-caring businesses create safe spaces for their customers to provide value to each other.
Community members can be anyone who uses the brand & shares their experiences. There are a lot of ways that community members can go above and beyond to demonstrate their love for the brand by being moderators, event organizers, community ambassadors, contributors to content and governance as well as being committee members or power users for a more product-oriented approach. Therefore they deserve all the more love, care & attention from the founders.
Align definition of community with business objectives
Once you’ve defined what a community looks like for you and what roles your community members could potentially have, it’s time to think business.
David Spinks, co-founder of CMX & former VP Community at Bevy created this nifty framework that can help chart what are the tangible business objectives that they can set when building communities.
The choice of SPACES is up to the founders/community leads but some differences pointed out by David are that in early stages, the SPACES of choice is usually around product as it provides all the ingredients to have a fast feedback loop as well as quick update sharing and solution testing as well an acquisition strategy through community to acquire long term clients. This coincides well with the need of early-stage startups: finding Product-Market Fit and then establishing it. (ncScale does this really well through their presence in the builders & no-coders communities and interacting with them regularly)
In growth stage companies, you have a product that works, and the goal now turns to growing revenue as fast as you can while increasing the stickiness and upsell rates of existing customers, this is where contribution and engagement have a large role to play as they both help each other — having more engagement with customers leads to increased satisfaction which in turn leads to more referrals and customer acquisitions (i.e. Traefik Labs with their Traefik Community that provides resources and a platform for users to communicate and exchange best practices).
When the company does reach a tipping point of maturity, there is an increasing need for support and success objectives to be set as a considerable part of the market is already using your offer, having ambassadors from the community who have aligned values to the community can massively help in resolving problems for other members of the community sometimes than staffing a large in-house support team. It can also enable knowledge base building and management to share acquired knowledge to newcomers (i.e. Mirakl with their Mirakl Connect Ecosystem, the largest ecosystem in the industry enabling curated partners to sell and collaborate with each other).
Align definition of community to the members of your community
The best way to align the business objectives and the community vision is to go out and talk to potential members, get their feedback and then construct the community with them. It’s the simplest thing to do and yet is most often overlooked as inconsequential.
Only when talking to members will you encounter what their worldview is and what benefits can they really get out of your community. It needs to be worthwhile because they will potentially be in tens of other communities that require just as much attention as yours will.
You don’t own a community, you earn it.
You need to keep in mind that you need to respect community members deeply and acknowledge that they are also being courted by others to provide their value.
Taking from the start-upper’s favorite, Paul Graham’s blog post as he says to entrepreneurs: do things that don’t scale. It means spending an abnormal amount of time in providing exceptional service to each member that you onboard from day one.
Steve Jobs used to use the phrase ‘insanely great’ to describe how he wanted the customer experience to be and he meant it literally, for the focus on quality of execution to be almost obsessional, and the attention to detail spotless.
Tony Hsieh, famously known for his customer-centric obsession, also talked about using customers as his marketers and using word of mouth to create wonderful experiences and stories that are now part of Silicon Valley folklore.
The first solutions won’t always respond exactly to everyone’s needs so you can choose between two schools of thought: either keep testing on all members of your community, learning from each cycle and ameliorating it progressively to build consensus or focus your efforts on a single persona and iterate to make them fall in love with what your community offers. Both are completely valid directions to take and will lead to different community dynamics. Eventually by following either direction you’ll come to a system that works extremely well for your community.
Once you’ve piqued their curiosity and they begin to create value and connections, they’ll start to feel a sense of belonging — the secret sauce that will keep bringing them back to the community.
Don’t forget that community doesn’t work for you, it works with you and it works with you only when it’s a fair trade.
The sense of belonging is a hard thing to track but some indicators can be measured to track the business objectives versus the member needs on a spreadsheet, scorecard them and obtain a distilled set of two or three objectives that everyone agrees upon.
Create a three tier strategy:
Once you’ve understood what your business goals are, you’ve met with potential community members and finally decided upon the common objectives, it’s now time to set strategy!
You have three parts descending in granularity and it’s better to review each part at fixed intervals to modify some strategies that may have evolved over time:
There’s a high-level strategy that keeps in mind the overall objectives that have been set out and tracks the large-scale impact your community has.
Secondly, you have the community-level strategy where you will have to create and develop programs to achieve the community objectives that will feed into the overarching strategy and track metrics (qualitative and quantitative) such as how much value are the members getting out of the community, how active are they and have you succeeded in creating a place where they feel like they belong. This can be measured using Net Promoter Score (NPS) and Daily Active Users (DAU) or Monthly Active Users (MAU).
Finally you have the member-level strategy which is focused on the day-to-day operations like creating the member onboarding process, writing the community guidelines, etc. and can easily be measured in the number of operations led in terms of direct impact, i.e., number of events organized, number of personal messages sent, etc.
Building and designing a community is an exercise in intentional decision making as you need to think about the impact it can have both ways on the business as well as the members who will interact with it are part of it. Hence, it becomes all the more important to take impactful decisions with thorough consideration.
Most community programs have these 4 pillars which can help in the day-to-day structuring if you do feel lost in the design.
- Who: Who is this program built for?
- Why: Why does this program exist for them?
- Where: Where can they meet?
- What: What will they do and learn when they meet?
Lastly, one sure fire way to undo the secret sauce of belonging is to scale the community too quickly and without intention. Start with an atomic network (Andrew Chen, GP talks about this in his book The Cold Start Problem) and build up from there steadily.
Here are some tools and platforms that I’ve used and seen fellow community builders use which may help you along the ride:
- Facebook Groups
- Circle.so (Community Platform)
- Revue (Newsletter Creation)
- Twitter Spaces (Live Audio Events)
- Discord (Community Platform)
- Typeform / VideoAsk (Form & Survey Builder)
This is far from being an exhaustive list of how to build your community because building one is as much art as it is science and there will always be a margin for improvisation and sometimes, if not always, the magic resides in these spontaneous changes.
Even if you may not be a B2C startup, one thing to keep in mind is that community & its values should be de facto integrated in the DNA & the founding values of your company and those who don’t have it at their core will eventually fail.
Hence, community is something you need to plan and allocate resources to. It requires a certain level of seriousness from founders when they build out the strategy, vision and mission of the company.
As a parting note, your kind community manager intern or apprentice might just not be enough to build a thriving community that leads to hockey-stick growth, it’s time to hire a dedicated community lead/team ;)