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Gravity is the key to community growth

May 7, 2021
Rosie Sherry
Community Lead
Gravity is the key to community growth
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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There’s something ever so satisfying when I look at the Orbit Model and start to relate it to my own community building experience and research, and especially the concept of Gravity.

This week we’re diving into how gravity drives growth, and how this mindset is critical when it comes to building your community.

From push to pull

I think it’s time to rethink growth, especially from a community perspective.

We are bombarded with growth tactics. Paid ads, mass emails, content marketing, and so much more. It’s often a numbers game with the goal of pushing a message to as many people as possible. Which is fine, that can work for products. Just not so much with communities.

Community growth comes from creating high gravity actions that pull people in naturally.  Within communities, people don’t want to be treated as a number. They want to feel like they belong and align with the vision, to be part of something bigger than just themselves.

As a result, community-specific growth strategies are needed to build a sustainable community with these human needs in mind.

If gravity is growth, how do we achieve that natural community pull?

I have this visual in my head that goes like this…

This image could accurately represent how a community grows in a pull analogy.

At the centre, the heart of the community. We could say that perhaps the goal of community building is to get people to the middle. To do that in community we need to do things that pull people in. However, we do it knowingly that not everyone will get nor want to be in the middle. It’s perfectly fine to have people observing from afar.

Techniques for gravity-based community growth

Overall, this means avoiding transactional behavior that comes with typical growth strategies. With transactions, you do something and expect (or demand) something in return.

For example, if you place an ad somewhere, you may hope to get 100 clicks and maybe 5 sales. That’s a transactional expectation. If you don’t get the results you expect, there’s a very high chance you won’t place an ad again

Whereas with community, sure you can still do ads, but you might do it in a way that might create fruitful connections over immediate results. Maybe instead you would sponsor an event that a community member is putting together — getting inbound leads would be great, but it’s not the focus of doing the sponsorship. You do it because it helps the community member as much as it might potentially help your community at some point.

By the way, this is what makes community building so hard. We give so much and all too often don’t feel we get much in return, or we have to have the patience and the trust we will get the results. The rosie in me believes having patience brings results in the end, not always of course. Nothing in life is always.

So, just because we avoid being transactional, it doesn’t mean we can’t do smart and effective community growth tactics. We need to ensure we look to celebrate the right things and are heading in the right direction. As you’ll see in the examples below, growth happens almost as a side effect of creating value and focusing on the right things.

Here are some practical community growth strategies that have worked for me:

Be the first...

I would often go out of my way to support new and underrepresented indie hackers, to help them get their first sales. Typically I did this by tweeting and sharing their product throughout the community.

I would find products to share from people participating in the community. I would never tell them it was coming, surprise was key!

This led to some amazing things, like:

- Handwritten letters and digital messages of thanks

- Members coming back to share their stories of how they made their first sales

- Some very excited sharing across social media of what we did for them

- Most indie hackers remember ‘that time we tweeted about them’

You can extend this idea to other things too, be the first:

- follower

- comment

- to connect them with someone

- to welcome them

- one to be their champion

- to help them write their first published article

- to help them get their first speaking gig

- to help them get their first job

- to co-create with them

Being the first is a fantastic way to provide value before ever asking anything in return.

As with any kind of growth tactic, I’d recommend starting small experiments and increasing as you find successes. You don’t want these to be one-off things that you do.

You want it baked into your community culture.

You want to say ‘this is what we do here’.

Focus on the unknown people

I’m a big believer in doing good things for new people, or people without much of a following. Not only does this create a new experience for them, but they will also appreciate it 1000x more than someone with a big following.

It’s easy to fall into the growth trap of focusing on ‘influencers’, this is where community and traditional growth tactics differ. Community is here for long term impact, growth hacks are more about quick gains.

Focusing on the unknowns also gives you the opportunity to be a big part of their life. When you become a part of someone’s life they will stay attached to you for a very long time. The longer they stay, the more they are likely to share things about your community.

From experience, communities I’ve been involved with have had members gravitate inwards:

- from great word of mouth

- members wearing or using swag

- people publishing positive experiences

- list their experiences on their website or CVs

- with members giving back and volunteering their time

This doesn’t mean you can’t also work with ‘influencers’, just make sure there is balance.

Show members that they are visible and important

It’s so, so easy to think it’s not important to give acknowledgement to your people, but really, in today’s world people are crying out to be seen.

Pull them in by doing things like:

- writing about them

- recommend they connect with someone else

- personally inviting them to something

- say yes to people, make the time

- have conversations, as many of them as you are able to

- give them compliments

- thank them

- recognize their contributions

Ignore the feeling that this isn’t a scalable way to grow. It becomes very scalable when the community starts replicating the standards you set out from the beginning.

Don’t provide value, create it, together

This is easier said than done and is a super easy statement to throw around. I still find this one super challenging, but for me, the best way to create value is together! This helps you stay relevant and it also helps you build stronger relationships.

All the conferences I’ve ever hosted have been done with support from the community. The speakers, the staff, the volunteers, and the ideas. We created huge value that 95% came from the community.

I could also say that everything I create these days comes inspired by the many conversations that I’m a part of, or that I lurk on. The more we acknowledge, converse and collaborate on projects together the more of a growth flywheel effect we will experience.Here are some of the things that I’ve co-created with my communities:

- conferences

- courses

- articles

- podcasts

- community challenges

- a deck of cards

- posters

- a network of global meetups

- a real physical newspaper

Pull people in with conversations

People won’t always remember what you said, but they will remember how you made them feel.

Perhaps the most underrated way of pulling people in is to have conversations with them. The best conversations I have are where I show up to listen and to help. I’m not there to sell to them. I’m there to spend time talking about the things they care about and see if there is any way I can use what is available to me to help them.

Some ways you can do this, talk to people:

- at events you host (get stuck in!)

- at events other people host

- at a social event

- help people organize their own events

- hold an icebreaker event

- offer free chats and help (no sales talk)

I’m doing lots of free chats at the moment. Every week I speak to about 5 people to help them with challenges in their community. I have no agenda other than to help people build better communities.

I know it will lead to a ton of ideas for my community work, but really the goal is to help people where I can.

Community life is better when people gravitate towards you

On the face of it, these don’t seem like your typical growth strategies. Traditionally they have been hard to measure. I feel it is this lack of measurement that leads to business pressure to not use them.

Often people say these are not scalable, or hard to persist with long term. I say, when the right culture and foundations are put in place, community growth becomes the most natural and powerful way to grow communities.

And don’t tell anyone, but life is so much more fun when people gravitate towards you. 🤫

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