The steps to getting your community off to a flying start

A community doesn’t just spring up out of nowhere. Most communities are the result of a carefully directed process. In this post I’ll take you through the thirteen steps from idea to successful community.

You probably already have an idea of what kind of community you want to build. One objective might be to bring together members or customers of your organisation. This broad idea needs to be narrowed down first. Do you want all of your customers in a community, or are you aiming for a specific group of customers? What do you think these customers have in common, or to what end would they want to interact with each other? And what are you hoping to gain from the community in the long term?

To make your plans more concrete, draw up a community concept. This concept will state, as specifically as possible:

  • The target group the community is intended for. For instance construction workers, elderly people living in San Francisco, or Harry Potter fans. Specify as many personal characteristics as possible here, for example age, address, skills, hobbies and personal values.
  • The organisation’s purpose for the community. Typical objectives for a community are: customer service, marketing, market research, co-creation, customer or member loyalty, sales, knowledge sharing and learning.
  • The type of community envisaged by the organisation. This can be one of the six existing archetypes: the community of practice (participants want to connect in the context of their profession), the community of interest (participants bond over their shared passion), the community of action(participants seek significant change within existing politics or the system), the community or circumstance (participants share a set of life circumstances), the community of location (participants live and/or work in the same place), and the community or purpose (participants work on a collective project together).

The formulated concept is based on the idea of the community that’s in your head. At this stage, it’s just a hypothesis, which is why it’s important to first test the concept with the above defined target group. This should tell you whether you’re building on a solid foundation. Additionally — and most importantly — you should aim to set up the community WITH the participants, and not FOR the participants. Resources such as a survey and interviews are demand-driven. A survey allows you to reach a larger group and gather a lot of quantitative data. The interviews should be conducted with those people who show genuine enthusiasm (potential ambassadors). This will provide you with valuable qualitative information.

The ideal group size for a survey is somewhere between fifty and a hundred participants. The organisation will usually be able to provide names and email addresses of people in the intended target group. If you need more people, putting out a call on social media may help. The survey serves the purpose of:

  • testing the feasibility of your concept,
  • identifying potential ambassadors,
  • generating engagement and support for the community,
  • building trust,
  • discovering similarities between the participants, and
  • rounding up themes and topics that will be relevant or of interest to the community.

The questions in the survey are aimed at obtaining all this information. You can base your survey on a standard survey like the one we use.

The survey will reveal a number of potential ambassadors. These are the pro-active people who have the involvement, knowledge, network and/or skills to play a prominent role in the community. They’re generally high-profile individuals who will form the heart of the community. Interviews are a way to increase their involvement even further, and to get to know them better. What drives them? What are their values? What’s important to them? An ideal group size for the interviews is about fifteen people. It should already be made clear to them during the interviews that there’s a special role for them in the community.

The first contours of your community are already emerging as a result of involving prominent participants in the interviews. The plan is for the ten to fifteen proactive members (the interviewees) to form the core group of the community. After the first (hopefully) successful test of the survey and the interviews, this group will serve as the next litmus test. If you fail to get a small, committed group of proactive members together, you’ll unfortunately have to go back to the drawing board.

The reason this step is so important is because you need to make participants jointly responsible for the creation of the community as soon as possible. This is after all the principle behind every community. In addition, research shows that the vast majority of activity in communities is generated by a small group of participants. Roughly one percent of participants are very active, nine percent contribute from time to time, and ninety percent merely observe and read along. Forming our core group is a way of ensuring the one-percent activity.

Careful selection of the group also results in ‘healthier’ communities. The first participants embody the values you envisage for the new community. This group forms the critical conscience. Simply put: if you want a positive, constructive community, look for positive, constructive participants. The community will attract like-minded people. Disruptive voices are less likely to feel at home here, which is exactly what we want.

To get your group together, organise a kick-off event for the proactive members and use the occasion to share the organisation’s plans with them. Feed back the outcomes of the interviews and the survey to them, and ask for their commitment in building the community. You can make it easier for them to choose how they want to contribute by giving them their pick from a number of standard community tasks:

Welcomes new members through an email or message and asks them what they hope to get out of the community.
Links them to relevant content and members based on their answer.

Starts regular in-depth discussions.
Posts an in-depth article on new developments, a vision or tips every four weeks.

Knowledge broker
Shares a relevant link, a relevant event or a relevant external website or blog post once a week.
Indicates why he/she is sharing this with the group.

Blogger or vlogger
Writes a monthly blog post containing a personal story or an account of an event.

Recruits five new members a month.
Promotes the community in their own network, department or organisation.
Deploys own (social media) channels to increase awareness of content and the community.

Poses a new relevant question in the discussions every week.
Ensures follow-up by involving the right people in discussions.
Ensures follow-up by listening, recapping and asking more questions.
Enforces compliance with house rules.

