For years now, I’ve led or sat in on brainstorming sessions with many different types of company in my angel portfolio and network — from virtual student study startups to web3 gamers to data storytelling nonprofits to venture firms — where each is trying to answer the same question:
How on earth do I start with community strategy?
By this, I mean these companies or projects know true community building could be brilliant for deepening engagement and weaving their network more closely together but aren’t clear, practically, how to go about it. And, in conversation, when I went out looking for easy resources to share, there were so few available that I decided to write up this simple framework so others can use it.
But first: let’s check this is relevant for you. I’m going to assume that you either have:
A powerful mission; something people want to rally around, even if not much rallying has happened yet (Like Crypto, Culture and Society DAO; I joined right when it was announced as the idea of space to discuss the implications of crypto on society was too interesting to pass up)
OR a good product; something that gives utility or joy, that people want to use (for example, Progression helps managers and their reports have more transparent conversations around career development).
Ideally you’ve got, or are on the way to having, both.
Bringing people together to drive collective action is one of the core opportunities and challenges of our time. People might be busy and distracted, and sorely lacking shared truth, but this craving we have for spaces we can belong in is as old as the hills.
True community building takes time, effort and care, though. There’s no point starting this work unless it helps you meet strategic goals and you’re going to start something you continue.
So before you decide on a platform to use or spend any money, start with the basics:
- What are the goals for your company or project?
- How could community building — building with people, not for them — bring you closer to those goals and reiterate your values in the process?
- If you launch work to nurture your community, who in your company or group will need time to do this work well?
- If your community are important external stakeholders, who are the internal versions?
The last question is important. Something I’ve observed, in speaking to folks that lead communities of all sizes and types, is that a core part of their work is building alignment internally. Community means different things to different people; the more the community lead (whether they’re the founder or a hired/elected steward) can listen and understand these perspectives first, the more they’ll be able to build buy-in.
The same principle applies to your proto-community; if you’re seriously considering a more formal strategy, you’re probably surrounded by volunteers, participants, or customers already engaging with the mission or product in the way you hope people will. So get out there and listen. You want to understand:
- How did they find you?
- What’s motivated their involvement so far?
- What do they care about?
- What must any community your company nurtures offer?
Great communities know who they are, and who they aren’t.
So these chats will give you direction around how people feel about what you do and what to test first. Sometimes you’ll come away with a few clear types of community member (if I worked in advertising, I’d call these personas). Here’s an example from a session I ran for a B2B company:
Three sections are; who this is, what motivates them, and where they are
Based on these interviews, we learnt there were two profiles this company speaks to; the buyer and the champion. And, while the buyer might seem like the core person to engage (after all, they’re the one who will pay for your product) it’s the second group, the champion, that’s more strongly motivated to contribute — and might have more time.
Now it’s time to brainstorm using this simple framework.
Tools; what you need to have in place to hold space, connect, understand and measure.
Rituals; what you need to test to create a sense of belonging and nudge contribution.
Moments: what could work to reiterate values and shout about the community to a far broader audience.
So tools could include:
- Which virtual space your community gathers in (Some folks get so stuck on this but the only right answer is; where people already are. Nobody is in love with Discord but if you’re working in web3, you’re probably going to want to be there. Similarly, if you’re speaking to enterprise sales folks, don’t use Discord)
- Internal education to help others in your company or project understand community work
- The token through which you denote membership, governance rights or more
- Values or code of conduct new joiners must abide by
- The right metrics (too much talk about being “data-driven” but what’s valuable isn’t the data but the insights it gives you, so choose wisely. Growth alone is rarely the right metric for community)
Rituals could include:
- Clear and powerful norms around onboarding (How someone is welcomed into an existing group is critical)
- A sense of how we want to be together (includes how you celebrate and how disagreement or disputes are handled)
- The repetition of the shared mission (reading this piece about what DAOs can learn from AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) reminded me most meaningful communities have a strong sense of who they are and why they’re gathered)
- Regular formats, online or offline, for folks to come together, learn and discuss; reliability and repeatability helps build in routine
- Mechanisms to collect feedback
- What it means for someone to be elevated into a power user or ambassador role
And moments could include:
- A yearbook highlighting a season of work (I love this one from Logic School)
- Research that gives back to the wider ecosystem, like Atomico’s State of European Tech or CMX’s community industry survey
- Events like New Public’s festival or Stripe’s Sessions
- Toolkits like this Public Goods starter pack I worked on for Gitcoin/Crypto, Culture and Society
- The best ideas here will nearly always come from your community
These are just a few suggestions; the blend you pick depends on your mission or product.
Just remember; communities are built with people not for them. Community managers design spaces, then get out of the way to allow their community to grow, play, lead, and improve. Your role should shift from designer to steward; that means something you’re doing is working. Have fun!
And another resource I’ve been sharing often recently:
How to find (and hire) community managers / Bethany Crystal