First Principles of Community

I recently appeared as a guest on the Clocktower Advisors podcast with fellow community consultant and CCC board member, Todd Nilson. In the session (which you can watch here), we focused on the concept of "Community Everywhere" - a concept that has made itself novel as the community industry tries to reinvent itself in the wake of ongoing mass layoffs, inflation, and a constricting economy. In reality, "Community Everywhere" should represent a shift in how we think about community in the business AND how we think about community in space and time.

Community is people.

Community has always been bigger than a single platform. Your choice of platform where you establish the campfire where your community will gather does matter quite a lot. It gives you access to and stewardship of your users' data. It gives you more control over changes to the platform. And more importantly, it gives you control over the policies that impact your community.

However, your community is not limited to your platform. It's not your forums. It's not your social media. And for the love of salt, it's not your mailing list. (CMOs, I'm looking at you.) Your community is the entire group of people who have a vested interest in the success of your product and your company. That includes every one of your customers, employees, partners, investors, and prospects.

That's it. Full stop. Community is people. No technology required.

The technology is simply the tool that has enabled us to build communities without geographic boundaries, across timezones, languages, geopolitical barriers, power disparities, and socioeconomic divides. And to build a thriving community, you must facilitate the exchange of value between community members.

Early career professionals seek wisdom from experts in their field. New grads seek valuable connections and job opportunities. Mid-career folks seek ways to increase their visibility and seniority. Career switchers seek upskilling and network connections in their new field of choice. Senior professionals seek the chance to share their knowledge and advance their profession.

Community management is about finding the compatible needs and offerings and building the programs that facilitate connecting those people to each other.

Community is humans exchanging value,
regardless of technology.

Reinventing "community"...but not really...

Many of the talking heads will tell you that "Community Everywhere" refers to the concept that your community doesn't only live in your owned platform.


But...we've been saying this for...ever...

Humans are multi-faceted beings with complex emotions and varied interests. Of course they interact in other forums. If we assume my previous statement to be true, then of course community happens 'everywhere' - including offline. Your community exists where your humans already hang out.

My kids' generation is not going to come hang out in your forums. They hardly know how to use email. They are not only digital native, but mobile native. The least-used technology in my home is the kids' laptops. It has been mostly relegated to word processing for school. The most used devices are their phones, replacing the iPads that quickly became redundant and relegated to the back of the closet once they got their phones earlier this year. And don't expect them to search for anything in a web browser. They will not go to "Google" anything. They hardly use the keyboard on their devices either. It's all "Hey Siri..."

If it's not an app they can download, it doesn't exist.

It's time for first principles.

Without proper resourcing, community strategies have typically depended heavily on centralized, owned platforms as the sole or primary channel for community management. While it's simpler to have total control over the environment where you are the ultimate authority on writing and enforcing the rules, companies that could have a sufficient brand experience to keep the attention of their community have failed to do so. It's clear that we've completely failed as a profession to teach the business how to properly leverage communities for commercial success.  

And so, I want us to go back to first principles. Let's first agree on a core logic sequence:

  1. Business depends on customers, who are fundamentally human.
  2. Deals close because of human relationships.
  3. Human relationships are based on trust, which takes time to establish.
  4. Over time, groups of relationships form complex networks called communities.
  5. Business depends on communities.

The fundamentals of communities building momentum, revenue, and growth for the business haven't changed. But the need for a more sophisticated understanding of the role of community in the business is more urgent than ever.

The community you already know

Community is not as ethereal as you might think. Community building requires selfless acts of value exchange, in the understanding that the value will come around in the end. Let's think about the modern SaaS sales cycle for a minute...

(cue: audible groan from the community managers in the audience)

Hear me out.

Buyers and their influencers (developers, business users, etc.) expect to be able to:

  • try your product for themselves
  • ask their peers about your product
  • research your product thoroughly
  • influence your product roadmap
  • elevate and expand their professional career within your ecosystem
  • be self-sufficient, but also...
  • get immediate support when they need it

With your community, not only can you offer many of these things publicly, you can do so at scale. In a time when RIFs are rolling out every day across my timeline, how can you not be considering the power of community building to scale and strengthen your GTM strategy?

You should be scaling learning with reusable guides, recordings, playbooks, demos, test environments, code samples, self-paced courses, livestreams. You should be empowering and elevating your community members by supporting community-led user groups, sponsoring meetups, partnering with other organizations that serve your target buyers and their influencers. You should be building mentorship programs that connect newer members to senior experts in the community. You should bring members into your inner circle by giving them actual influence over your product decisions and recognition for their contributions. Invest in teaching your employees how to work with the community to ideate, troubleshoot, and celebrate together out loud.

Create a powerful, complex web of relationships that all stem from your investment in each member's success. That investment is not forgotten and those members develop affinity for and willingness to advocate for you and your company. They will tell their friends. They will tell their peers. They will tell their current - and future - employers to use your products because you've invested in them so they become invested in you.

You will build a self-replenishing tippy-top of funnel that will compound in toasty warm leads who are ready to buy, legitimate advocacy from true believers, a product that keeps pace with your target buyer's changing needs, easier renewals and upsells, and reduced support costs.

What have we been doing wrong?

For this to work, you, the executive leadership, must learn to lead with courage. You must be willing to show the same vulnerability that you are asking of your community when you tell them to experiment and fail in public. You must learn to trust that the community will pick you up because they, too, care about your success. Like with any relationship, half-measures will not suffice. You must commit and you must choose to be vulnerable. Trust is vulnerability and it's uncomfortable. It's time to sit with your discomfort.  If you need some encouragement, go pick up one of Brené Brown's many books on the topic.

Or, you could buy some more ads.

Stay salty, friends.

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