What is community?
If you asked that question to a thousand people, you’d get a thousand different answers.
I always ask this question in my conversations with community builders and the range of answers is massive: Shared identity and purpose, emotional connection, collaboration, friendship, family, neighborhood, purpose, interaction, love…We all experience and understand community in different forms in our personal and professional lives.
Organizations also struggle to define community. Programs can focus on customers, employees, ambassadors, partners, and any other group involved in the organization. They can also impact support, product, marketing, and many other parts of the business.
With so many different perspectives, it’s no wonder building community feels so complicated. It’s hard to know where to begin, but it doesn’t have to be. The core fundamentals of all communities are the same. Get these elements right, and you’ll be on your way to building a thriving community.
“What we do now echoes in eternity.” — Marcus Aurelius
Why does your community need to exist?
This was the question that Erica Kuhl faced when pitching the idea of community at Salesforce over ten years ago. She believed community could have a massive impact for their customers and the organization, but knew that she needed to prove the value first.
Since she was on the marketing team, she put her full focus on proving that community could impact marketing’s objectives. By being razor-focused on a specific goal, she was able to get buy-in and bring community to other areas of the business.
The #1 reason that community programs fail is because of lack of support and resources. It’s critical that you clearly define your goal so you can track success, and get the buy-in you need.
If you’re unsure where to focus, the CMX SPACES Model will help you understand the six areas where community can drive value for your organization.
Of course, your purpose must be rooted in the needs of your people. Erica would not have been successful if Salesforce customers weren’t motivated to contribute. It’s important to get specific with your purpose. Does your community exist to help people express themselves? Is it focused on creating change? Is it about sharing knowledge?
Clearly defining your purpose will help you make decisions about everything else you create for the community.
Why does your community exist?:
“When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.” — Ernest Hemingway
When Yelp’s first non-technical employee Nish Nadaraja joined the company, he was tasked with building their community from the ground up. Before doing anything, he wanted to know exactly who their members were and what motivated them to post a review on Yelp.
He found that in the world of restaurant reviews, the existing options were traditional and boring. People who posted reviews on Yelp were different. They saw themselves as tastemakers and curators. They were the friend that knew about all the coolest restaurants, gallery showings, and events. This led Nish to launch Yelp Elite, a program that rewarded Yelp’s power users with access to exclusive events and experiences in their city.
It worked. By aligning their strategy with members truly valued, Yelp would eventually grow to be a massive platform, valued at over a billion dollars. Today there are hundreds of Yelp Elite programs, and thousands of members, gathering in cities around the world.
When building community, always start with people.
I can’t tell you how many times organizations have asked for advice on their community strategy before even talking to their members. If you call three of your members and talk to them for 30 minutes, you’ll be 10x smarter about how to make your community successful than you are right now.
It’s possible your community has multiple personas. This was the case with a blockchain company I advised that was struggling to fuel engagement. They actually had three personas: investors, developers, and users. Each persona had a different set of needs, comfort in using different technology platforms, and varying reasons for participating. Instead of treating all of their members the same, they realized they needed to craft a community experience aligned with the specific needs of each persona.
It’s equally, if not more, important to understand who your community isn’t for. Communities, by nature, will be exclusive in some way. It’s that focus that makes it compelling to the members who are a good fit. Yelp focused on people who could make reviews witty, and fun. They purposely avoided the traditional restaurant critic.
Who are your members?
“The ache for home lives in all of us. The safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.” — Maya Angelou
The Dinner Party is a global community with a powerful purpose: to connect people in their 20s and 30s who have experienced significant loss. In order to ensure members feel safe sharing openly, cofounders Carla Fernandez and Lennon Flowers chose to center their community around potluck dinners hosted in members’ homes. Where they gather is a critical part of their experience.
These days, your options for platforms are plentiful. You can gather people in big groups or small, online or offline, live or asynchronous, frequently or infrequently. You can center your community around dinners or brunch, launch a big conference, create a Facebook Group, host virtual, hybrid or in person events or launch a custom online platform. If you’re overwhelmed by all the options, check out the CMX Guide to Community Platforms, which will also give you a process for finding the right place.
For some, like a community of lawyers I recently spoke to, it’s important that you choose a place that’s easy for your members to use. For lawyers, who are busy and reliant on email, a simple Google Group was a good fit.
For others, inconvenience can be a powerful tool for getting members out of their comfort zone. To participate in Burning Man you need to spend a lot of money, drive for hours with loads of supplies, and then survive in the desert for over a week. The struggle is a critical part of the experience because they want attendees to feel free from the “default world.”
By starting with people and focusing on a clear purpose, you can find the perfect place for your community to gather.
Where do they gather?
“Love is neither giving nor receiving — it is participating.” — Paulo Coelho
Douglas Atkin is another legend in the community management space, having run community at Meetup and Airbnb and authored The Culting of Brands. While at Meetup, he realized there were many different ways their members could participate, without actually hosting a meetup. He also saw that over time, as members commitment increased, they would contribute in greater ways. To map out this experience, he created something called a commitment curve. This is what it looked like:
For a member to participate, they must see potential value, know how to participate, and trust that they won’t be judged or attacked. You need to align with their motivations and make it clear how to participate in a quality way.
