Chapter 1

Formation & Engagement

Founders who wish to build a successful community should take into account these three critical principles of community building:

Focus on the “who”. Start with a narrow target persona.

Set your objectives clearly.

Create community engagement through a portfolio of activities.

Focus on the "Who"

When embarking on creating a community, it’s important to first focus on the “who”. Specifically, who is the target persona for this community? Persona creation is a well-established product development technique that defines an archetypical user or an example of what you want the quintessential user to look like. 

Focus on the who

Early in its development, marketing software company Hubspot created a persona they called “Marketing Mary”.

This persona was complete with a photo and a biography -- even where she went to college (Boston University, if you were wondering!). The company plastered pictures of Marketing Mary across all of its departments to help the entire company concentrate on its target customer.

For early-stage entrepreneurs, articulating a big vision and targeting an expansive customer base is essential for fundraising. However, when defining a persona for a community, it is best to start narrow. Even more narrow than you might otherwise think. 

When forming a strong community, begin with a small group of similarly minded individuals who self-identify with the community persona. Psychological research tells us that humans are hardwired to seek out similar people who they perceive to be trustworthy as a “psychological default”.

Wellesley professor Angela Bahns indicates people seek out others who are more “similar on the things that matter most to them personally.” This principle does not mean that a community can’t be diverse on traditional dimensions such as gender and race. Instead, there needs to be some unifying theme that brings the community together -- for example, shared values or mission at a personal or professional level. If the community is too broad, there is not a strong enough reason to gather.

The example below from our portfolio company Chief, a private network that connects and supports women leaders, helps demonstrate the power of starting your community with a narrow persona.

Big picture target customer: all executive women in the world

Filters to make the initial community smaller: C-level executives, US-based

Initial community (more narrow definition): C-level executive women in NYC

Initial community (even more narrow definition): C-level executive women in NYC that work in retail, media or technology

With this persona in mind, Chief launched a series of outbound email campaigns and LinkedIn messages to its target persona. To create a sense of intimacy and credibility, Chief name-dropped the other members of that community that had already joined the network. Once a critical mass of network members was established, expansion was possible to other industries, broader titles, and other cities. But to get the community formed from a “cold start”, the power of a narrow definition is clear:

Like-minded individuals are more likely to embrace the community if they see reflections of themselves in the community

Best practice sharing, and thus value exchange, is more likely in a small community of people who form bonds of trust

Accountability, loyalty, and acting respectfully to preserve reputation within the community is more likely if the community members believe they will run into each other either virtually or in real life

Some communities require these techniques to address the “cold start” problem, but other situations may require a different approach. Codecademy’s community manager, Alyssa Vigil, points out that many communities already exist. The company’s job is to simply recognize and organize the existing community, building a structure to help the community engage even more dynamically. Jacob Peters of the community software company, Commsor, notes, “community happens whether a company facilitates it or not.”

As Airbnb Brian Chesky famously said (quoting Paul Graham):

“It is better to have 100 people love your product than a million people sort of like you.”

Substitute the word “product” for “community” and you have the essence of community formation.

Once you select the who, it is a natural transition to next focus on the “what”. That is, what is the value proposition that the community represents? A community’s value proposition may differ from the product’s value proposition. The community’s value proposition is what brings people into the community and what keeps them there. Importantly, that value proposition should be as narrow and specific as possible to the initial community you wish to attract and contain an “aha!” piece of content that lures them in as a carrot to join.

Objective and community design elements

Once you have clarity on the who and the what, you are ready to build your community. Now the two questions you need to answer are: (1) what is my business and personal objective in forming the community? And (2) what defines community success? As we will discuss later in this ebook, the value to the business will flow naturally from the value to the community.

There are a few typical answers to the question:  why do you want to form a community?

Product support and success

Members can answer questions and address issues for other members. Atlassian does a particularly good job of designing their community to provide support. They do so by constantly feeding community managers a rich set of workbooks, videos, templates, and code snippets to answer questions about how to use Jira and other tools.

Source of new customers

When the community is configured to serve as one of the free benefits of a “freemium” business model, it effectively serves as a marketing function. In essence, the community represents a part of the content marketing and lead nurturing process. Honeybook, a customer bookings platform for small businesses, uses its community in this fashion. The company considers its community efforts, which brings small businesses together to share best practices and prospects, a central engagement strategy at the top of its funnel. This mindset became so effective that the company reallocated their partnership budget to the community team.

