1. The secret to getting people together is this: build your community with people, not for them.
2. Amateurs try to manage a community, but great leaders create more leaders. Nearly every challenge of building a community can be met by asking yourself, “How do I achieve this by working with my people, not doing it for them?” In other words, approach community-building as progressive acts of collaboration— doing more with others every step of the way.
3. If you want to spark your own community, you’ll need to first pinpoint your people. Find your kindling— those early allies who care about what you care about enough to manifest your idea for a community into an actual gathering of human beings.
4. No matter your community-building endeavor, the original leader should start with a clear who, then craft a why with that who in mind.
5. You can find your team of allies by asking yourself a series of more targeted questions:
- Who do I care about?
- Who do I share an interest, identity, or place with?
- Who do I want to help?
6. Focus on two criteria:
- Who brings the energy— who are the people who already engage, contribute, or attend? Don’t try to conjure motivation out of thin air. Start with keen participants.
- Assuming that the community flourishes, who will you stick with? Cultivating a community is a long-term play. Who does your organization’s future
7. In order to make sure that your community’s purpose is grounded in your people’s needs, and that it expresses what you can accomplish together, consider:
- What do my people need more of?
- What’s the change we desire?
- What’s the problem only we can solve together?
8. Make your list of names: Don’t underestimate the power of personal outreach when you’re trying to spark a community. You truly become a community leader only when you establish your first early ally.
9. No matter if you’re working solo or backed by an organization, your first members will probably stem from existing relationships, the people you already know. That personal connection eases people into taking the leap to participate in something new. Your list might start with close friends who share your passion, or with some of the most engaged users of your app.
10. But there are three principles that any first community activity should integrate in order to start your group on a collaborative path:
- Make it purposeful. Tie the activity back to why your community teamed up in the first place.
- Make it participatory. Don’t just talk at people. You gathered them because they’re passionate, just like you! Give them the chance to contribute to the purpose you share.
- Make it repeatable. One-offs are the enemy. Relationships need time to flourish, and it’ll take a few cycles for some folks to warm up and begin actively contributing. Design the first activity with the intent to repeat it with your people over and over.
11. Stop thinking about your community as just an audience. Instead, treat these people as collaborators. Even with your first activity, carve out ways for others to participate. People are showing up to realize a shared purpose, not to watch you realize it for them.
12. Meaningful human connections are sticky. They make us return to shared endeavors, from Weight Watchers to team sports to church. As Scott Heiferman, co-founder of Meetup, told us during a workshop, “people show up for the meetup but they come back for the people.”
13. Through open and ongoing dialogue, a loose group of people with a shared interest can be transformed into a community, teeming with life.
14. To enable all the ways your people can share and collaborate with one another, you’ll have to create spaces where members can freely connect on their own time.
15. “I don’t think there’s much secret. Get the product right, treat the customer well, and get them talking. And that’s it,” Instant Pot founder Robert Wang
16. Give members the space, prompts, and structure to start talking Conversations— like those unfolding daily in the Instant Pot Facebook group— don’t start without provocation. Leaders need to lay the groundwork for free-flowing communication between members.
17. To get your community talking, figure out:
- Space - Where can members find each other to continue their conversations independently?
- Prompts - How do I give people an excuse to connect for the first time? It’s scary to talk to strangers. Guide your members into discussions by modeling what good participation looks like. Craft regular prompts and make introductions for newbies.
- Structure - What structure would make communication in this space more meaningful? When implemented with care, ground rules and moderation can facilitate and reward focused, sincere conversations. Structure also supports healthy debate when conflict arises.
18. Appoint moderators and establish a code of conduct; by doing so,you’re making a safe space for conflict, which is an essential part of any community.
19. Starter questions for your code of conduct:
- What’s our purpose? Remind members why your community exists before dictating specific rules.
- What is okay? How should members act? Describe the spirit of your community and introduce etiquette that keeps conversations valuable. (Bogleheads: “Discussions are about issues, not people.”)
- What is not okay? List behaviors that are not allowed (e.g., no insults or hateful language) to help make members feel confident in joining the community and safe in reporting violations.
- How do members report violations? Give members a private way (such as an email address) to report violations. Explain who receives that report.
- How will you investigate and enforce the rules? Let members know how you’ll collect information on the situation and what consequences to expect when the code of conduct is violated (e.g., a private warning, followed by a temporary ban for a certain number of days).
