Back to Blog
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.

A Practical Guide to Building a Community from Scratch

November 7, 2022
Patrick Woods
Co-Founder & CEO
A Practical Guide to Building a Community from Scratch
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.

💫  Subscribe to The Observatory

This guide is for builders just getting started with their community. “Getting started” could refer to someone starting a brand new community, or to someone inheriting an existing community. In this article, we’ll start with the basics as if you’re starting from scratch. 

This guide assumes you’re building a community with a product or company in mind. If you’re not sure what kind of community you have or want, see our article on Classifying Communities with the 3Ps: Product, Practice, and Play

This is not the perfect guide, and there are endless ways to launch a community. The open-endedness can be exhilarating — it can also be overwhelming to folks just getting started. So this is just one approach that will hopefully inspire some ideas and actions to help you get things off the ground. 

Building a Community Step 0: Start with “Why?” 

So you know you want a community, but have you clearly defined why? This sounds obvious but it’s actually really important. Community is hard to do, and can take a long time to pay off, so it’s important to understand your own motivations and expectations, as well as those of your potential community members. 

In startup world, customer discovery is a well-understood process of conducting research and conversations to deeply understand the problems faced by a potential set of customers. It’s lengthy and rigorous, but helps ensure founders that they’re solving the right problems for the right people. 

I think new communities should be founded on a similar level of rigor. We call this Community Discovery. I suggest reviewing the questions below, and actually writing down your answers. If you have a cofounder or a team, ask them to answer the questions as well, and when you’re all done, you can compare and contrast.

This process will help you define the shape of your future community, and will help you clearly articulate your thinking to stakeholders as well. 

Community discovery 

  • Why should this community exist?
  • Where do members exist today?
  • What needs does a community member have?
  • What type of community interaction best suits the community (live chat, forum, etc.)?
  • What activities does your community do?
  • What sort of events does your community seek?

Learn more with Orbit’s Community Discovery Framework.  

As you define your Why, there are a few other concepts that will help you define your community. 

Value capture vs value creation 

  • What value does your organization CREATE for the community?
  • What value does your organization need to CAPTURE from the community?

Read more about the difference in this blog post

Defining desired outcomes 

  • What does this community look like in 12 months? 
  • Why do people join, and why do they stay? 
  • What do they say about it? 
  • What does the community specifically not do? 

Understanding the Orbit Model

The Orbit Model is a framework for building high gravity communities. A high gravity community is one that excels at attracting and retaining members by providing an outstanding member experience and increasing the bonds between members.

The Orbit Model will provide you with a baseline understanding of how to understand, measure, and grow your community over time. You’re probably familiar with the sales and marketing funnel. The OM is like that, but for community. 

building a community: the Orbit Model infographic showing the metrics Love and Reach. Love measures a member's level of engagement, and Reach measures their influence. The higher the Love the higher the level that community member attains.r

Learn more at  

Pick your Builder-Friendly Community Platforms 

How to pick the minimum toolset for launching a community

In parallel to doing your discovery and sparking conversations, you’ll want to lay some groundwork for where your community will live. Most communities operate across a whole constellation of platforms — as we say, the future of community is distributed — but when getting started, you probably only need one. 

Do you build a community around forum or chat? 

For most community builders, it comes down to a question of what’s more appropriate: 

  • Asynchronous long-form forum discussions, or 
  • Real-time chat 

Examples of forums include Discourse, InSided, Circle, DEV, Khoros, and many others. 

The most popular chat platforms are Discord, Slack, and Mattermost. 

Forums are great for long-form thoughtful conversations that are easy to navigate and search. Over time, an active forum can generate loads of useful content that others can easily find, and that your team will be able to reference and link to. 

On the other hand, forums can lack the personal vibes you might get from a live chat platform, where conversations flow and direct messages (DMs) are common. 

Chat platforms can feel chaotic, with many conversations, threads, and channels active at once. They’re harder to search, so you might see the same questions come up repeatedly, and the conversations aren’t indexed by search engines — all of which can make chat platforms feel difficult to use. 

That said, for early-stage communities, I think Discord and Slack are great for creating a sense of connection and intimacy. It may sound goofy, but sharing emojis and GIFs really do add an emotional layer to the interactions.