Product innovation and feedback

This community objective is typical for software companies who want to use community to enhance their offerings and test new ideas. Salesforce’s creation of their MVP program is an excellent example of this objective. Members receive product briefings and access to senior executives on systematic basis to provide detailed feedback on new products and offerings.

The product itself

In some cases, the central value proposition is community, and hence the success of the community is defined clearly as the quality of the offering that the community itself represents. Duolingo exemplifies this community strategy to help make learning another language easier. The community connects users with native language speakers within the Duolingo community who are happy to converse and instruct.

Many companies want to do it all, so prioritizing these four objectives is critical to focus your initial energy. Just as Eric Ries popularized the product design concept of a minimum viable product (MVP), it is important to think through what defines the minimum viable community (MVC) to generate the necessary critical mass required to achieve the community’s objective.

At the same time that you’re determining what your objectives are for building the community, you want to make sure that you are also taking into account why the community members themselves might be interested in being a part of the community. In other words, why are the community members showing up and what is their objective in being a part of the community?

Once you have determined both your objective and focus for the community, you can begin developing your plan to form and engage your initial community members. To forge a successful community, there are seven key elements to success to consider: 

A shared purpose and values

There must be a clear reason for the community to come together and a clear sense of shared values. This speaks to the homophily principle that similarly breeds connection. Joro is an example of this as a community of climate change enthusiasts committed to “living lighter” and reducing their carbon footprint.

Simple, easily accessible value consumption

It should be clear what the value proposition is for new and existing members. The benefit must be immediate and obvious. In the early days at Github, the value proposition of a cloud-based code repository to facilitate collaboration across open source coding projects was obvious and powerful. This simple value proposition led to the Github community's explosive growth and its powerful role as the “Library of Alexandria” for code.

Simple, easily navigable value creation.

Members should easily be able to create value simply and intuitively for others. The value that the community adds to its members should be obviously greater than the value extracted from them.

Clearly defined incentives and rewards

The quality of a contribution should be acknowledged and recognized, as should community-centric behavior, to strengthen a sense of belonging and unity.

Carefully crafted accountability

Peer review should be integrated into the workflow to produce better, more diverse results while encouraging greater collaboration.

Healthy, diverse participation driven by good leadership

Prevent a few voices from dominating the community conversation and instead surface leaders that solicit broad participation. Codecademy reinforces community leadership through a ranking system based on the leader’s “trust level”. When a community leader achieves “trust level 4”, enabling them to moderate a forum, they host a digital party to celebrate them and their contributions.

Open, objective, governance, and evolution

The governance should be clear and well understood, with community members playing an active role in reinforcing the rules and proper code of conduct. Atlassian’s well-defined “rules of engagement” has served to clearly identify the appropriate boundaries and positive tone for its community of 2.6 million members.

Portfolio of community engagement

To successfully engage your community, create a model that recognizes the individual member’s journey from awareness to attention to action. Community members will often move from stage to stage at different points -- some will progress to the most engaged stage while others may settle at a less engaged stage. All community members should be valued and targeted with appropriate engagement tactics -- no matter what stage of engagement they may be at any given point in time.

This paradigm is different from the marketing funnel, where the objective is to get the target customer from initial awareness through the entire funnel until a sale is closed. Here, community members may engage in various activities and demonstrate different levels of commitment to the community at different points in time based on their goals and profile. Obviously similar funnel principles apply to engage new community members, but this fluid range of engagement models should be encouraged and a part of the community design.

An example from the nonprofit Facing History and Ourselves, a teacher training program, is instructive. Facing History’s community of teachers incorporate their curriculum materials in a broad variety of ways. Some teachers simply take resource material and use it as part of a single lesson plan. Others incorporate the curriculum into an entire, dedicated course (“full implementation”). Across the tens of thousands of teachers in the community, Facing History customizes activities and engagement techniques across all stages of engagement, valuing teachers no matter where they are. 

The chart below shows that a small percentage of the community may engage at the deepest level while others might engage at a more basic level. Again, all levels of engagement are valued. It is expected that community members -- in this case, high school teachers - might move through different levels of engagement at different times over the course of the year, or even at different times in their career.


These three elements provide you with a framework for forming and engaging your community. In sum: start narrow, set up the rules, and craft your engagement strategy across a set of fluid, well-defined stages.  

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Product Feedback, Experience & Support

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