20. A sign of a vibrant community is that new members join because they want to. Aspiring leaders frequently forget the importance of this agency. They plop unknowing people on a list and start calling them a community.
21. Work with your members to collectively send a clear, authentic signal about what your community is all about.
22. Step one in attracting new members is crafting your origin story.
23. Marshall Ganz is a Harvard senior lecturer who organized the United Farm Workers alongside Cesar Chavez from 1965 to 1981, and designed the grassroots organizing model for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. Ganz’s current course is titled Organizing: People, Power, Change.
24. Ganz believes public narratives communicate three key concepts. When you refine your origin story, follow Ganz’s lead:
- Tell the story of self. Make it personal. Describe the moment that you started on the path to rally your community.
- Tell the story of us. Show that it’s bigger than you. What do you believe is made possible when this group comes together?
- Tell the story of now. What’s one small, immediate way someone can get involved (e.g., attend a meetup, sign up for a newsletter, sign a petition)? Why should they do so now? This urgency will make people feel the pull to get started right away.
25. Once you’re satisfied with your narrative, the next step is to make that origin story available to anyone curious about what you stand for. Share your origin story in one-on-one conversations with strangers, newcomers, and other potential community members. If you gather in person, don’t be timid.
26. Now that you have your origin story pinned down, here’s the secret to spreading the word: attracting others can’t just be your job. Ask any traditional marketer, and they’ll tell you that word-of-mouth advertising is their most powerful tool.
27. You can’t expect people to recruit others without a nudge. Make it clear to members that their active involvement is crucial to ensuring the vitality and success of your community.
28. Each week, without fail, Aria takes a team photo at halftime (so that even players who have to leave early don’t get left out). “People always say, ‘I haven’t come before, I’m not going to be in the team photo,’” Aria explains. “So that photo is a moment to be like, ‘No, you’re on the team and we’re showing that to the world.’” Before practice wraps, she offers to share the team pic with anyone who wants it. Nearly everyone raises their hand. Within an hour of receiving the squad pic, many of the players have posted it on their personal Instagram accounts, coupled with captions describing their experiences.
29. You can’t force people to spread the word. Instead, ask: How can I make it easier for them to do so on their own terms?
30. Collect the right shareable stories for your community
31. It’s your job to figure out how to turn your community’s unique activities into natural, simple narratives. Here are some starter ideas:
- Your community centers around in-person experiences.
- Your community centers around training or learning.
- Your community centers around contributing and sharing content.
32. If none of these sharing strategies jumps out as a natural choice for your community, don’t fret. Look to your community members for inspiration. They’re already passing around stories. That’s guaranteed. Dig into how and what they’re sharing. Figure out which tools, information, and resources you could offer to boost their storytelling.
33. With a refined origin story and resources for members to spread the word, the foundation to attract new people to your community is in place. Congrats!
34. Now your job is to put a spotlight on the inspiring people in your community. In creating exposure for these exceptional folks, you’ll bring the community to life for others considering joining. And, as a bonus, you’ll celebrate what standout participation looks like, which can motivate existing members to deepen their involvement.
35. Build a culture of reciprocity with your storytelling. Proactively seek stories from exceptional members, then share them widely to inspire others to join the fun.
36. One way to cultivate your community’s identity is to equip enthusiastic members with badges. A badge can be anything visual that enables members to telegraph an affiliation.
37. As your own group grows, you may want to consider localizing certain badges to help foster recognition and intimacy between individuals.
38. Celebrate the self-expression of your members and encourage them to make their own badges. Whether those badges are physical or digital, the tools for customization are more accessible than ever.
39. Bonds between members are fostered through the rituals they practice together, from reciting a mantra to participating in a daily standup meeting. Kursat Ozenc, a designer whoresearches, writes, and teaches at Stanford’s d.school about rituals, notes, “When you practice a ritual that others have practiced before you— or that others are practicing at the same time as you— the actions make you feel connected to them.
40. You don’t have to meticulously design every ritual. Start by noticing and then codifying the idiosyncrasies that people are already repeating.
41. Another way that people bond over their shared identity is by creating language unique to their community.
42. As a start, try agreeing on a name for members. A demonym is a word used to describe someone from a certain place. For instance, people from California refer to themselves as Californians. Communities have demonyms, too.
43. Just as she was breaking into the music scene, Nicki Minaj came up with a demonym for her biggest fans: Barbz, or Barbies.
