Coronavirus has reinforced how connected we are to everyone else, and this thread now weaves through nearly everything we do to build our startups…and community. Hence, community building lies at the heart of successful startups.
The rapid prioritisation of community even shows up in dating habits too where companionship, not sex, is the new priority (source). Hence, how we influence and how we sell has changed fundamentally too and smart startups are adjusting accordingly.
In this article, we’ll look at three things:
- What is Community
- Strategy of building a vibrant online community for your startup
- Tactical tips on building your digital community
However, if you are in a hurry and can only take one thing away from this article, take this; community is influence - and your startup’s ability to affect change, makes sales and build business, is directly connected to the level of influence within your community (or communities).
WHAT IS (a) COMMUNITY?
Let’s start by being clear about what we mean. A community typically consists of two main things; firstly, a place where people who want to connect, can connect; and, secondly, a group of people who ‘don’t know all the answers’.
On one hand, it is a location or virtual location where something happens – mainly, people ‘connect’. Secondly, it is ineffective as a community if people either do not ask questions or there are no questions to be asked!
Hence, the best communities are often those groups of people who cluster together (however they do that) to bring challenges and questions.
Role of Community
Since the enforced need to work from home, online communities have become much more important and hence, we often mean ‘online’ when we speak about communities now.
However, not everything that happens ‘in’ the community, happens ‘in’ the community.
Okay, yep, that sounds weird – let me help unpack that…
If you are running a community, take a moment to reach out to one of the community members every day. This will be a private one-to-one message to touch base and reconnect. This doesn’t happen in public (in the community) – but it helps to re-enforce the bonds between each of you so that they feel able to like, comment and share your messages; or, even better, ask questions themselves.
Think of communities and community building as ‘giving a little bit to get a little bit (of engagement)’.
Communities are the new media
Strategically, traditional press and media are finished and smart founders are focusing on different channels – all of which build community:
Trend I’m noticing: most execs/CEOs don’t want to speak with mainstream media as much as they did even a few years ago. Our customers are on YouTube/podcasts/social media – not reading mainstream media. And companies are able to control their own distribution channels.
— Brian Armstrong (@brian_armstrong) May 21, 2020
What is different about communities compared to traditional media is that you control access – albeit on someone else’s platform(s) – and your ability to reach those people is determined by your ability to connect their interests, fears, worries, concerns, needs, desires, questions etc… to your community and your community’ support.
Goodwill is held in your community
Most company’s largest asset is not the office – even if they do own it, nor their software, but the ‘goodwill’ that the business and brand carries.
So what has the biggest impact on your goodwill – community?
Your community is your biggest asset – for instance, Brewdog – the artisan ale company – raised £8.7m investment money from 47,000 community members (source).
Let’s now look at the strategy behind building a vibrant community…
STRATEGY OF BUILDING A VIBRANT COMMUNITY
Firstly, think in plural – communities not singular – community.
Your audiences are moving into tighter niches – and often, the more specific and detailed the focus, the more valuable the community.
And this trend has been rapidly accelerated by the complete virtualisation of community. Now, if you have a specific taste in music or cinema it is much easier to find like minded people as you can tap a global audience independent of where you live.
Bigger brands are now breaking down their communities, they are segmenting their audiences and do not try to appeal to everyone. Instead, build sub brands, and unique community spaces and systems to better reflect each group of individuals.
Communities are global – or local – but not much in between
Hence, build global communities or local / neighbourhood communities – but don’t get caught in between.
Share of voice
With the accelerating shift to community, brands which move too slowly are at risk of losing their ‘share of voice’ – and in these fast-moving times, once a brand loses share of voice, it costs a lot to get it back.
Bye bye customer support – hello purpose driven community
Ten years ago, communities were ‘forums’ and almost entirely focused on customer support. In the early days of these online forums, a number of passionate consumers would engage to help other people get more out of the product or service, but digital communities have evolved.
Instead, successful – vibrant – communities, are led by the desire to connect with the brand; the success of that brand and the purpose of those products and services.
Communities are no longer broadly about helping people to solve customer service issues. They have moved on from service to brand, mission and purpose.
Participating is believing
We used to say ‘seeing is believing’ but as we don’t visit shops quite as much, how do we build our belief in a brand, if not through seeing?
Instead, we can say, participating is believing! Spending more time with your brand AND allowing your customers to participate in events or competitions that you share in the community, builds belief.
How community changes how you sell
And, building community changes the way people buy and therefore, how you sell. As people spend more time with your brand you have more time to explain the background behind your (quality) product/ services, so you don’t have to be so persuasive or hard-nosed. Equally, people who trust you are more forgiving and that trust builds when the community consists of people centred around the same beliefs and purpose.
Hence, over time, your community becomes your early adopter, first product test community – it’s where you release first and where you learn fastest. Think of how Elon Musk at Tesla can sell 50,000 boring baseball hats to his community – because his community are bought into the values of his companies (source).
The rise of the community – and the desire of brand advocates to connect with your scientists, writers, experts and engineers, highlights a trend we spotted in the collapse of the influencers.
People are nearly twice as likely to want to hear from experts, people who know and, especially, the founder, than a major influencer (source).
However, despite their acceleration, community building is a long-term investment, partly because mission and purpose take a long time to establish in people’s minds and partly because it takes time for people to feel ready and able to engage.
So, yes, community building needs to be part of your priorities – but prepare for the long haul!