Read more in our comparison of Slack vs Discord vs Discourse. You can also dive deeper into why and how we migrated from Slack to Discord in this post

Every year, we conduct new research to publish our Constellation Report. You can check out the 2021 Constellation Report here or you can explore the tools in detail on our interactive Orbit’s Community Tools Index.

Or, just watch below for an overview on what tools are trending and why:

Spark the Conversation: Nail your Community Positioning

Now that you have the tools in place, how do you really get started? 

Meet people where they are today 

No matter how niche your space, there’s a good chance some folks somewhere are already talking about the problems and ideas surrounding it. There are a few common places you might look: 

  • Reddit – Search for specific subreddits relevant to your topic
  • Specific forums, Discord servers, or Slack groups – Try googling your topic + “forum” to find venues hyper-targeted to what you’re working on 
  • General versions of the above – If you’re building a community around an application of Kubernetes, for example, you’ll find conversations about k8s on Stack Overflow, GitHub, etc
  • Twitter and other social media – Try using Twitter’s advanced search to find conversations relevant to your new community. Follow relevant participants and try to contribute to their conversations 

Meeting people where they are gives you the chance to:

  • Learn what excites, or what exasperates, the community
  • Pick up on trends and themes 
  • Understand the influential people and ideas
  • Identify unmet needs in the community that you might be able to fill, either directly in conversation, or through your own contribution via events or the community you’re creating 

And most importantly, once you’ve done the above, you’ll be in a position to start to contribute to the conversation – to create value before trying to capture it. 

Community positioning is similar to product positioning, which you can read more about in this Twitter thread

Caution: You should not join communities with the sole purpose of poaching away members. Rather, you should first seek to give and to learn, and only begin acting once you’ve uncovered an actual need from the members’ point of view, not just a sales or marketing opportunity from your point of view. 

It's Time to Build: Create Lighthouse Events to Draw in Members

As someone building a community from scratch, you’re definitely facing the cold start problem. We’ve all joined Discord servers or visited forums where the last post was from 3 months ago, and it has no responses. How can you catalyze engagement early on and avoid this ghost town effect? 

Once you’ve spent some time in related communities, and found opportunities to give back, the best way to jumpstart your community is to design an event series to answer some of the questions identified during your research.

Check out our playbook on how to build an invite list for an event for detailed steps. 

By now you should know a lot about your potential community members, their struggles, and gaps in the market, so the core idea of an event, or series of events, is to create something that will inspire and equip your target community members based on everything you’ve learned. 

A great event should provide lots of value to your potential members, while also providing a legitimate reason for you to invite them to your platform. 

The key steps to planning a lighthouse event series: 

  • Create a list of common challenges, themes, ideas, and discussions from the communities you’re observing. 
  • Draft a list of potential topics, and fill in potential speakers or panel members. 
  • Reach out individually to a few of the folks on your list with a clear and personalized invitation. 
  • For a panel discussion, try something like, “Hey NAME, I’ve been thinking about the discussions here lately about TOPIC, and want to get some folks together to discuss. Would you be interested in attending something like that? I’d love to have your input.”
  • For a fireside format, consider, “Hey NAME, there seems to be a ton of interest in TOPIC among this community, and I’ve been thinking of ways to dive deeper. Would you be up for joining me for a fireside chat to share your thoughts with the community?” 

To speed things up, use Orbit’s Twitter DM feature to reach out from within the app. 

As you go through the process, you’ll begin to learn what approaches are working for recruiting speakers, and what topics are truly of interest to the community. 

Here are some other things to consider: 

  • Quality vs quantity of attendees — It’s okay to start small; in fact, it’s probably better than going big to start. Fewer folks means you can spend more time on follow up conversations and truly getting to know them. Those relationships will form the foundation for later community growth. 
  • Which topics are you passionate about? — Since you’re driving so much of the content and engagement early on, it’s a good idea to pick themes and topics you personally know and/or care about. 

Promote, carefully 

Once you have an event scheduled and the invitation page is looking great, you can begin sharing in the communities you’re already in, ideally in a channel like #share-your-stuff or some other venue where it’s normal to promote your own things. 

It’s really important that you abide by the community’s norms on this, and always bias towards creating legitimate value, versus shamelessly promoting irrelevant content. 

