Building a community around your product

updated on 18 November 2021

What's a community

A community is a group of people united by a common interest. It could be members of a local book club who meet at a coffee shop on Tuesday evenings or a global community comprising of millions of users. You could use "passion" for your product as this common interest around which you could build a community.

Creating a community is building an ecosystem in which people produce meaningful work, are able to thrive, and are motivated to keep going to sustain the future success of the community. 

Advantages of building a community?

A community makes your product more powerful by:

  • Creating an army of ground troops that amplifies awareness of your products.
  • Increasing customer success through engagement. 
  • Helping you differentiate your product from your competitors.
  • Creating a closer bond between your product and customers.
  • Helping you create content that helps onboard new customers.
  • Providing free support for your product.
  • Getting you feedback that you can use a catalyst for innovation.

Community members can also be a good source of hires for your company. It makes sense because they have the domain experience and expertise.

Typical user journey

Phase 1 - You buy a product or service. You see that there's a community around it, so you join. You read tutorials and watch videos on how to get started. You ask a few questions. Other members answer all your questions, so you feel welcomed. You apply the things you learn and get better at using the product. You ask more in-depth questions and start optimizing how you use the product or service.

Phase 2 - Your expertise starts to show. Other people ask questions you know the answer to, so you respond. You feel good about giving back, especially because the community has been so helpful to you. You start making friends. You learn more and answer more questions.

Phase 3 - You enjoy the validation and respect the people in the community are giving you when you help them. You feel like a rockstar. The community is fun, rewarding, and you get a lot out of it. You feel more inclined to give back to the community. You're now an influencer and a fully-formed champion for the community.

Value and mission statements

Come up with a mission statement. For example, "form a global community of authors to build the most powerful writing platform."

Come up with a value statement that describes the  social fabric of how the community operates. For example:

"We criticize ideas not people. We treat everyone as equal and everyone is welcome in our community, irrespective of their gender, sexuality, political opinions, or otherwise. We judge contributions based on their individual merit. The vast majority of discussions happen openly with an exception of security or ones for customer privacy. We believe in falling forward....."

Make sure your value and mission statements are crisp, clear, and easy to understand. 

Goals and objectives

Create a quarterly delivery plan. This can live in a spreadsheet or your chosen project management software. In your quarterly delivery plan:

  • Define your goals and objectives (the individual tasks that you need to accomplish to deliver the goals). 
  • For each objective, add a list of KPIs that show measurable deliverables that need to be completed for that objective.
  •  For each objective, have a single owner who takes responsibility for completing that objective.
  • Have a single place to track the status of each objective. Sample statuses: not started, in-progress, under review, complete, delayed, blocked, or postponed.

Make sure every objective has a clear dotted line to a goal and each goal has its own dotted line to the community mission statement. 

Sample

Goal: Build a high quality reliable community driven support resource for customers to get help quickly from other knowledgeable members.

Objectives: Design and develop a reward plan for support participation.  Answer all top questions.

KPIs: At least 75% of all questions submitted get a response, either as an answer or marked as duplicate or marked as spam. 70% of all answers have the answer approved by the submitter. At least 100 members provide at least 1 answer to a question.

Owner: "ABC"

Audience personas

An audience persona is a sketch of a typical community member. 

Common personas in a community:

  • Users. They want to simply use your product effectively to add value to their work. 
  • Support. They help troubleshooting member issues or provide training to other members. 
  • Content creators. They help writing documentation, blog posts, and so on.
  • Advocates. They perform marketing, outreach, and promotion to raise awareness and get more people involved.
  • Event organizers. They enjoy producing and delivering events. This can include meetups, conferences, and more.
  • Developers. They write code that benefits a shared software such as an open source project or develop apps that run on your product.

Prioritize your personas. Each persona needs a lot of work, each needs its own strategy, on boarding, content plan, and so on. Estimate the number of members of each persona.

Example 1: Support persona.

Tools

Building a community is a cultural challenge not a technology one. 

  • Design a forum where people can ask questions and get answers and ensure that previous questions and answers can be easily found. The more you reuse content the greater value it offers. Often these questions also pop up when people search for them on Google.
  • Create a community wiki that anyone can edit, in which pages of documentation material, tutorials, videos, are added by members.
  • Create a platform that constantly pulls relevant content in, like news, updates, events, and videos.