Coach or connector
Helps participants with questions about the community.
Supports, shows appreciation for and encourages participants.

Organises a monthly in-depth session or informal meetup.
Organises workshops and/or discussion meetups.

Once each ambassador has found a task that suits them, you gauge whether they would be willing to ‘commit’ to fulfilling this role. From this point on, you’ve divided up the responsibilities between the organisation (the community manager) and the ambassadors. To create and maintain momentum, schedule regular project consultations to keep your finger on the pulse. You can of course do this through Zoom or Microsoft Teams.

Once the proactive members have been enlisted, you can start involving the rest of the organisation. For most organisations a community is still uncharted territory, so you’ll have to guide them through the ins and outs and the benefits of communities. This will often require a different way of working, so you will come up against some resistance. Clear communication is therefore essential.

An organisation and a community are fundamentally different. There are differences in structure, governance, rewards and the way individual responsibilities are assigned. Organisations run on the principle of command and control; leadership is formally defined and employees get paid to do their job. Communities are meritocratic, and participants take part voluntarily. You can’t force a community. On the contrary, forcing it would be counterproductive. Managers must be willing to cede some of their authority to the informal leaders of the community. The importance of the group is paramount in a community. The goodwill that this creates for the organisation pays off in numerous ways: involved customers, higher sales, extra help, new knowledge, etc. But before any of this, you have to make the organisation aware of these principles.

The community will become completely divorced from the organisation if the day-to-day work in the organisation has no overlap with what’s happening in the community. A community where people share feedback about the organisation’s products and services will need to have close ties with a product development department. A community where a lot of user-generated reviews, tutorials and tips are shared will have to be linked to the marketing department. The employees involved in the community’s objective will need to become active in the community. This will integrate the community with the primary process of the organisation and ensure that the foundation of the community is anchored in the organisation.

Storytelling helps to get the organisation on board. To do this, you can share examples of other inspiring communities, or stories that paint a picture of a future organisation in which the community plays a prominent role. Have the ambassadors or enthusiasts tell these stories.

At this point you’ve gathered enough information to formulate your strategy. Your preliminary research and interviews led to the target group and their wishes and requirements. The organisational objectives can be extrapolated from conversations with stakeholders and documents such as the communications and organisational strategy. A good strategy should in any case contain the following:

  • Introduction: Reason for the community and background of the organisation.
  • Objective: What is the community’s objective, and how does it align with the organisational objective?
  • Key Performance Indicators (KPIs): How do we measure whether the objective is being achieved, and how do we report this?
  • Target group: What is the target group for the community and what are their wishes, needs and/or suggestions?
  • Community Manager: What is the role of the community manager?
  • Ambassadors: What is the role of the ambassadors?
  • Resources: The use of an online community platform in combination with other means of communication (social media, meetups).
  • Planning and budget

Using the strategy’s mix of resources, you compose a list of functional requirements for the community platform you’ll be using. This list is based on both the members’ and the organisation’s wishes. Sharing and exchanging visual media, for example, requires very different functionality than exchanging knowledge. In addition, you should already have a good idea of how public or private the platform will be. Privacy creates intimacy and trust. A public platform, on the other hand, is more visible. It’s common to aim for a combination of open and closed. If you need guidance, you can use our white paper on community platforms, which describes all Dutch platforms in detail. It is important to include the ambassadors in the selection of the platform, if you want it to feel like their ‘spot’.

In addition to having a platform for existing members to come together, you’ll also need resources for advertising to potential members. For this, your best bet is to work with a so-called funnel. The most committed participants of the community are at the very bottom of the funnel (the narrowest part). At the very top (the widest part) is the target group that doesn’t know about the community yet. In this funnel, you plot out the various means of communication, such as social media channels and the website.

“People come for the content and stay for the community” is a commonly heard expression in community management circles. To ensure quality content on a regular basis, use an activation calendar. This calendar lets you plan ahead the content you, the ambassadors and the members will be creating. You’ve already collected some initial suggestions and ideas for content from the interviews and the survey. This is a great starting point for filling the community, which should be done before the community goes live. Nobody wants to live in an empty house.

Ask ambassadors for documents, manuals and videos. Have a meeting with them to continue fleshing out the activation calendar. Their input is crucial. Along with the community manager, they’re the ones responsible for implementation of the calendar. The more concrete, the better. It’s best to plan ahead, day by day, for a whole month. For example: a new discussion topic on Mondays, a blog post on Wednesdays and/or virtual office drinks on Fridays. It’s all about rhythm and consistency. Alternate between small activations, like an online discussion, and bigger activations, such as a white paper. Also make sure to switch between online formats and offline formats like in-person gatherings. You should absolutely avoid only scheduling online activations. Offline is still the best way to build relationships and trust.