TACTICAL TIPS ON BUILDING YOUR COMMUNITY
Communities are great in theory, so how do you actually go about doing it? Good question:
We don’t know….
The fun thing (?) about community building is that there is no set rule! Partly this is because there is no ‘google analytics’ equivalent for community building.
There are methods and strategies that people have used with a good degree of success – but each community building campaign needs to be built from the ground upwards – there is no silver bullet…
…yet (Hey, want a startup idea? Yep….)
Here’s what we do know about how to build virtual community
Without a template, community building is best approached as a growth hack. That is, run short experiments and look for rapid growth. These are often called sprints.
Regardless of the name you use, look at data – and use that to determine when you have a success or a fail.
You’ll need to think about where in your ‘marketing funnel’ the community resides, although probably it will fit at the top of the funnel – or the point where someone becomes connected to the brand as ‘interested’ but not yet engaged.
Expect lots of failures – that is why the sprints need to be short – so that you can keep testing until you find the formula that works for your tribe(s).
So, what are you trying to achieve?
Expand community output! That is, the more your community engages, the more responses or shares or likes or comments you achieve, the higher your community output will be.
Again, there is no fixed measure for ‘output’ here – as some will be higher quality than other. Hence, its a nuanced judgement that you have to make for your brand.
However, the core objective for all communities will consist primarily of ‘active and engaged’ community members – however you choose to define that.
How might you achieve success?
Here are a couple of ways to go about this:
Firstly, every time your team achieves 10 failures, have a party! This is designed to make failure more playful and to recognise that it teaches us something.
However, you also want to learn from successes too – and hence, be careful not to become success complacent (source).
Secondly, in this early total-virtual phase – look to recreate as many of the ‘normal’ touch points in a physical event or encounter. Hence, if you build your community through shared dinners – then, send vouchers to everyone to order dinner for home delivery and then share dinner together.
Or, if you want to create a bar atmosphere – get some drinks delivered – perhaps a bottle of wine?
If its important, send a table cloth and a beautiful glass…to recreate the experience.
If you would normally invite your community to sports match – can you set up an online sports game? Or some kind of sweepstake etc…?
How to begin…
Make sure the principle underlying your community is that members do not feel they are being advertised to – but feel part of the conversation. How your community ‘feels’ will be a critical part of your success. (How your customers ‘feel’ is the 4th part of the Breakthrough Business Model Canvas).
Treat it like a research project:
Work to understand your audience – build formal (or informal) personas – where do your people spend time, do you have a mission – only need platform tech when you scale
Interview many customers to create – personas – who share the same triggers! So, someone who rushes into your fitness community to compete with their first workout is responding very differently from someone who reads up on the sports nutrition first and then changes their weekly shop. They might both be part of your fitness community but they respond differently.
Start with your closest…
First, interview your core users. Work with those whose pain points your products best help and find out what makes these people tick – what do they respond to and what matters most.
Be open and honest in your questions and…
Typically, where there is a pain or a worry or a concern, people are smart enough to find a work around. So, partly you are looking for the pain and partly, you are looking to see how they’ve managed to mitigate that challenge.
You are looking for something that has impact for this core group of customers around which you have reasonably high confidence that customers will benefit / enjoy the community suggestions and lastly, the costs of delivering are commensurate with the degree of impact delivered.
How do you measure all these? Well, it’s a hunch – but it is better to find ways to test your hunch quickly and affordably than to spend too long attempting to justify with data that isn’t really there. So, get building and be prepared to change tack quickly.
The kinds of community to build…
Not all communities will be about food and drink! The essence is that you are looking to create an environment which fosters trust.
Some groups will be educational – a book club for instance, or may run on the back of an educational course. Other communities will be local groups based around neighbourhoods!
Nike – who generally do this kind of thing well – have been running the Nike Living Room Cup (source) where community members can join daily challenges by top athletes. The community is run from the Nike app – which community members download and which then keeps them connected to the new daily challenges, personalised advice, workout plans etc…
Lastly, the platform that you use will depend on what you are doing.
Hopin, for instance, is great for bigger events. However, if you are 30 individuals on programme – just use zoom and run webinars. Set up, “ask me anything” sessions with a relevant expert. Ask your community to bring the questions early – so you have some prepared and then use the event to elicit more questions.
Run polls too – another great way to help people engage. Check out Assenty.
It’s not just about the platform…
Of course, doing something for your community isn’t all about the platform. For instance, the hospitality community has responded to coronavirus in a variety of ways such as using commercial kitchens to feed homeless, or, a gin manufacturer’s switch to producing hand sanitiser which it handed out for free. These actions build goodwill and community connection – but are not dependent on a tech platform.
So, where does this leave us? First and foremost, move over celebrity – your community want to hear from you, the founder and the professionals you work with. They want to get up and close and feel a sense of belonging and being part of the journey. It’s normal human stuff this. We want to be connected to other people.
Equally, brands and startups are filling a hole that has become exposed by the recent changes. For whatever reason – religion, politics, Victoria Beckham’s furlough mistake – people have lost anything to believe it. Yes, this crisis gives us an opportunity to reset and to authentically look again at our social groups and community.
And, perhaps above all, this equips us for the shared journey ahead:
“I’ll look after myself for you, will you look after yourself for me?”
This article is the eighth in our series of leaning into the challenge. Previous articles include; how to get your business development right, the eCommerce future of digital marketing, startup surviving and thriving in a time of coronavirus, selling and marketing in a time of coronavirus and building home based teams and startup fundraising and cashflow plus The New Normal.