January 09, 2021

Rituals as a foundation of community marketing

Rosie Sherry
I've mentioned in the past that I love marketing, but at the same time I don't feel like a proper marketeer. 

At the same time, I know I should give myself more credit. Ever since I got involved with communities I've done things and achieved results that many marketers dream of.

  • started sold-out meetups
  • created a coworking space with such a cool vibe before coworking was really popular
  • made ‘software testing’ seem fun (many would say this was an impossible task!)
  • built up a list, community, and following of 'software testers' of 20k, 30k, 40k...50k (depending on how you count it) with zero ad spend. Then turned said community and list into a sustainable business.

Maybe this is me suffering imposter syndrome as I’m not a millionaire (yet!) nor have I ever started or been involved with a unicorn startup. But the older and maybe wiser I get, the more I see that people everywhere struggle with how to do community marketing.

Whilst the technical side of things can be challenging, it’s the people, marketing and growth that often become the real stumbling blocks of most community projects.

The more I think about community and marketing, the more I feel rituals are a foundation of community marketing. Note, I say ‘a’ foundation, not ‘the’ foundation.

What are rituals?

When in doubt refer to Wikipedia for a definition:

A ritual is a sequence of activities involving gestures, words, actions, or objects, performed in a sequestered place and according to a set sequence. Rituals may be prescribed by the traditions of a community, including a religious community. Rituals are characterized, but not defined, by formalism, traditionalism, invariance, rule-governance, sacral symbolism, and performance.

Rituals for me, in a very modern community perspective, are the traditions of community. Things we show up to do. Things we identify with. Things we come to expect.

When I think of rituals from a building community perspective, I think of things like:

  • how do you welcome new people?
  • what do you do every day, week, month, or year?
  • how do you gather consistently?
  • how do you start or end things?

Rituals are not a growth hack

You can't go and quote me saying that rituals are the next community growth hack. I will have serious rosie words with you if you do.

Rituals are not something you can force upon or sneak into your community. They are something you work together on. It's a bit of give and take. It's listening, and then understanding. It is experimenting. It is adapting to what you see people want. It is also deciding to end rituals when the time is right.

To me rituals are what you co-create and as a result expect to see it happen again and again. Rituals are what people in communities do. They help define what communities are.

Seth Godin talks about how everything you do is marketing. When rituals are what communities do, then surely we can refer to this as marketing.

Some examples of rituals

So, looking back at my community building experiences, here are some rituals and thoughts about how they worked.

Girl Geek Dinner Meetups

Years ago I did monthly girl geek dinners meetups. Once a month we would meetup, have a speaker, then have chat over dinner. It became a thing for our local women in tech community. 
When I had consistency they were hot, so hot. I barely had to do anything to get them filled up. As soon as the consistency stopped it died out. I tried to, but could not spark the flame again once I lost that consistency.

I learned that if you don’t keep consistency people move on, stop checking in, and lose that habit of making time for the community.

Events for coworking

Once upon a time, I co-started and ran a coworking space, we had amazing last Friday's of the month parties. Every month for the year or two I did it they were jam packed.

When I left no one else picked that task up, they died a rapid death despite some inconsistent attempts to keep them going.

99 Second Talks

At Ministry of Testing we ran conferences. At the end of the day we would finish the conference with 99 second talks where anyone could get up on stage and talk about anything they wanted…wait for it…for 99 seconds. We had a horn to hand to buzz them off at 99 seconds.

Like all things, it started out as an experiment, it went down well so we kept at it. It quickly became a tradition and has now become known as a place where testers get their first experience of being on stage.

Even the current CEO of Ministry of Testing got his first speaking gig through the 99 second talks.

Rituals can exist in so many ways

I honestly don’t think there are limits to rituals that you can have. The beauty of it is that just like you can say ‘we don’t do that here’. With rituals, it’s the opposite, it’s a statement saying this is what we do here, we hope you like it.

  • it can be as simple as saying hello when people introduce themselves
  • or in a Slack context, adding (specific) emoji's to conversations
  • or maybe you host an event, how can you make it at a specific time every week, month or year?
  • with emails, it’s important to be consistent too, Ministry of Testing is 7 years into having a weekly newsletter, every Monday with (almost) no fail.
  • how people respond and support one another can be traditions too.
  • repeatable discussions can also become traditions.

An example of how I’m approaching rituals right now

Since COVID started I’ve been dipping in and out of hosting online meetups at Indie Hackers.
I took some time experimenting with ideas and formats. Part of it was to feel whether it was something people wanted. Part of it, admittedly, was a lack of confidence to commit to the idea long term.

My lack of confidence led to me having no consistency and no traditions set up around the ad-hoc events I was doing. People didn’t know when or if they were happening. It made the whole experience for me a bit of a drag with mixed successes.

I realized I needed to commit and turn them into rituals. So that’s what I’m doing now. Starting with a small group of Indie Women, I’ve made a public commitment to have accountability sessions every two weeks. I’ve marked the dates in. They will happen. They are happening.
In addition to this, I’ve set up a monthly ‘party’. I’ve intentionally made this to be the first Thursday of every month to help people remember.

Specific traditions of the actual events will emerge better over time, but my commitment and clarity of doing things consistently has already made the whole effort much easier to get off the ground. People are signing up and there is little stress in making it happen.

I trust in time I won’t have to ‘do any proper marketing’ for these events. But of course we know that the marketing there in the form of the community and the rituals.

Rituals provide the consistency that people need

For all the tools, tech and hacks that people try. We just can’t forget we are human beings that love and need things not to change too much. This is even more important from a community perspective.

Rituals can take time to build up (like the snowball effect), but once people know they reliably exist they can build it into their lives without you needing to remind them. This is really the sweet spot that you want to get to. It’s a real drag if you constantly have to promote every single thing you do.

You want to get to a point where you or the community do things and they gain traction naturally, with no stress! Blissful, no?

—Rosie Sherry