44. “A community is a living organism. It’s either declining or improving; there’s no steady-state in a community.” - Jennifer Sampson,
45. Similarly, a community can only grow sustainably if newcomers find value in their first interactions, then return. If you find that your members aren’t consistently participating in or contributing to the group— they’re showing up to only one event or sending just one message— you have a leaky bucket. Your community hasn’t established the foundation it needs to proliferate.
46. You can begin tracking and exploring your community’s retention in three steps:
- Collect participation data. Prioritize the tracking of member participation in community activities. The more the measured action demonstrates true participation, the better.
- Gather info about your regular participants. Get to know the people who keep showing up. Build a Rolodex that includes notes, like where members are from and contact info. A spreadsheet is a fine start.
- Seek insights on why they participate and what they want more of. Listen, listen, and listen. Numbers are great at explaining how many, but you’ll need to have conversations in order to ask why?
47. It’s not enough to measure your community’s retention. You need to dig into who keeps showing up and why.
48. Use your measurement and listening processes to search for people we call “hand-raisers.” These people are your most passionate community members, the hardcore of the hardcore. They always show up. They consistently invite friends. And most importantly, they’re raising their hands— eagerly contributing time and energy toward taking your community to the next level.
49. Hand-raisers have the potential to become homegrown leaders of your community, your most valuable collaborators.
50. Passing the torch to the folks who are raising their hands is how you’ll multiply your efforts as a leader and grow together as a community.
51. But your listening processes are perhaps even more crucial during challenging times. At some point, you may make a change or decision that is not well-received. Paying close attention to your community helps you monitor sentiment, detect your missteps early, and react appropriately.
52. “One of the things that is the death knell for a community manager is to not listen,” Mia points out. “Even if it’s a simple ‘Thanks so much for your feedback,’ you have to acknowledge people.”
53. Spread out ownership by encouraging hand-raisers to lead in ways big and small, supercharging their efforts, and, last but not least, celebrating their accomplishments.
54. Growing a community isn’t about management. It’s about developing leaders. With their help, your community will affect more people and sustain itself longer than you could have managed on your own.
55. In any community, a small set of extra-passionate people will do the majority of the work to push the group forward and expand what’s possible.
56. Mary Ellen Hannibal’s book Citizen Scientist, “the bulk of what gets done is by a small set of fanatics.”
57. But when you’re the original leader, trusting others to take over is often a challenge. We get protective, controlling, even paranoid. We worry about people “not having the same standards” or “misrepresenting the brand.”
58. Don’t bend to fears of losing control. As Marshall Ganz says, “Organizers think of themselves as people that develop the leadership of others.” You don’t have to toil alone. Shift your mindset from stoking the fire to passing the torch. Your community depends on it.
59. Cultivating hand-raisers into leaders isn’t just a way to expand your reach. It’s also the only way that large communities stay relevant over the long term and that small communities ensure their own sustainability. If your community is dependent on a lone leader, it’s more at risk of collapse in the face of uncertainty and a changing world.
60. So, what do you look for in potential leaders? Seek genuine and qualified people from your pool of hand-raisers.
61. What should you do if you promote the “wrong” leader? Our advice: don’t be afraid to say goodbye. Just as an exceptional leader can move a community forward, a bad one can stagnate or, even worse, erode a community’s magic.
62. In many of the communities we studied, a core contingent of extra-passionate people made an outsize impact. These exceptional leaders act as catalysts, accelerating a community’s ability to fulfill its purpose.
63. How do you figure out what support is needed by your community leaders, and when? Your goal is to create a potent system of support instead of a bunch of disparate, semi-helpful resources. Start by mapping out the journey of the person you’re trying to help, using good ol’ pen paper.
65. To get started, assemble a brain trust of your key leaders.
66. Build out a flowchart of the leader’s journey by discussing these questions:
- What are the first steps that leaders take after raising their hands to accept a leadership role?
- How are they vetted? Welcomed? Onboarded? Acknowledged?
- What are the key activities involved in their work? What support do they currently receive?
67. Your support should supercharge valuable activities and minimize or eliminate the others.
68. There are many ways to buoy up leaders when they need it. You can host trainings, offer coaching, create templates, assemble a knowledge base, record tutorials, build tools, pre-write emails, develop checklists, collect best practices, start a newsletter, make a FAQ, form partnerships, streamline communications, translate documents, offer funds, line up contacts, lend credibility, buddy people up, send reminders, cut requirements, or even rearrange the order of key activities.