From the Collective: On Community Part 2 – It’s Not Community, it’s Culture

Welcome to Part 2 of a three-part series focused on community. In my last post I talked about using frameworks to build your community and the limits that we all face when we rely on just that method. For part two I want to focus on how we can all build and sustain communities that go beyond the numbers to unlock a member’s full potential.

HOW TO BUILD A LONG-LASTING COMMUNITY

First things first, we’re building a culture, and that’s important for our own framing. The frameworks I mentioned in my last post can and will help you build your community at a high level, but none will tap into the core wants, needs, and desires of the collective. Those frameworks, as great as they are for structure, were not created to build a culture as much as they were to support a member/customer. 

That being said, customer communities do in fact have cultures. The best ones have very intentional cultures, which is why they’re successful! Think about Salesforce’s customer community: Trailblazers. They’ve built a deep culture where members help each other and they celebrate their success. It’s less about a transaction and more about getting people what they need and supporting where they’re trying to go. They even have their own terminology, which further strengthens the collective community and makes people feel like they’re truly part of something bigger (which they are).

Hubspot is another incredibly successful community that intentionally built a culture where knowledge flows freely, support and praise are given loudly, and togetherness is baked into the core. They’ve also managed to create subgroups for members to dive deeper into more specific topics and areas, without fragmenting the community as a whole (which is not always easy to do). At the same time, people love Hubspot’s community so much that they’ve become organic brand ambassadors inviting new people in. So how do they do it?

Both of the communities I referenced have been around for over a decade, and that’s important to note. Community is not an overnight success. Ambitiously launching with a handful of programs doesn’t guarantee success of any of them, because nurturing humans takes time. Fostering a culture of trust and belonging takes time. And testing programs, gathering feedback, and tweaking as needed all takes time.

Can you see where I’m going with this? Even if you replicated each community program offered by any successful org, there’s no promise that your replication will drive value, deliver joy, and meet your members’ needs. So how, then, do you do it? It takes a lot of work, commitment, and buy-in, and when done right, will support itself in the long run. Here are my 5 tips to building your community and creating a long-lasting culture:

1. Take the Time

A while ago someone started a rumor saying communities could be launched in 90-days and it caused a lot of company executives to believe that something so grand could be built in such a short time. I’m here to say that while you can certainly build something in 90-days, it won’t be a long-lasting community with the needed support to succeed. Communities take time because people take time, and they’re the one variable your community is built with and around (people being your potential members AND your company leaders). Give yourself time – 6-18 months – to really understand who you’re building with and why. This doesn’t mean you do absolutely nothing in the meantime. It means you use this time as a discovery phase and to build with intention. 

Keep existing programs running but revisit if they’re relevant anymore. Dream up new projects and see where they fit in the business and community itself. Connect with leaders in the company to understand their org’s needs and share how a community can be built to support them. This time is foundational to setting your community up for longevity.

2. Get to Know Your Current & Ideal Members

Use your discovery phase to get to know your members. For current members, reach out. Schedule small group sessions or 1:1s with those who are most active, least active, most in favor of, and most opposing. Why such extremes? Because those are the people who care and those are exactly the people you want to learn from and build with. I promise you, even the person who hasn’t logged into the community in months cares because at some point they joined, and were looking for something. Your job is to find out what that was and how come it never happened.

If you’re building a community from scratch and don’t have members, even better. Use this time to map who those ideal members are, find them, and talk to them. Start with community personas and use this time to really imagine who you’re looking to bring into the space. Understand who they are, what they like, and what they’re in need of. Roughly outline what you hope their community journey will look like, when they join (before or after sales?), and what that onboarding can look like. This plan doesn’t need to be ready for action, it’s more of an ideation phase to help you imagine what you can and might build. You may even find that the community you thought you wanted to build actually morphs as you start to understand who’s going to be in it and how they’ll use it.

3. Uncover the ‘Why’ for Members and the Business

This is crucial for foundational development and internal alignment. In your discovery phase, ask yourself ‘why’. Why does this community have to exist? Why does the business want to support it? Why do members join, contribute, stay, and bring others in? Alternatively, why do they leave, go inactive, or just stop showing up?

Unlocking the internal motivators and intrinsic drivers of your members is going to unlock the programs, events, content, and offerings you’re seeking to build. On the business side, it’s going to ensure deep alignment with business goals and set the community up for greater success. If the business does not support the community, it will fail, and that’s a fact. Communities take resources, and if you’re short on them, it’s the members who suffer. Ensure the community is aligning with the goals of the business before you launch, otherwise it will be an uphill battle from day one.

4. Experience Life Together

There’s a reason people use the phrase ‘comrades in the trenches,’ and it’s because experiencing life together can bring people closer. Now, I’m not saying we should jump to a trauma-inducing activity, but yes, let’s live a little together. Go for a hike, meet up for a drink, edit a resume together, or enjoy a small group dinner. Whatever it is, it’s crucial to move beyond the operations and metrics and tap into what makes everyone a full human being.

It’s not fluff either. As you work through the steps and do your diligence, you’ll see and hear from members about what it is they like and want in this life. You may learn who’s a parent, who has pets, who travels all of the time, etc. From there, you have the opportunity to craft moments that allow you to share those experiences. These are the intentional details that build a culture. And building this culture will provide value and community for members. You need both to be successful.

5. Build With, Not For

I saved my favorite for last. You may have noticed me mentioning ‘building with’ some of the best communities in the world. Notice I didn’t say I built some of the best communities in the world, because that would be a lie. As a community creator and leader, my job is to listen, uncover the gaps for both the business and the user, and find a way forward for all. In order to shift from building for your ideal member to building with them, you’ll need to remind yourself that at the end of the day, it’s their community. 

You cannot create something great ‘for’ them if you do not include them in what’s being built. For anyone afraid of giving up control or losing the community’s focus, this doesn’t mean you share a blank canvas and leave it up to them. Communities need leaders, and as one, your job is to source as many insights as possible, put them together like the puzzle pieces they are, and present it back to the community, reiterating what you heard and how you’re approaching it. Behind the scenes, if you’re honoring your discovery phase, that’s where you’re gathering community input before making your best recommendations. Community is a two-way street between the organizers and members, and if you can’t hear their asks, how will you ever give them what they need? 

These 5 tips, in addition to a solid framework, will guide your community from ideation to launch and help set you up for success. When in doubt, remember that your people want to be there because they took action and showed up. Those early adopters, highly-active members, and natural evangelists are the ones you want to connect with and want to build with. Tap into them as part of your team and build something great together.

It’s always worth remembering that building a community takes a lot of work, commitment, and support, but the rewards are limitless when done right. In my next and final post of this series, I’m going to talk a bit more about how to get your community a seat at the table in your company, and what it takes to be community-first.