In most (especially large) communities, only a small percentage of members will create content, and an even smaller percentage will reach the “power member” level. These members provide most of the value in the community, so make sure they’re happy and set up for success.
Most successful communities will have recurring experiences that members know are always happening, even if they don’t participate every time. For example, here are some of the recurring experiences we have in the CMX community:
The key to motivating participation is to look at everything you do for your community as an experiment. Keep creating new content or experiences, collect feedback, and cut or change what doesn’t work.
What do members do?
“I think perfect objectivity is an unrealistic goal; fairness, however, is not.” — Michael Pollan
The Inside Circle Foundation organizes discussion groups for men in maximum security prisons. Their results, which has been featured in the documentary The Work, have been extraordinary. The men in these circles are able to open up and be truly vulnerable. It’s helped many of their members get on a better path. When I met with the CEO, James McLeary (pictured above), he credited one thing with their success: a strong policy.
“When every man walks through the door to participate in a circle, they pretend to take off their ‘armor’ and set it aside.” This practice helps shift their mindset as they enter the space. Every circle also has six simple rules:
A good policy lets every person who participates know that they’re safe and guides them on how to participate in a quality way.
As a leader it’s your responsibility to shape the culture of your community. Creating a policy is how you can make spaces inclusive, safe, and useful. Your policy must be clear, and every member needs to opt-in, or it won’t be taken seriously.
Don’t hide your policy in a term of service, or a long document. Make your values, rules, and guidelines easy to find and brief enough to remember.
What is your policy?:
“Community cannot for long feed on itself; it can only flourish with the coming of others from beyond, their unknown and undiscovered brothers.” — Howard Thurman
All communities, even small groups, need to grow. Communities are never static. If it’s not growing, it’s dying.
That doesn’t mean it needs to grow fast. Fabric, a workspace in San Francisco, purposely caps the number of members who can join. By keeping it small, they can organize intentional experiences, like guided discussions during weekly lunches for all members. They ensure that any new member they invite will contribute to diversity and culture. Unlike many coworking spaces these days, when they use the word “community,” it’s real.
For other communities, it’s better to be big. The Women’s March mission is to create transformational social change. To do this, they needed numbers, and organized the largest single-day protest in history. Big communities can have greater influence in the world, more content and experiences for members to choose from, and more opportunities to develop relationships. Big isn’t better or worst, it’s just different.
Keep in mind that all big communities start small. AngelList started with just 25 investors on an email list. Facebook started at just one school. Burning Man gathers 70,000 people each year, but started with less than 10 people on Baker Beach in San Francisco.
To bring in members in the early days, do things that don’t scale until you build momentum. Ryan Hoover, the Founder of Product Hunt, started by hosting small group brunches to build their core. Once they had a foundation, members were each given three invites to bring new members into the community. Because members cared about the culture, they only invited members they believed would add value. The community has been thriving ever since.
There are many options for promoting your community, whether it’s publishing content, running ads, press campaigns, influencer programs, or any of the other ways organizations do marketing in this world.
Just remember that with community, it’s often better to start small and slow, and grow organically.
How will your community grow?
“Don’t mistake activity with achievement.” — John Wooden
The last critical piece of a community plan is understanding what success looks like, and how it will be measured.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a massive corporation or a local group leader, it’s important that you’re collecting insights and data to help you improve over time. And you need to be able to show, with data, that your community is achieving its objective and creating value. Otherwise, you’ll struggle to justify investing more.
We break down community measurement into three levels:
Measurement is a topic that many community builders struggle with. In fact, according to our recent survey of more than 500 community managers, it’s the #1 frustration among community managers.
Goals can be hard to define, and data can be difficult to access and analyze. So it’s important that you start simple. Don’t try to measure everything. Start with a question in mind, and then identify the data you’ll need to answer that question. Keep it simple.
How is success measured?
Active and resilient communities are built by innovating on each of the 7P’s over time. They are the crucial elements of any community. You can use the 7P framework to plan a new community, or as an audit tool to analyze an existing community.
To create your community plan or audit, go through all of the 7P’s and answer the questions in each section for your community.
Another way you can use the 7P Framework is to design the future of your community. Fill out the following table with brief answers to visualize your community in ten years, five years, and one year.
If you use the 7P Framework for your community, drop us an email and let us know how it goes: email@example.com.
We’d love to see your examples! In addition to CMX Academy and CMX Summit, join the world’s most passionate network of community professionals in one of our community spaces for answers to any of your community-building questions.
Remember: Healthy communities are constantly changing, and building community is all about consistent experimentation. There’s no such thing as a perfect community architecture. Check in on your 7P’s regularly and keep innovating.
Wherever you are in your community building journey always start with people and you’ll be on your way. ❤️
Thanks to our members who helped edit this post:
David DeWald, Jillian Richardson, Emmy McCarthy, Ryan Hoover, Danielle Gould, Asha Chaudhry, Regina Walton, Daniel Doherty, Samantha O’Conner, Rosemary O’Neill, Ernesto Izquierdo, Gregg Baker, Tawny Case, and Erica McGillivray.