We have all witnessed the significant shifts in technology in recent years. An application economy has formed, microservices and the cloud allow us to build large-scale systems, and virtual reality, augmented reality, health monitoring, and others are changing how we live, work, and play.
At the center of these shifts are the very people the technology is designed to serve. What you may be less familiar with though is that the way in which we empower and engage people has also seen a revolution; a revolution in how we build communities.
Early Days, Familiar Traits
While communities have long existed locally, they have often been somewhat accidental. Likewise the early forming of online, globally distributed communities was accidental too, and largely formed by users who wanted to scratch an itch and solve a problem.
Early examples included the Linux kernel, which arguably jumpstarted a significant chunk of what we see as open source today. Others followed suit, such as Mozilla, Wikipedia, Debian, Ubuntu, Digg, Reddit, and more.
These accidental communities offered tremendous value to their participants with skills development, networking, and relationships. They also offered significant financial value. The Smithsonian valued Wikipedia at tens of billions of dollars and the Linux Foundation deduced that a typical Linux distribution would cost around $11 billion to recreate using traditional commercial methods.
Since those earlier days, communities have continued to grow and diversify. From engineering such as StackExchange, Hacker News, GitHub(GitLab), and the maker movement, to consumer goods and services such as Airbnb, Etsy, and Ebay, to games such as Pokémon Go, Playstation Network, and beyond. We have also seen significant communities form in politics, activism, and social impact, many of which changes the dynamic of how countries are governing their people.
A Remarkable Opportunity
This steady growth in the value of community is changing the dynamic of how companies and organizations are approaching their users, customers, and audiences. No longer are broadcast methods such as newsletters, blog posts, and one-way social media passing muster….people want a more engaging and rewarding experience. We are effectively building a new era of community in which companies and organizations need to prioritize building communities for their users and customers.
This jump-started in myself up a career-spanning puzzle with one clear goal: to understand every nuance and detail of how we build powerful, productive communities and to use that knowledge to help optimize community growth in in a diverse range of areas and industries.
In service of this mission I wrote The Art of Community, coordinate the annual Community Leadership Summit, speak around the world about community, and work as a community strategy consultant where I help organizations such as Microsoft, Huawei, GitLab, HackerOne, Sony Mobile, Creative Commons, data.world, and others build community strategy and execution.
Figuring out how we build powerful and productive communities is a complex puzzle, primarily because it focuses on the connective tissue between people and technology. Wrapped in all that tissue is psychology, workflow, incentivization, governance, rewards, engagement, diversity, strategic definition and delivery, and more.
Fortunately, there is a lot of consistency we can bring to the process that can subsequently help you to build a thriving, engaged community with strong retention from its constituents.
To Win, Be Intentional
Firstly, it is important to know that community is a fundamentally cross-functional effort. This is not something that will succeed siloed in marketing.
Great communities are an end-to-end experience: from how a prospective member discovers your community, how they are on-boarded to their first contribution, how you incentivize and retain them, how they can mentor others, how you shape the behavioral patterns you want to see, and more. This process encompasses many departments; product workflow design, outreach, support, and beyond. To build community well it will need to be part of your product and service, and thus will need top-down buy-in strategically. Execution though will require bottom-up ground support and careful collaboration across departments.
In building out this strategy you should first define a key set of roles & person as you want to see in your community and understand their likely experience, motivations, fears, and how they consume and engage. From these roles you can then design the ideal community experience. This experience will begin with raising awareness and giving people a reason and motivation to participate, then the on-ramp for making their very first contribution, and then a carefully carved out journey of intrinsic and extrinsic incentives and rewards that keeps them involved.
This journey will result in three core states that a community member ideally progress through: people who are new (they have little context or relationships), regulars (engaging in repetitive workflow to deliver different results), and leaders (formally or informally seen as influencers).
We engage with these different roles very differently. For example, new members will have more fears and uncertainty, and mentoring can play a very beneficial role. Regulars will want efficient and non-bureaucratic workflow and transparency, and leaders will want to a deeper level of personal engagement in growing and expanding the community. As such, think carefully about how you systematize engagement with community programs but in a way that always feels personal and direct as opposed to robotic and automated.
What sits underneath all of this are a complex set of psychological drivers that dictate and determine how and why we join communities and participate. It is equally important to understand these drivers by both reading up on psychology and behavioral economics but more importantly to immerse yourself in the culture and mindset of your audience. You simply can't build great communities unless you understand these dynamics.
Finally, always remember that community strategy is a long-game. It takes time to grow a community and you should constantly evaluate and evolve your strategy based on the real community patterns and engagement that form. Drive this work by data, but more importantly, include your community in the process and make them feel that they too can be invested in building a rewarding community for everyone.
When we get this right we build communities that deliver tremendous value, an army of advocates, and often a comprehensive source of potential leads and validation of your products and services in the eyes of future customers.