Track attendance

We recommend using Luma to create a lightweight page to gather email RSVPs for your event. You should also connect your Luma account to Orbit using Zapier, which you can do here

During the event, you can use the Notes feature on individual member profile pages in Orbit to keep track of interesting questions or conversations you might want to reference in the future. 

For more thoughts on hosting a meaningful virtual event, checkout our article The Art of Gathering Online

Onboard Members for Long-Term Community Growth 

Provide next steps for event attendees to get further involved in the community.  

Following the event, you’ll have gotten several folks to RSVP or otherwise share their content info, or in the case of a Discord Stage, to join your server. So what now? 

Some folks will have come just for the event and you’ll never hear from them again, and that’s okay. But other attendees will be interested in the topics you’re building around, and you’ll want to keep them around to learn from them and build momentum. 

Following the event, you should try to create a cadence of touchpoints to move folks from Orbit Level 4 into Level 1, if they’re interested. 

(If you're ready for a deep-dive already, then check out this talk Richard Millington of FeverBee gave at our conference, Nexus)

Post-event conversation starters

For folks that come to your events, here are some ideas for keeping the conversation going. In a personal message (via Twitter, Discord DM, or email): 

  • Ask for feedback on the event, and if they have any ideas for future events or guests 
  • Ask them what they’re into and what they’re working on
  • Ask if you can help them with anything 
  • Offer a time to chat, if relevant, or include an invite to office hours 
  • Use Orbit to send Twitter DMs directly 

Ongoing community onboarding 

As new people join, here are some ways to get to know people better, find new ways to include people, and uncover opportunities for collaboration: 

  • Send personal welcome messages each time someone joins the server or forum  
  • Follow them on social media 
  • Ask them to share relevant industry news in the server 
  • Host events on a regular basis, improving them based on feedback on prior events 
  • Invite attendees and active community members to become guests 

Facilitate intros to get members talking to each other 

In early communities, it’s common for conversations to seem one-to-many. In other words, the community manager or founder is sparking conversations, sharing resources, and generally keeping things active. Sure, folks respond, but overall, it feels like one person talking. 

But then, a magical moment in community building happens when the conversations turn from one-to-many to many-to-many — in other words, when community members start sparking conversations with each other. 

How can you encourage new community members to start conversations with each other? 

By making public participation feel less intimidating, and shifting the vibe from a room full of strangers to a room full of acquaintances, if not friends. Okay, so how do you do that

At the beginning of community (well, at all times, but especially early on), personal intros are super powerful. For example, you meet two members who you know are both really interested in new Javascript frameworks, so you ask each if you can make the intro. Or you learn that two members both live in Boise and would probably enjoy meeting in person. 

As you get to know your members, you’ll start to pattern match and be able to quickly make these intros, which are really great for creating bonds between members and building trust overall. 

💡Tip: Use Notes on the Member Profile in your Orbit workspace to keep track of the details, and consider using Tags to group related folks together. 

In addition to personal intros you facilitate, you can also tag members into questions asked by community members, for example, “Hey @patrickwoods, tagging you in on this question, since I know you’re passionate about this topic.” This gets the conversation going in the public spaces to complement the world you’re building behind the scenes. 

Get the whole company involved 

Community members love hearing from everyone across a company beyond the core community team. At Orbit, we host regular office hours that feature PMs, engineers, and executives. It’s a great way to put faces with names, build broad relationships with members, and for non-community-facing folks to connect with and build empathy for community members.

Next Steps: Build Your Community Knowledge

If you’ve implemented the steps above, you’re well on your way to jumpstarting your new community. As you progress on your journey, here are some resources to help along the way: 

  1. Join the Orbit community on Discord and tell us what you’re working on
  2. Follow Orbit on Twitter for community content and conversation 
  3. Dive into Orbit Playbooks, for deep tactical how-tos 
  4. Read these books: 
building a community: Orbit Community Growth Platform makes community the engine for growth in your business by helping you to monitor, measure, and understand. m

If you can pair this practical knowledge and lessons from some of the brightest minds in community with the realtime data of what's happening inside your community, you give yourself a huge advantage in making it a success.

You can use Orbit to generate the intelligence to take the right actions and produce the most impact.

What are your top tips for building a new online community? Join us on Discord and let us know!

Related Articles