Key challenge

If you build it, they won't necessarily come

Simply put: if you build it, people won’t necessarily come to your new community. There’s got to be something of value in order for people to come and join you.

In the beginning, your vision and values will bring people to you. You’ve got to find your first users who also identify with that vision and set of values in order to attract more people beyond that.

So, how do you get people without having people first?


Strategy

High quality, committed early users matter most

The first, and most important, step to building a community is identifying the shared interest and identity of the people you’re building the community for.

Start with a thought exercise

What are the first people in your community most concerned about? Is there a specific pain you can hone in on? What do they value most? Try to identify a shared pain that can be alleviated by connecting with your community. Make sure to write all of this down. And ideally backed in personal experience or a quality data set.

Now, the next most important question: where do these people hang out right now? If they’re offline in groups, what are they doing together (e.g. scout troops, local clubs, classmates, group members)? If they’re online, where are they (e.g. special interest forums, quora threads, twitter hashtags)?

Think hard about this one, and do a lot of exploration. Note that you may find several places where your first users are hanging out. It’s a good thing if you identify multiple places where they might be. That way, you can test to see which of these places is best to acquire your first users.

 In your exploration, you’ll want to develop a point of view on this question: what’s missing from or broken about the interactions that these early users have in their current state? For example, let’s take art students giving feedback to each other. You find that most young artists in art school give overly harsh criticism of each other's work. Now: in what way could we build a community for artists to get supportive, thoughtful feedback from each other...that’s encouraging?

Develop a set of rules for your community

Ok, we’re onto something here. It’s time to develop a set of rules for your community. Rules can directly address the deficiencies you see where people are currently hanging out. Going back to the young artist example, perhaps one of our rules is around the types of feedback allowed in the community.

The idea here is to align the rules of the community to your vision and values. What kind of world do you want to live in? Define the interactions based on the deficiencies you see right now. Then go get people who see the world the way that you do, and invite them to come join you.


Tools

 

Facebook groups most likely has all of the features you need to build a community from the start. Remember that community is about the people and the common purpose; technology is second. Once you get the interactions going, you can think about building your own thing. In many cases, however, Facebook groups is all you need even at scale.

 

While Facebook is the world’s largest social network, LinkedIn is the largest professional network. So, when considering which tool to build your community on first, consider the context of your community. If work or professional-related, you might want to start out with LinkedIn.

 

Mightybell is a great out of the box community tool with some fancy bells and whistles. Our advice is to stick with something that your users know first (like Facebook or LinkedIn), then you might want to think about graduating to something like this if you need more functionality.

Examples

 

Producthunt is a classic community building story, and an exciting one with humble roots at that. Ryan Hoover started the community as a simple email list of people he knew and sent them a list of interesting products to check out. Read more about the Producthunt story here.

 

Reddit is, at its core, a community. A large one. Reddit got its start, however, by focusing on a specific vertical (engineering, programming). Read more about the Reddit approach to community here.



Additional advice

  • For inspiration, check out the story of the Sons of Ben, a group of soccer supporters from Philadelphia who organized a movement that brought a professional soccer to team Philadelphia (link).
  • Check out Startup Grind’s advice on building community with in person events (link).

  • Here are some tips from Reddit about building community in the early days as well (link).