7-Step Framework to Build a Sense of Community with Customers
The business case for building a customer community is undeniable.
The customer community takes the idea of customer success and furthers it, offering even more opportunities for customer support, retention, and revenue growth.
But a community is more than just a physical or digital space for customers to hang out. It’s a feeling and a utility. More specifically, the most successful customer groups win because they build a thriving sense of community—that little voice inside each member’s head and heart saying they are right where they belong (cue Go The Distance from Hercules).
If that sense of community is the key to success, the next natural question is how to build one. This guide has the answer—a 7-step process to build a sense of community within your customer base.
Here’s how this guide is broken down:
- Defining a sense of community
- Step 1: Identify your community goals
- Step 2: Pick your community structure
- Step 3: Build your community engagement plan
- Step 4: Pick a software platform to empower your community
- Step 5: Make the invitation special
- Step 6: Start discussions and moderate
- Step 7: Iterate and try new things
- Common community mistakes to avoid
Defining a sense of community
A sense of community is a mixture of two things: feelings and utility
Within the realm of feelings, a sense of community comes from both good feelings being present and a distinct lack of certain bad feelings.
Good feelings that build a sense of community:
- Feelings of belonging: The warm feeling people get when they know they are welcome somewhere.
- Being welcomed: The concept that you will be welcomed as a new member of the group whenever you enter the group’s space.
- Familiarity: A feeling that the people you’re surrounded by understanding you and vice versa.
The absence of certain bad feelings:
- Caution: You don’t feel like you have to keep your defenses up or scout for a possible attack.
- Concern: You don’t feel like the space is going to trap you in any way.
- Upset: You don’t feel a rush of negative emotions when you think about the community or engage in it.
It’s important to have both – the presence of the good and a lack of the bad – to build a sense of community. If you don’t have the good, you have nothing to look forward to. And if you have any of the bad (rather than a noted lack), you risk poisoning the community.
On top of how someone feels in a space, a sense of community also comes from what someone gets from that space. After all, feeling good is great, but getting good results is even better.
The utility comes in three forms:
1. Function: What can someone do within the community? Examples include chat rooms, talks, DIY education, or connecting with support differently.
2. Meaning: Why does someone use the community? Examples include networking, education, or advanced product use cases.
3. Value: What does someone get from the community? Examples include more customers, more incremental use of the product, or more collaborators and professional friends.
Building a sense of community is simple, but not easy. Here are the seven steps to follow:
Step 1: Identify your community goals
The key to building community is first knowing what that community is supposed to be for. Or, more specifically, what you hope to provide community members so they not only join but stay active.
Typically, customer communities revolve around one of the following goals:
1. Product education: For when you have a complex product or service that’s embedded into a customer’s business.
2. Business education: For when your product or service is about helping customers grow, your community can provide education about other areas you don’t cover.
3. Networking: For when your business is about connection and helping people meet each other.
Ideally, you’ll co-create this goal with customers via feedback channels. Regardless though, you need to know the main point of your community before going forward.
Step 2: Pick your community structure
Once you know the community’s primary goal, you’ll need to pick the right structure. For example, even if you chose a product education goal, that could take the form of a learning community (like a “Product University”), a peer-to-peer education forum, a mentoring group, or something else.
Here are some common community structures you can build:
1. Learning community: Providing lessons, assessments, and space or virtual classroom for learners to gain a new skill (either product- or business-focused). This can also be a space for mentoring, whether between group members or having on-staff mentors.
2. Social community: Offering a way for customers to meet and network with one another with the explicit goal of building a strong sense of belonging, camaraderie, and connectedness. These types of communities can also tie into the mental health and well-being of members. In a way, this type of community functions as a private social media network for customers.
3. Feedback community: A community that provides a structured way for your most-engaged customers to give direct feedback to the company. You can build member engagement by allowing things like member voting on ideas and attribution to specific customers so everyone can share their perspective and feel part of the community. This is a great way to get validation on new ideas, especially if you build small groups for product testing.
