We do research before starting businesses, it would be daft not to! It doesn't guarantee success, but it does reduce the risk. The idea of Community Discovery is that we should do the same when we build community. It's naive to jump into something thinking that we know it all.
There are many ways to do Community Discovery, a big part of my own journey has been to follow conversations meticulously with the goal of creating and solving problems for and with the people.
Typically I’ve done this with what I call a Surround System—this is where you create a process to bring information to you. It takes a bit of time and tweaking to make it work, but it can be amazing for keeping on top of what is happening in your ecosystem.
When you have understanding, you can take action that makes them feel like you know them intimately.
In practice, taking action means doing things like:
- seeking speakers to talk on specific topics
- ask questions based on their challenges
- gathering insights on their behalf
- finding meaningful reasons to connect people
- invite members to things that are relevant and of interest
- jumping on and supporting a good idea
- creating a product that they can't get enough of
My real desire has been to have the ability to 'follow conversations' easily within our ‘community products’. This work of following conversations should be easier for us community builders. The processes and flows should be built in. When they are not, we miss important discussions and fail to follow up.
We are not there yet, but Substack has started to build some of this into their product with Notes and a 'My Subscribers' filter. (Notes is like Twitter, but for Substack).
The 'My Subscribers' means that we can view what people who subscribe to us are sharing on their Notes.
This may seem insignificant and small, but it is powerful.
They’ve basically made it super easy (through a default and automated feed) to follow conversations from people that follow and care about what you create.
You can use it to your advantage as a community builder to understand what they care about, get involved in discussions and basically show that you care. It's perfect for relationship building, deepening your knowledge and community discovery.
Opting into understanding 'My Subscribers' is very different from choosing who you follow. Substack also provides this as an option under the 'Subscribed' filter. This is typically what most people do. They find people of interest, follow them and are naturally curious about their outputs.
There is nothing wrong with this, of course, it is fine. However, in today's world and when building community, we should seek input from a variety of sources to build a better and diverse picture. We have to invest and care for our ecosystem.
Not taking the time to understand other people's perspectives can make you irrelevant and quickly lose touch with what is important. Having quick access to what is being said opens the doors to understanding the very people that are subscribing to your vision.
What can we do with the Subscribed filter data and conversations?
So let's say we can automatically see what people who follow us are saying, what should we actually do about it?
It can be easy to get overwhelmed with more data and yet another thing for our todo list. We can end up scrolling, using up precious time and not having anything to show for it. I'm a fan of being productive and efficient with my time and efforts.
Here are the kind of things that I would do:
- take time to observe what is happening
- engage in lightweight ways (liking and amplifying)
- participate in relevant conversations
- support and praise the good things
- look for resources people are sharing (books, blogs, video channels, names of people)
- subscribe to what is relevant, recommended and what they consume (add it to your Surround System)
- be curious and ask plenty of questions
- start conversations based on the things they talk about, mention them where possible
- find opportunities to level up their involvement in your network or community
- share what you find with your community
- take note of ideas (do not rely on your or anyone else's brain)
- and ultimately seek to learn to bring insights back to your community and company
It may seem like a lot, but when you're then tasked with a job, it becomes so much easier to know who and where to go. In addition, with your participation you'll likely get more 'yeses' as you've invested in them and the relationship.
We don't all use Substack nor have these features available to us
This is true. Mostly I write about this to raise awareness of things we could be doing in a community and product-led way.
Relatively simple and automated filters could make a big difference to our work and efficiency as community builders. Tools will always limit us and most community tools will unlikely end up going down this discovery enablement path. Maybe change will come, but not today. 🙃
This shouldn't stop us from creating our own Surround Systems or finding ways to discover the world around us. The 'Substack Subscribed filter' is just one part of a Surround System that connects us and saves us time. It does not complete our needs. More community discovery can still be done.
We want to know the what:
- what people recommend
- what books they read
- quotes they say
- people they recommend
- other websites, channels or blogs they follow
- courses they've taken
- communities they are a part of
- companies they work for
And it's not only the what we want to know, it's also the who.
We should be making attempts at understanding:
- businesses and people within our ecosystem
And then we need to think about the channels to get there:
- Social media (e.g. Substack filters)
- News outlets
- Our own searchable Surround System
This last thing on this list (a searchable Surround System) actually becomes powerful. Every week I use the search bar to discover new things on 'community'. It's where I find many gems across the varied industries I'm interested in.
This is why we still need a hand-cranked Surround System, there is no one simple way to keep on top of these things, yet! I'll continue to create my own surround system that provides it's own unique value in an efficient way that the Substack 'Subscribe filter' cannot.
The community research, experiments and outputs still need to happen
Of course, the work of actually doing the community research still needs to happen. Community products and Surround Systems can only do so much.
What do we do next? We connect it to the bigger picture of working towards outputs.
As I was writing this, I was reminded of this visual from gapingvoid.
There are a bunch of variations around this data information knowledge visual. So I thought I'd create my own in reference to how I think about community discovery, following conversations, surround systems and community in general.
The conversations we follow and the community discovery we do is essential to our work. It guides us to the co-creation and outputs, which is what becomes the most visible part of our community building efforts.