How do you build a brand-new community?
Recently, I shared six important lessons on this topic. But I know what you really want: A clear process. How do you actually build a community? How do you get it off the ground? What are the steps?
I get this question constantly, so I decided to share my process for building new communities from scratch.
Every successful community I’ve launched has followed these steps. What I’ve found over time is that most large communities you see today have followed these same 10 steps to build community too, whether or not they knew that’s what they were doing.
Before I dive right into the 10-step process, here’s some important background.
A person only becomes a member of a community when four things happen:
This is the foundation of the CMX Social Identity Cycle, which looks like this:
Now if your community is brand new and has no members yet, why would people do any of those things? There’s no social identity to align with, they have no idea how to participate, and there’s no guarantee of any reward.
This is why most communities fail before they even begin. Companies will “announce” a new forum, invite 1,000 people to it, and expect those three elements to appear as if by magic.
Nope. Won’t work.
What you have to do is create those three elements manually. You have to MAKE them exist, one step at a time. This is about building community from scratch, not just making the business case for it to exist.
That’s what this 10-step process will do. You’ll manually create the three elements of community: Identity, participation, and reward. You do it over and over again, until eventually, they become organic and the community has a foundation you can build upon. Once you have that foundation, you can think about scale.
1. Form Identity: Find 10 potential members who fit the community identity you envision.
2. Earn Trust: Get buy-in for a community from the members.
3. Fuel Participation: Bring them together, ideally in person.
4. Reward: Validate that members got value.
5. Repeat steps 1-4: Invite new members and give existing members the opportunity to invite someone new.
6. Identify Founding Members: Choose the right people to invite first.
7. Earn trust: Get buy-in from the community for the new platform.
8. Fuel online participation: Kick off the platform and facilitate interaction.
9. Reward: Collect feedback and validate reward.
10. Grow: Invite more people and empower members to invite others.
Let’s dig into each of these steps in detail, using the Social Identity Cycle as our guide.
I’m going to use the Product Hunt community as our real-world example because they nailed the process, and because I experienced it first-hand. But you can apply this model to any kind of community. We built (and continue to build) CMX in the same way.
Here we go…
This is where you get a core group of people to feel a sense of community.
Before Product Hunt was a massive platform, it was just a group of people that met up for brunch… What will your early-stage community grow to become?
You probably already have a pretty good idea of who your ideal members are. They might be customers that you’re serving. They might be friends. You had an idea that a community would be a good idea for some group of people, right? Now identify 10 people who fit that type who could potentially be your first members.
It’s incredibly important that you thoughtfully curate these first members. They will set the tone for your entire community. They’ll set the standard of quality and the tone for everyone else.
Ryan Hoover is the founder of Product Hunt and has always been obsessed with discovering new products. He spent time talking about products with other entrepreneurs and started a curated collection of blog posts called “Startup Edition”. He started meeting a lot of other people who also loved to discover and talk about new products.
You don’t have a community yet, so there’s no way these first 10 members can trust the community. So you have to start building trust. If they don’t already know and trust you, that’s step one: connect with these people, take them out for coffee, bring them value. At this stage, they can’t trust the community (it doesn’t exist yet), but they can trust you, and they can trust the idea of a community that you would help build.
You want them to feel invested in the idea. Better yet, you want them to feel like it’s their idea. So ask them for feedback. Ask: “Would you be interested in coming to an event with other people interested in this topic?” If they feel like it’s their idea, they’ll care much more about making the community succeed.
Ryan earned his members’ trust because he spent a long time developing relationships and ran Startup Edition. So when he wanted to start organizing brunches, it was an easy sell. Also, who doesn’t like brunch?
Now you’ve got 10 people who trust you and have expressed interest in participating in a community. They’ve even given you some ideas and feedback for what the community could be. It’s time to bring them together. Your goal is to start to build trust between the members. Their trust in you will translate to trust in each other, and in the group as a whole.
It’s easier for people to build trust in person. If you can’t do it in-person, do it live online. The more intimate and interactive, the better.
I’m personally a fan of hosting dinners. Brunches are good too. It helps people to sit down and have deeper conversations. It also makes it easier to talk to new people. At happy hours, conversations tend to be shorter, and people just stick to who they know.
Ryan started hosting brunches every couple weeks. Because he did such a good job of curating the right members, these brunches were hugely valuable for everyone. They always met someone interesting, which provided the reward that would motivate them to come back again.
You want to ensure that the experience was valuable and that members felt rewarded for their participation. If they didn’t, you messed something up and will need to try again. That’s okay, mistakes are good. It means you learned what didn’t work and can try something else.
Asking for the members’ feedback can also be a reward in itself. It lets people know that their opinion matters and they’re being listened to. This will increase the chances of them coming back again, even if the first experience wasn’t great.
Ryan got feedback from everyone that they loved the brunch and met a lot of awesome people. He could see everyone at the event had fun and stayed around for a long time. He was confident that it was a valuable experience.
Now you have a group of people who have developed relationships with each other and you’re starting to build your foundation. Time to start to plan your next event or program. But this time, you don’t have to identify all the new members. You can give your members the opportunity to invite someone.
Notice I used the word opportunity. You’re not asking for a favor. You’re giving them a chance to give someone else value by inviting them to this highly curated group. This also ensures they only bring really good people that will keep the quality high.
You’ll know that people are starting to feel a sense of belonging when they identify as a member of this group, are seeking out others on their own, and members are coming to multiple events.