Start simple. Just build enough infrastructure and workflow to allow your members to be productive. 

Onboard

Make sure your onboarding process is as fast and painless as possible. Each step should be clear and lead logically to the next step. For every persona, put yourself in their shoes and think what needs to happen to go from 0 to delivering some value for the individual and the community.

The best communities have many ways of contributing but a few simple ways to get started.

No matter how easy your onboarding process is, new users will experience bumps and will need to ask questions to help troubleshoot. Make asking questions a normal part of the community experience, so nobody feels stupid asking questions. 

Find ways to see if users drop off at any one step. This will bubble up any problems to the surface. Invite target personas to go through the onboarding steps. Observe their steps and find any bumps and fix it. 

Momentum

Good experiences in groups are infectious, that's how you build growth. 

When people work together in the open, solving tangible real problems, it generates social capital and respect. Onlookers often want to get in on the action. When this happens, it causes what psychologists call the 'diffusion chain,' in which people basically mimic the behavior of others.

  • Encourage different types of contributions, from engineering to support to documentation as well as advocacy, events, and translations. 
  • Be empathetic. Communities are a melting pot of people of different backgrounds, experiences, and levels of expertise. You need to be mindful of these differences and show empathy for these differences. 
  • Establish a clear relationship between the work of the members and the broader vision of the overall community.
  • Instill a sense of belonging. Make members feel as part of something.  Get to know people. Their lives, their interests.  
  • Be reactive to insight. Be stoic in the face of difficult-to-swallow feedback. Critical feedback is a good thing. Incorporating this feedback brings remarkable trust within the community.

Run an early adopter program. This is where you invite 10 to 20 people who you know and trust into the community. Give them private access and get feedback before you launch. Your early adopters must be people who are passionate about your product and are motivated to be in your community. 

Casual -> regular -> core

The community journey is broken up into 3-key phases, 'casuals', 'regulars', and 'core.' You need to keep members progressing from casuals to regulars and from regulars to core. 

Casual

Members that have made some contribution of value for the community.

Many casual members feel socially awkward and don't feel comfortable speaking up. The number one goal with casual members is to make them feel at home:

  • Be responsive and solve their problems. Whenever a casual member posts anything, keep the conversation going. 
  • Validate and celebrate their efforts. Be effusive of how their contributions have helped the community. You can also give them positive but constructive feedback to help them improve. 
  • Break the ice and build a relationship. This isn't all work. If you detect a shared interest discuss it. This personal touch builds trust and then momentum. Help them find opportunities to make an impact.

To get them to be a regular, help them build a habit, it takes around 66 days to get a habit and your job is to get them contributing throughout this 66-day period. 

Regular

When a member has participated for a significant and sustained period of time, they can be considered as a regular. You need to decide what significant and sustained means in the context of your community. 

You need to observe how your regulars are engaging and then optimize their experience.

  • Remove all bureaucracy, keep regulars focused on consistently delivering value.
  • Regularly gather their feedback to improve the community.  They can provide insights into your blind spots.
  • Celebrate them in your content plan, social media, events, and so on.
  • Open opportunities for them.  Connect them with career opportunities they might be looking for. Invite them to your company conferences. 
  • Put them in positions of trust and authority. You can make them moderators on your communication channels. 

Regulars want to be more involved and will appreciate the opportunity to include them in all activities. 

Core 

These members are your major leaguers. They are the foundation for your community. You know them by name. You respect them for the amount of time and devotion they provide to the community and you and others think of them as rockstars. 

These folks don't just care about their own community experience, they care about the broader success of the community itself. 

  • Invite them to meetings and get feedback to make improvements to the project and discuss the roadmap.
  • Run your strategic plans past them.
  • Make them a part of the leadership of the community. 
  • Build a personal relationship with them.
  • Be vulnerable with them and ask them for their help and guidance.
  • Schedule check-in meetings and build a personal rapport.
  • Send them gifts and swag as a token of appreciation. 

Consider them as extended members of your team. 

