👋 Hello, this is the first of a series of guides on important topics for community builders.
In the product and startup world, the term Minimum Viable Product (MVP) is well known, or should we say, it's impossible to escape from. It's common sense to not build too much without some form of validation that you are on the right track.
In community it makes sense to do the same — don't build too much without knowing you are on the right track. The biggest mistake I see, time and time again, are people not only launching into the void but also spending a huge amount of time and money on 'launching' a community that just doesn't end up working.
I often feel like the community industry still lives in a waterfall-esque world and perhaps many of us don't yet realise that:
- we can never really predict a community outcome as they are emergent
- MVC experiments give practice, validation, data and conversation points
- everything about community is a good idea until you have to do the work
- people and conversations will inspire you in new ways that you could never plan for
- the good ideas and the ones that matter come from doing the work and having the conversations
In community you want to get to something that looks like this:
The only way I've ever been able to get to this is through experimentation and short term goals (attached to a long term vision).
Having MVC as a framework helps us and others understand that iterating community makes a lot of sense and using terminology that the (business) world recognises really helps communicate what we are trying to do.
🙏🏽 Stop doing lots of planning upfront and instead embrace small scale experimentation.
What is a Minimum Viable Community
An MVC is the smallest action you can take to bring people together. An MVC is not necessarily a community, yet. The intentions and vision are probably there, but the community may not be.
It's not just throwing stuff out there and seeing what sticks. It's creating intentional community containers, that seek to create value and that are aligned with your vision.
When you start a community it doesn't look like a community. The things you do to get a community going don't necessarily look like community building. They look like research, conversations, building relationships and experimenting with ideas.
We need to get comfortable with not having something that looks like community when we start. With commitment and intention it will come.
An MVC is not about the tech behind the community — it is more about the ability to test whether people are interested, or potentially interested in the vision of your community. It is also about bringing understanding that specific software does not make a community — the people do.
If you can't bring people together in a small scale environment, how are you going to do it in a larger one?
An MVC is not about having all the pieces in place for your dream community. It's about experimenting with the foundations. Finding out what brings value. Building relationships and trust. In a manageable and not too overwhelming way to help you find your path with the community you need to build.
An MVC is about creating the dots that you will need later to connect the community and build your flywheel.
Why build a Minimum Viable Community?
Everyone wants community these days. It is hot. And to be honest, whilst I fully support it in whatever way I can, it's a bit of a worrying trend. There are lots of people, products and companies scrambling to lure people in with the promise of community.
MVCs are a perfect way to get started with community. Not only to understand if building the community is right for you, but also to understand what it is people actually need from the community.
We must also not forget that part of the validation of building community is whether people want to join in with whoever leads it. Just because you want a community doesn't mean others will want to follow you into it. MVCs are great ways to test out whether people will get behind what you want to build.
MVCs help you avoid the lure of big community, tools and processes. To instead focus on building relationships and understanding between one another. To break down the walls. To do people research.
Starting small is perhaps the only authentic way of doing this. And authenticity matters if you want people to open up with the truth and to share what it is they are really after.
Starting small means you start to build trust. A community without trust is one that will likely not survive.
Starting small means you start to really learn about what people want, need, love or struggle with. This means you can build these learnings into building your community and the conversations you co-create.
Starting small means you can be mindful of the culture you are creating, through your own behaviour and of those that you invite in.
Starting small is less risky. It gives you the freedom to experiment and trial things out and just being ok with whatever happens.
Starting small means you focus on the outcomes and learnings rather than the metrics.
Minimum Viable Community is a mindset
Of course, it's not just about 'starting small'. Minimum Viable Communities is all about the mindset of being open minded and experimental.
Just like you can pivot in a business, you can pivot in a community. You may go in thinking that the community needs a certain thing, to only then discover that that is not what will help them with their goals.
To build community you need to listen to what your community is not only saying, but what they are doing. What people say can be a slippery slope to rely on. What people do is safer to place bets on.
We can take the MVC mindset into our community building work even with an established community. MVCs are also great for building blocks on your community flywheels.
Infact, I'd go as far as saying that if you don't keep experimenting with new ideas your community may end up becoming irrelevant. And irrelevant communities just don't survive.
The Minimum Viable Community Framework
I created a Minimum Viable Community Framework to help people understand what is involved.
It has three parts:
Start with what you have
We all have access to something to start with, for example:
- Your email list
- Your friends
- Your reputation
- Your content
- The connections
- Your ideas
- The Internet
- A vision
- Your words
- Listening skills
- A following
- Who you follow
- Email list
- A team
Create a community container
I see a community container as something to help start or keep traction going, it could be a:
- singular community activity
- group of community activities
- commitment to do something
- small scale project
- larger scale project
- smaller scale commitment built on top of an existing community container
A community container is not about doing anything, it's about doing something that has value and aligns with the vision of the community.