Ensure that the completed activation calendar is available to everyone by sharing it in the community as well. Also schedule a monthly meeting with the ambassadors to monitor the progress of the calendar. Everyone should be clear on what their tasks are for that month. The look of the calendar is of minor importance — the important thing is that there is one. We have created calendars in Excel and in Powerpoint, but also in project tools like Asana and Trello.

The moment the platform goes live is the moment that much of your work becomes visible to the rest of the organisation. This calls for a celebration. Not only is this a fun way to mark the work you and the ambassadors have already put in, it also helps gain momentum within the organisation.

Mark going live by organising a party or event. The focus of such a gathering should be on what the community means for the organisation, rather than on the platform itself. You do have to give a short demo of the platform, but try to use the period after going live to familiarise people with the platform in smaller groups.

This is the most difficult phase in the community’s existence. The time to turn all your plans into action. In practice, this means that you and the proactive members have to kick-start the motor that powers content and activity. This takes effort and dedication. For the first few months, it will seem as if there’s no one on the platform except you and those first participants. But don’t despair. You’re sowing the seeds. The harvesting will come later.

Your main focus will be on implementing the activation calendar you’ve put together. Have a meeting with the first proactive members every three to four weeks and, together, update all the to-dos and create the activation calendar for the next month. Everyone should take on some of the responsibility. The good thing about working with such a relatively small group is that you control the content, the tone of voice and the frequency of interaction together.

At this stage, recruitment is done solely on a substantive basis. Make a concerted effort to attract new participants based on expertise needed in the community. This will ensure that new members can take on a substantive role from the start. Or bring in new participants through existing relationships of your first members. All recruitment is individual and in a personal capacity. In this way the community will continue to grow steadily, while preventing too many participants from joining at once and diluting the content. Another reason to prevent overly rapid growth is to preserve the trust you’ve just carefully built up.

About six months after going live, the community should be rooted enough to be able to start recruiting more widely. This can be done using tried and tested recruitment tools like flyers, posters, campaigns and/or presentations.

Social media ads are very effective. During the first stage you carefully identified the community’s target audience. This target group is also on Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram and Facebook, so use the advertising tools these platforms offer to be seen by your target audience. You can use the community content (fun blog posts, interesting documents, inspiring videos) for this.

Don’t forget to give participants and ambassadors joint responsibility for recruitment. Their active networks are another source of new members.

Because the active group is growing, your role will change. The emphasis is much less on activation and much more on moderation. Not everything that happens in the community is necessarily interesting or relevant, and filtering content is an important job.

In terms of content, filter for content that is current, popular and relevant in terms of subject-matter. One way of doing this is by putting it in a newsletter or by writing a summary. This will subtly steer the community in the right direction. There’s probably also a lot of dead wood: content lacking in substance, experiments or blog posts that have been left unfinished. You can edit, delete or archive these.

You may also find some ‘pollution’ among your membership. Some members may have become inactive, or retired. Others may not be a great match for the ideals of the community. Unfortunately, there’s no avoiding the fact that some members will have to be removed.

Now that there’s a large group, it will also become more likely that people will disagree with each other from time to time. The community needs guidelines on how to handle conflicts. Good house rules are only part of the solution. Conflict mediation will always be a job to be done by an actual person.

Make sure that the punishment for violating house rules is proportionate. Removing someone from the community should always be a last resort. If you impose a penalty, always give the group and the individual feedback on your decision. And remember that moderation is much more about education than about punishment.

It would be impossible to provide an exhaustive list of all the possible situations you might encounter as a moderator. But in practice, you can usually rely on your own common sense and moral compass. Don’t be provoked into reacting emotionally. And keep in mind that we all get up on the wrong side of the bed sometimes.

It may well be that you never arrive at this stage. Nor do you need to. This phase will only occur when there is a demand for a new community from within the organisation or from the members. This may be because of a new organisational goal that the community will be involved in. Sometimes, clusters want to break away from the larger community. This often happens on the initiative of the participants. But in order to flourish, each of these new sub-communities needs its own ambassadors, leaders and policy.

Very large communities, like Wikipedia, Mozilla, Etsy or the Microsoft Community, are all ecosystems made up of many smaller communities. You could say that the larger the target group, the more likely it is that an ecosystem will develop. The most ambitious organisations will therefore be prepared for this.

The longer the community is around, the more intertwined it becomes with the organisation. Over time, the boundaries between ‘outside’ and ‘inside’ will blur. Primary processes will run increasingly through the external community. The connection between inside and outside will run through internal and external communities. At some point, the organisation itself will operate as a network.

A company like Salesforce has an extensive international network where employees, external developers and external consultants are always developing new products. Without this community, Salesforce wouldn’t be where it is today. New talent is recruited from the network, external developers are continuously improving the product, and customers become ambassadors for the product.


Evelien Janson