Incentives

Add incentives at the transition points between casual, regular, and core phases. To create incentives, look at your audience personas and your goals and think about:

  • The desired behavior that you want to incentivize - Make sure you can assess whether the desired behavior is accomplished with a 'Yes' or 'No.' Also, tie it to a quality measure like making a contribution that receives a like or some approval.
  • The kinds of incentives that'll motivate them - You could have intrinsic incentives like celebrating people on social media the first time they make a contribution, or extrinsic incentives like distributing T-shirts, stickers, gadgets, and so on. Always start with intrinsic rewards first because they tend to have more long-term impact.

You could also have incentives like gamification badges, similar to quests in video games. 

You could also craft seemingly random acts of kindness, like a kind email from the founder of a project supporting a member's recent contribution. 

Sample incentives

  • If a member answers a question on the support forum they receive a badge that's visible on their member profile. 
  • If a member contributes their first piece of approved content to a blog, they get a free ebook with writing best practices. 
  • If a member has 10 of their responses to other member questions accepted as answers, they're sent a personal note and 10$ gift card to an online store.

Success criteria

Measure the performance of your community, evaluate it, and try to spot patterns that point to problems.

For growth, you can track metrics like:

  • How many people are joining your community. 
  • How these numbers change over different time periods. 
  • How many people are sticking around and participating.
  • How effectively are members engaging with each other. 
  • How the community delivers results for each audience persona. For example, how many support personas answer questions, how many content creators produce useful content, and how many developers write code. 
  • How well attended are your in-person events, webinars, and other initiatives. 
  • How efficient is your onboarding process.

Tracking action measures only engagement. Tracking validation tracks the quality of the engagement. Track both where you can. For example:

  • Action: An answer is posted.
  • Validation: The answer is selected as the right answer.

Set reasonable expectations of what success looks like based on the metrics and adjust the strategy when needed.

Sample: Assessing success for blog posts.

Observe data

You see that shorter blog posts get a higher rate of hits as well as a better bounce rate.  You want to test if the hypothesis that shorter blogs perform better is true.

Run experiments

Develop a simple experiment that you can perform to test the hypothesis. This test should run for a short period of time and generate enough data to prove or disprove your hypothesis.

For example, distribute 6 blog posts in the coming weeks, all technical in nature, so for the same engineering persona. 2 of these posts will be 150 words long and 2 will be 300 words long and 2 will be a 1000 words long. Promote these equally and track the number of hits, bounce rate, and the reader rating for each post after its live for 2 weeks.

Review data

Does the data reveal that your hypothesis is correct or even maybe has the opposite effect. In some cases, the data might not concretely point either way. If so, you could try a different experiment to prove/disprove the same hypothesis.

Say in the data, you see that shorter blog posts get 30% more hits and a 10% improvement in bounce rate. This proves the hypothesis.

Determine next steps

Based on the results, review and amend your strategy.

In this case, you can review all new blog posts and make them shorter in overall length. You could recommend writing shorter blogs to content creators.

Continue reviewing data for a longer period of time to ensure that the hypothesis sticks. 

Limit what you measure. If you have 500 graphs on your dashboard, you have 500 things to get distracted by. Stay focused on those items delivering value to your goals.

Things going wrong

When you glue people, platform, and products together all sorts of things can go wrong.

You might struggle to get people involved. Your community might be boring and uninteresting and might not produce any results at all. People might get into arguments or spats. You might have political issues to wrangle with between members.

Understand the risks, be motivated by the opportunities, and have a clear sense of what you can accomplish with your community.

Case study - open source software

The global open source community has produced tools like Linux, OpenStack, Apache, Debian, Jenkins, Gnome, and others.

The open-source community writes software that powers the majority of consumer devices, data centers, the cloud, and the internet itself. The community is a fundamental part of the value proposition. As important as the software itself. 

On June 7, 2014, a new open source project called Kubernetes was announced. It's a piece of software that you can use to manage your software services running in the cloud. 

Now more than 2,000 developers have contributed enhancements to the project - shipping more than 480 releases. These developers come from over 50 companies, many of which compete with each other.

A critical element as to why Kubernetes succeeded is because its code is open source. So when they were gaps in functionalities or bugs that produced errors for the users, there's a way in which anyone can fill in these gaps and create these additional features or fixes. 

As the contributions increase, Kubernetes offers greater value.

Another example is Tensorflow. This open source machine learning project has attracted more than 1,700 contributors. Not only is the code open source, but discussions about the project, working groups discussing new features, and issues and bug reports are all open too. 

Read more

Runs on Unicorn Platform