I created a formula below with a 'Twitter Space" community container as an example.
Often I describe containers as a group of community activities (the things you do in community). To back this up, it's useful to understand what community activities exist. These will vary between communities, but here is a list for inspiration.
I have and keep adding to a more comprehensive list of community activities.
Of course, you'll want to evaluate your results. How you do that really depends on the things you are doing, but here are some ideas.
Keep a log of what you are doing and crucially ask yourself at the end what next? It is this 'what next' which will keep helping you build up the MVC into a community flywheel.
Here's an example with Rosieland.
You can also evaluate by asking yourself honest questions:
- How do you feel about it?
- Do you think it brought value?
- What feedback did you get?
- How does it align with the community vision?
- How does it align with the business vision?
- Can you see yourself doing this again and again?
Don't get obsessed with vanity metrics, please! Mix and match with quantitative and qualitative data to help you understand whether you are on the right track.
Create a community journal. Keep track of all the things. The wins, the losses, the attendance, the feedback. Your future self will thank you.
Examples of Minimum Viable Communities
One of the biggest things that people don't realise about MVCs is that we are not only working towards a successful MVC. The reality is that MVC brings us closer to a community by having conversations and building up trust and relationships with our people.
We just can't build community without this commitment to understanding one another. MVCs are the perfect way to do this.
Here are some ideas to get you going:
Newsletters are easy to start, harder to maintain consistency. However, they're also pretty easy to adapt over time. The magic with newsletters is that they can feed into invites to events.
Audio spaces or social audio is a great way to connect and converse with people. Players atm include the likes of Twitter Spaces, Discord Stages, Clubhouse and Racket.
The magic is that you can start small with these things, really you only need to be willing to have a conversation with one other person, everyone else is a bonus.
Many platforms support the use of hashtags. These are great for tapping into an existing niche set of people. You can choose to either contribute to one that already exists, or start your own.
At Orbit we started #100DaysOfCommunity and also created a curated resource off the back of it.
These are public places like Reddit and Facebook groups. You can consider either joining one that already exists or starting your own.
They are easy to start, but longer term it is hard to control the outcome as you don't own the data, the eyeball competition is much harder and you are at the mercy of algorithms. Of course, if you have a MVC mindset, none of this is a problem. You can stick or ditch these in whatever way feels best.
Take notes together
Think: Google Docs, Google Sheets, Miro, etc.
I'm a big fan of note taking! Coming together to take notes is fun, productive and creates a valuable outcome. It also helps to create connections between the contributors and generate new ideas.
The comments section
A forum is just a post with the ability to add comments. Of course, this is a simplified take on it, however when you do choose to look at it this way you can start to see the value of comments everywhere.
Make use of and encourage comments everywhere. In your newsletter, blog, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, forums...anywhere.
If you can't start conversations in these circumstances, how will you cope at a bigger scale?
Small events, meetups and 1:1 chats
This was how I got started in the world of community!
Nothing ever replaces in real life stuff even when most of us have become accustomed to virtual events. Both are valid approaches and both can create connections and potential value for life!
In my humble rosie opinion, the best way to start events is small. Of course, some events can get big pretty easily and that's fine. However, going into events with the expectation of them being small creates reasonable expectations for community builders.
Often I tag on 1:1 or small meetup invites on to newsletters — you can start to see how MVC efforts can build off of one another.
Yes memes. We can tap into our shared knowledge, spur on discussions, inspire and educate one another. Memes are a great way to practice understanding who your people are, especially when you can get people to 'feel seen'.
Erin and I have had much fun curating memes over the past few months. We co-created a Miro board full of them, but have now taken it a step further with a Communimeme Twitter account.
Merch and Swag
We all love a bit of swag, though these days we should become increasingly mindful of the environment (please!).
Things like stickers and t-shirts can bring real visibility and connection to people. It's so much easier to start conversations with people when you know you have something in common — swag can show that thing in common that you have.
Often people don't see podcasting as community building, however when you look at the foundations of community as being conversations then it becomes easier to see how podcasting can help create community.
Podcasts are great for amplifying voices and ideas of the people you want to connect with in a deeper way. It also has the long tail benefit of bringing people together over a long period of time.
When to use Minimum Viable Communities?
As mentioned, I believe MVCs are more about the mindset of constantly experimenting. You should be doing this all the time, no matter the size of your community.
When you are starting out your MVC is tiny. The more work you do—the more you have to start with. Essentially this is the start of a community flywheel and as time goes on it will get much bigger, messier and more exciting!
Creating an MVC shouldn't be the first step in building a community, these days I recommend Community Discovery, this is your community research — this will help you get going on the right track.
Other articles about MVCs on Rosieland: