I was speaking to someone recently who has had a few stop-start situations with their community — as in they are super passionate about getting the community off the ground but hadn't quite found a way to get consistent traction.
I asked myself what would I do in that situation. What came to mind was to recommend they surround themselves intentionally and entirely with their people.
Starting. Community. Is. So. Hard.
Starting anything is hard, and unfortunately, there are no exceptions for communities. We seem to accept that businesses fail all the time, yet when it comes to community we just don't seem to talk about it enough.
We're supposed to find and create traction, flow, value, connection and consistency. As part of this we need to create things like systems, an online presence, design, content, and products.
As community builders, we have to do all these things. Of course it is hard. Of course many of us will fail. It's like starting a business and it's a big ask, of anyone.
And yet, when we go to build community, the first and most popular question people still ask is: what is the best tool to build community?
It's not that the tools aren't important, but it's like we think tools will magically build community for us. Let us agree to look past the tools when we are starting out in community. 🙏🏽
Instead, when starting community, we should focus on deciding what to surround ourselves with.
This is the one strategy that I've used time and time again to kick start a community
So here is the thing: you can't just barge your way into building a community.
You can't just show up at someone's door and request that they join your community. They'll look at you with crazy eyes and just won't listen to you. Why would anyone join anything without any prior knowledge or trust in you?
What's the equivalent of barging in an online and community perspective? This could be things like:
- ads and being excessively followed by them 🤮
- cold emails or DMs
- a single conversation or touchpoint
- showing up places without taking time to understand the norms
In comparison to 'barging in', the approach of surrounding yourself with your people feels truly authentic and organic — it means embracing, respecting and contributing back to the ecosystem.
You can surround yourself with people by doing things like:
- following them on social (and connect)
- follow their blogs (and actually read what they write)
- seeking opportunities to have conversations
- attending and hanging out at the same events
- hanging out where they hang out
I previously mapped out practical steps for this process that I called 'Study Your People' — this has been my process for staying in the community loop, adapt yours accordingly:
- It's an overwhelming mess - start by lurking
- Choose your tools
- Collecting resources that you need
- Whenever possible subscribe to content by RSS
- Take action!
Studying your people surfaces opportunities for community growth
Creating processes or systems to surround yourself with the right kind of people brings community growth. It is not immediately obvious, but the more you dive in and the more you take the time to understand and connect with the landscape, then the better you will be able to spot opportunities to serve your people.
You won't be able to miss them when you realise and know that you need to be looking for opportunities. Of course it takes practice and it's a skill that can be improved over time.
When you are surrounded by your people you will find opportunities to:
- naturally have and jump in on conversations
- find what they are talking about
- understand their likes and dislikes
- know what people are able to give
- understand what you can give people
- understand people's strengths and weaknesses
- know what is (not) important to them
- know what they read
- know what they create
- know what will get them excited
- spot gaps for what is not being served
- spot repeated questions, frustrations or likes
- find opportunities to support or collaborate
Learning to be inspired, contribute and take action on all these kind of things is what brings community growth.
Creating a surround system culture brings an abundance of opportunities
We get stuck in our community building efforts when we don't know what to do. We don't know what to do when we don't have a clear understanding and connection to the ecosystem around us. We lack ideas and the ability to make decisions to go forward. Our community flywheel then comes to a halt, if it even got off the ground in the first place.
Surrounding yourself with your potential people brings abundance of insight, understanding, trust and opportunities. It is active community research. Every conversation you observe or participate in brings you deeper understanding and connection with your ecosystem.
The key is to surround yourself with the right people, with intention and community alignment. It's easy to get sucked into a system to then walk away with no real decisions or actions. It's also easy to surround yourself with the wrong people or resources that just end up being a big distraction.
Learning to spot and identify what matters and what brings community impact is key. It's not just about what your potential people say or do, it's also about combining that with the direction you believe your community needs to take, and the the knowledge you have acquired from your research.
Having a mindset, or a philosophy, to always be seeking opportunities for your people and your community is key. When you look, you will find. The challenge will then become what opportunities to pursue.
How to intentionally explore your surroundings
You have people and conversations happening around you, what do you do once you have a 'surround system' set up?
Community exploring should come from two angles:
- Passive exploring: soak up all the information
- Active building: take action and do something
In reality, these come hand in hand, they are a community flywheel within themselves.
1. Passive Exploring
This is your internal research. Your space to make sense of the world you are trying to build. Make it something that works for you.
Personally and practically my daily passive exploring involves keeping a close eye on conversations, bookmarking interesting things, taking notes, sketching ideas, curating, asking questions and starting discussions.
Here are some things that I keep in mind:
- Who are the right people to surround yourself with?
- Who are the regulars and what do they talk about?
- How can you find observers?
- Who are the new voices or talent popping up?
- Who is missing?
- What and how do these people want to give?
- How do they align with your community ambitions?
- What does their energy feel like?
- What patterns can you see in how people communicate?
- Do they use memes, emojis or slang?
- Look for signs of excitement, celebration, frustration and anger.
- Where do they struggle?
- What are their complaints?
- What conversations are disguised as struggles?
- What are struggles are new?
- How do people prefer to converse?
- Do they have a tool or medium of choice?
- What kind of topics are they talking about?
- What questions are being asked?
- What support are they requesting?
- What are meaningful, helpful and actionable conversations?
- What are they not talking about?
- How do people really show up?
- How are they contributing?
- What do they value?
- What ideas are people excited about?
- What does their ideal transformation path look like?
- What are their dreams and aspirations?
- Who do they seek to be?
- Where are they on their journey?
- Who is helping them on their journey?
- How are they not being helped?
2. Active Building
Don't get stuck in the passive stage. In reality passive exploring and active building come hand in hand. Do a bit of exploring, then experiment with building something, ala Minimum Viable Community (MVC) mindset.
Active building is where you start doing stuff. You start creating MVCs. You experiment, learn and build up your community flywheel.
Active building is fun. It can also be stressful and full of failures. The goal is to build towards what works, you won't know what works until you've experiemented.
Trust me, I've had a bunch of wonderful ideas that just never took off...for a whole variety of reasons.
Passive exploring also helps you continue the research into your active building. Never take your eyes off the community, always be looking, always be searching, always be learning.
Sure, you can and should measure results of your active building, the projects you create, but continuous exploring is essential to keep an eye on the bigger picture.
A surround system brings sustainability
Creating a surround system is not an overnight thing. A basic baseline could be set up pretty quickly, but the learning, adaptation and building relationships is what takes time.
To do this consistently and as a growing team takes commitment. For me, there is no other way — you can't serve your community if you don't truly understand them.
A surround system creates that understanding.