One challenge people often come to me for help with is how to start a community. They have this pull and energy to create something special, but they draw a blank when it comes to starting one. They have the inspiration, but lack the tools.
The classic mistake is to set up some kind of tool and just invite anyone and everyone in. Whilst this may result in a flurry of activity and excitement, most often it ends with crickets — ie, inactivity and then a hopefully painless death.
The current community problems go deeper than this — it feels like there is a mystery in the community building process.
I’m on a mission to find ways to demystify the process, starting with community discovery.
Community discovery helps you make decisions on how to build your community. It is perhaps most important at the beginning, but for survival, community discovery needs to be continuous — communities are simply never done.
Fundamentally community discovery is about deep research with your ideal community members. Good community discovery equips you with insights, confidence, and foundational relationships to launch and maintain a meaningful community.
Community discovery is open minded and puts the needs of members at the center of community activities. It involves focusing intently on how you can help people along their journey, yet also benefiting your community or business along the way too.
Let's dive into some key ideas around what is involved in community discovery.
All communities exist for a reason — often this is referred to as a vision. It is the driver of everything you do. Your vision sets you apart from other communities and at the heart of this it means your daily actions need to align with what you want your community to become.
When we do community discovery, we need to ensure that the actions we take align with our overall vision.
Key question: will your actions help you get closer to your vision?
Ways to create community alignment:
When we seek to create products we tend to capture value by solving for pains, needs, and wants.
However, when we seek to build community, we need to be value creators in ways that are often less tangible. This value is created through relationships, conversations, connections, and co-creating of outputs such as events and content.
Even if the outcomes aren’t deemed a success, future attempts will become easier to execute, based on the trust, connections, and relationships built through the process.
Key question: how do we know we will create value for our people?
Ways to create value:
Conversations are art in community discovery.
We hold conversations to understand, to connect with others, to build trust, and to help people on their journey if done well and with true intentions. With this trust comes the deepest value that you can acquire — insight into what people are truly thinking and feeling, not just what they think you want to hear.
Key question: how can we hold conversations that drive value?
Ways to create valuable conversations:
Community builders need an experimental mindset, which means we can start small, then work our way up to bigger things as our confidence grows.
But experimenting is scary, and though failure along the way is guaranteed, it’s better to fail small, and to build confidence while learning.
Starting small means contributing as an explorer. Perhaps making a comment or sharing ideas on people’s behalf. Gaining confidence means creating, or co-creating something of value. Having complete confidence means moving forward with your own community.
Key question: what can you do today that will help you edge towards your community vision?
How to experiment:
How can you build a community without being knowledgeable about what you are letting yourself in for? How can you hold good conversations without knowing what you are talking about? How can you understand the value that needs to be created without understanding the people, the past, and the present?
Before diving into anything you want to do your research and to explore the boundaries. In community, there is always so much to learn, whether it’s people, the language they use, and even things that excite or annoy them. To be effective, community builders must be curious and be willing to explore.
But being an explorer doesn’t mean you stay on the sidelines, because exploring naturally leads to other things. I’ve found that it doesn’t need to take long to move from explorer to participant. The more you work at it, the more a center of gravity you and your community becomes because the act of showing up in the right places, participating, understanding, and showing you care is all rooted in the fact that you have been exploring with community intent.
Key question: how can you develop good processes to adopt continuous exploring habits?
How to explore:
Community discovery is a habit built on continuous curiosity. If individuals have habits then communities and companies have processes.
Community building never stops. Our habits are what keeps the wheels turning. As times change and as people come and go, we must remain curious and be willing to adapt. There is always room for more. To help one more person, to have one more conversation, to co-create that one more time.
Perhaps the wisdom behind growing communities is accepting that you may know a lot but you’ll never know it all. Therefore, to continuously question everything and to maintain that curiosity is key to maintaining a vibrant community.
Key question: how can you create community team processes around community discovery?
How to create habits:
I love following my heart and I know many other community builders do too. It’s the best way to build community — with passion, love, care, and commitment.
However, when we create communities, especially ones with the potential to cover a large scope, we need to spend the time doing community discovery, not only to understand the community we want to serve, but to also gauge whether there are more opportunities to fill.
We must also remember that just because we want community it doesn’t mean others want us to be the ones to create it. Creating a community is a privilege that requires building of knowledge, trust, and bridges. Community discovery can play a key part in this.
Taking the time to understand and connect equips us with the power to make community decisions with confidence. The other option is guesswork, and that just feels like a waste of everyone’s time.
We're launching Community Sprints — one-week learning community cohorts. We'll be exploring Community Discovery further in our first Community Sprint.