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A Simple Community Positioning Framework

April 21, 2023
Patrick Woods
Co-Founder & CEO
A Simple Community Positioning Framework
Welcome to The Observatory, the community newsletter from Orbit.

Each week we go down rabbit holes so you don't have to. We share tactics, trends and valuable resources we've observed in the world of community building.

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Despite rough economic conditions, community, as a discipline, continues to grow. As a result, there are lots of new folks starting communities as well as taking over existing ones. 

In fact, according to the 2022 State of Developer Relations report, 62% of developer relations professionals have been in the field for less than 5 years, and according to the 2022 Community Industry Report, 50% of community professionals have been in the field for less than 5 years. 

If you’re launching or inheriting a community, how can you make sure what you’re building is unique and valuable to your members, especially when so many great communities already exist? 

I think we can learn a lesson from the world of brand strategy, which has developed an approach for communicating difference in highly competitive categories.

For example, there are a lot of car brands, but some folks love Tesla, while others are die-hard Ford buyers. There are tons of note taking apps, and a million CRM companies. Amidst the crowd, how can any single brand attract their ideal customer? 

Competing alternatives can exist because each is positioned differently in the mind of customers; at least ideally.

In the CRM example, you might have solutions that are known for being infinitely customizable, others that are easy to start with, others built for mobile usage, still others that natively understand crypto, and more. 

Communities are the same way — they each are strong in some areas, weak in others, and are known to be awesome for a handful of things. 

If you want to start a new community, it’s important to understand the position you want to occupy in the minds of your potential members and to define what value you’ll create for whom. 

A positioning statement is a tool from the world of brand strategy and marketing that I think provides a helpful framework for doing just that. 

What is positioning? 

Positioning is a process for owning a unique position in the mind of the target consumer for defining key elements of a brand, with the goal of defining what it’s all about and what it’s not. 

A positioning statement is a short articulation of who you want to be to your audience. 

It distills the research, insights, and ideas from a community discovery process into a single sentence that becomes the foundation for your community design choices.

It also helps define who you don’t want to be. Many community builders are tempted to be all things to all people, but in the words of Pria Parker in The Art of Gathering, "thoughtful exclusion, in addition to being generous, can be defining."

A positioning statement, likewise, can help you understand where to draw and communicate healthy boundaries.

Overall, it helps you define: of all of the things you could be about, what you should be about.

Note: for deep dives on brand positioning, check out the classic Positioning,  April Dunford’s new classic, Obviously Awesome, or my book, The Brand Strategy Canvas.

Crafting a community positioning statement 

There are several formulas for crafting a positioning statement, but this one is my favorite:

For [ audience ], brand is [ description ] that [ benefit ] because [ proof ] so that [ payoff ].

It’s kind of like mad libs, where each bracketed term is a “blank” to fill in. 

Here’s a bit more about what each term means: 

  • Audience — Who are they and what is their most important psychographic need or desire as it relates to the brand’s category?
  • Description — What is the simplest description of the product? Or, what is the broader, more strategic frame of reference?
  • Benefit — What is the unique, primary benefit or point of difference of the product?
  • Proof — What are the factual, meaningful, and provable reasons to believe the primary benefit or point of difference?
  • Payoff — What is the ultimate emotional payoff for the customer or user? Does it answer the need in the audience description?

I’d tweak the standard example slightly to create a simple community positioning framework: 

For [ audience ], community_name is [ description ] that [ benefit ] because [ proof ] so that [ payoff ].

Note: I realize that, in community world, "audience" has a specific connotation versus "community," but I've decided to use "audience" here because it's simple. And if your positioning works, your audience will become your community! 

As an example, let's apply the statement to a community about lightsabers: 

For Jedi Masters who love tinkering, TinkerTown is the online community that helps advanced lightsaber hackers improve their engineering skills because of our mentor matching tools and frequent hands-on learning events so that our members are better equipped to fight the Sith.

In this example, the audience is advanced lightsaber hackers, not all Jedi or padawans, which is nice and specific. 

Its benefit is functional — improving engineering skills — and has programming designed for this outcome. 

And the "why" is all about coming together to fight the Sith.

With this single sentence, you can start to see how it would influence choices about language, programming, sections of the forum, events, and more. 

A counter-example 

Now let’s look at a counter-example: what if the statement’s audience section said: "For Jedi who like to discuss lightsaber mods..?" 

The overall design of the community would be different, including onboarding, programming, and channels in the server. You’d see a lot more gear tear-downs, memes, and interesting show-and-tells, but maybe not super actionable content. It’s less about expert hackers who want to level up, and more about casual fans and sharing cool stuff.

The payoff would be different as well — less about fighting the Sith and more about having fun and great conversation.

According to the 3Ps model, this would be a community of play, versus the community of practice in the first example.

Okay, yes, this example is a bit goofy, but you can see how small tweaks to each part of the statement can have a big impact on the positioning overall — and on downstream tactical and operational choices about community experience. 

Finally, keep in mind that a positioning statement isn't something you'd publish, but it should be used as a thought experiment for key stakeholders.

It should help you and your team discuss where you're at today, where you'd like to go, and any gaps you see along the way.

Craft your statement and compare it with your teammates 

Nailing a positioning statement can take time and effort, but you can get started pretty quickly. 

As a practical exercise, try this: 

📋 Copy the statement template above into a doc

📝 Complete it yourself, and have others on your team do the same in their own docs

🤐 Don't share your answers yet 

🧐 Once everyone's done, compare your statements and discuss the differences

I bet you'll find some interesting variations among your own teammates. And that's great! You'll now have plenty of material for discussing and improving how you design your community experience and differentiate it from what’s out there.

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