Ryan started to host multiple brunches in different locations and would invite new people every time. He encouraged people to bring a +1 if they knew someone awesome. Uniquely, he didn’t host these brunches in order to build a community for his Product Hunt platform. He didn’t have the idea for a product yet. But these brunches created bonds between the people who would become the first members of Product Hunt. He had hosted three brunches before sharing the idea for Product Hunt, the platform for people to share new products they discovered. This is where he started to move the community to a scalable platform.
Now that you have the foundation, a group of people who trust each other and who feel a sense of community, you can start to provide a scalable platform for the community to interact. For the most part, we’re talking about an online community platform here. You’re essentially providing technology to help your community members interact more efficiently and discover one another on an ongoing basis.
To get your online community started, much like in step 1, you’ll want to choose the right people to kick things off. Curating the right group is extremely important because they’ll set the example for the rest of your community as it grows. So identify a core group of people who you think would be the most motivated to participate in a community like this.
Ryan had the idea for Product Hunt and, because he had been hosting all of these brunches, he had a group of people he thought might enjoy being the first users. He created a linkydink account and made a list of a few dozen people from the community that he wanted to invite.
Just like in step 2, you don’t yet have an online platform, so it’s impossible for your members to trust that it will bring them any value. Thankfully, they already trust you and they trust the other people in the group thanks to all your work in steps 1-5.
Now reach out to the people you’ve identified and ask for their feedback. Get their opinions on the concept. Make them feel invested in the success of the community. This way, when you launch the community in the next step, they’ll be motivated to participate.
Ryan just started asking people if they’d be interested in a platform to share products. He could collect feedback at the brunch events and over email. People seemed interested. They were already talking about new products at the events and in private conversations, so this aligned with their existing habits. He had buy-in.
Now you’re ready to get the platform off the ground. Invite all the people that you got buy-in from to be the first members of the new platform. Make sure to add some content to the platform first so that new members don’t have to be the first to post and you can set the example for how to use the platform properly. Post prompts and questions so members can respond. Start to facilitate interaction.
Not seeing immediate interaction? Don’t just sit there! Email one of the members and ask them to post something to get it started. If it’s a message board, ask them to post a question. Then email a few other members to answer their question. Interactions usually don’t happen organically at first. You have to make interactions happen. Reddit made up fake users until interaction happened organically. eBay bought and sold its own products. Do what you need to do to set the example for your members and ensure they’re getting value.
Ryan launched the linkydink and invited that first group of people. Ryan then reminded people every day to submit new products. Some days were slower than others, but every day, everyone who subscribed would get an email with a list of the links that were submitted. Like almost every huge platform we know today, it started small. We had no idea how big it would get.
Now that people are using the platform, you want to make sure they’re getting value out of their participation. This is critical because if they don’t experience a reward, then they won’t be motivated to come back and use the platform again. As product design expert Nir Eyal explains in his book Hooked, if members feel rewarded, it will eventually start to form a habit loop that will keep them coming back.
I typically ask for feedback about two weeks after I invite a member to the platform, but there’s no magic number. You just need to give them enough time to actually experience the value.
If they aren’t getting value, that’s okay. You’ve learned something, and now you can try something else to provide value to your community members. Try asking different questions. Try different formats of interaction. Just keep experimenting.
Ryan constantly collected feedback from members to learn about their experience and to make sure future designs aligned with what people wanted. He would send out design mocks and let members comment directly on them with his feedback. This made him confident that he was building the right thing, and it made members feel invested in the development of the platform. Remember, asking for people’s feedback is a form of reward.
Give those first members some time to interact and have an intimate experience. Once there’s a good amount of content on the platform, you can start to grow the community slowly. You don’t want to start adding new members like crazy because that would undermine the safe, high-quality environment you’ve created by curating the right people and building relationships between them.
A good way to do this, similar to step 5, is to empower your members to invite new members to the community. In this way, you’re starting to grow your community organically, and maintaining a high level of quality.
And keep hosting live events! They’ll continue to drive energy and trust into your online community.
Ryan would go on to grow the community thoughtfully over time. As more and more people joined, they still limited who could post new products to the platform to a small group of people. This kept the quality high. Soon they would give every current member the ability to invite three people to Product Hunt. The community started to grow organically, eventually gathering hundreds of thousands of members and reaching millions of visitors. They’d continue to host their brunches too. In fact, they started hosting all kinds of live events to continue to bring the community together offline.
There you have it. Follow those 10 steps, and you’ll start to see your thriving community grow in no time. Pinky promise.
Over time, you’ll start to see layers of membership form. Members will continue to go through the community engagement cycle over and over again as they become more engaged members of your community. It isn’t perfectly linear, but this gives you a way to visualize what’s happening as members become more engaged. Some members will go on to become power users. Some will be active. Most will be passive.
You can visualize it like a wheel, rolling up the commitment curve:
Not every community starts with a brunch. But every community starts with the foundation of identity, trust, participation and reward, and scaled it through an online platform.
Not everyone reading this will be starting at square one. In some cases you already have people’s trust. Maybe they’re your customers. Maybe they’ve been following you for a long time.
Or maybe the foundation of community already exists elsewhere, and you’re creating a platform for that community to scale. That’s how Reddit got a lot of its first users: they were developers who read Paul Graham’s blog and Reddit was just a place for them to interact in a way they couldn’t anywhere else. Facebook relied on the existing student community at Harvard. Airbnb served as a platform for people attending a design conference. So if you’re pulling from an existing foundation of community, you can skip to phase 2.
This process works for any kind of brand community your organization might build. Support forums, idea exchanges, message boards. Every community needs a core group of members who are highly engaged and will create value for the rest of the members. This is how you get it started.
Go forth, community builder. Use your powers for good.