You’ll also have to choose whether to primarily build an online community or have an in-real-life (“IRL”) community. While all companies need some form of online element—even just to send email reminders for in-person events—it’s worth thinking about your business and what it needs.
Step 3: Build your community engagement plan
A community engagement plan starts by identifying your shared values—the things that you’ll ask customers to abide by when they become members. Then you’ll need to plan initiatives. To better plan what you’ll offer to members (or do for them), take a page from psychologists D.W. McMillan and D.M. Chavis. The duo theorized in their research that the community needs to provide four things to be successful.
1. Membership and common ground: A place for people to connect (physical or virtual).
2. Influence: Members have influence over what the group does (to some extent) and the group itself (or group leadership) must have some influence over how members act within it.
3. Fulfillment of needs: A community must provide something to members such as education or professional connection.
4. Shared emotional connection: McMillan and Chavis noted emotional connection is the “definitive element” of community and revolves around shared histories and common identity within the group.
Example initiatives include:
- “Office hours” for open questions.
- Engagement campaigns such as asking everyone to comment on why they are in business or what they do regularly.
- Live critiques, “teardowns”, and buildups where experts in the community give honest feedback about a subject (like landing pages or pitch strategy).
- Pre-recorded education about advanced product use cases.
As you build your community engagement plan, think of initiatives and stories that help foster these four elements while driving toward your overall goal.
Step 4: Pick a software platform to empower your community
Whether online or IRL, you’ll need some technology. Here’s what to look for:
Branding: Your community should feel like your community (brand colors, fonts, etc.).
Custom spaces: Different areas your community members can engage in or discuss specific things.
Integrations and apps: No platform will give you 100% of what you need upfront, so pick one that is flexible enough to work with custom apps.
Messaging and communication: A platform that allows you to connect with members and members to connect.
Analytics: Both in-community analytics and connections to outside platforms such as Google Analytics.
Rich content creation and moderation tools: Both for you and members (with permission!).
Search, explore, and discovery: Easy tools for members to search for content or to navigate the community.
Step 5: Make the invitation special
Inviting someone to be part of a community is critical. But you have to do it right and provide a great user experience or the whole community will falter.
5a: Invite special users first
First invite your top-tier users—highest revenue, most engaged, or otherwise special to your organization—because these people have shown they are willing to engage.
Allow these individuals to be seed members, giving you intense feedback and trying out all your community features.
5b. Grow steadily with more systematized invitations
Continue inviting users in tranches so you don’t overwhelm the community. Continue to invite people using automation based on certain triggers like logged in a certain number of times (or other analytics that show engagement).
Once all your users are invited, make the invitation automatic for new customers.
Step 6: Start discussions and moderate
Even with a lot of members, communities can become dormant if you don’t properly manage them.
Ask for perspectives: Post relevant news stories or other cultural commentaries that your users might care about.
Prompt regular discussions: Things like asking what people are looking forward to on Mondays or what they are grateful for on Fridays.
Continue the core function of your community: Continue driving initiatives in service of your community goal.
Step 7: Iterate and try new things
A community is meant to be a living thing that grows with its members. To that end, make sure you’re willing to iterate and try new things.
Keep feedback channels open: Always have a feedback button or system so users can share their ideas (both about the community and your product/service).
Run experiments with subsets of users: You can create an opt-in list for your most-engaged members to try a new product or community feature before anyone else.
Switch up how you engage: Move from online to IRL, try a live talk instead of pre-recorded, etc.
While members might love a core element of your community, you can always try new things to deepen engagement. You might find people don’t like some ideas, and that’s fine. Just keep trying.
Common community mistakes to avoid
As you build your customer community, make sure to avoid these pitfalls and mistakes.
Inviting users before building a baseline: You have to build the original structure before asking people to join.
Too big, too fast: If you have a lot of customers already, don’t flood the community from the start—let things move organically with beta members first.
Not moderating: Your community can run wild with trolls if you don’t.
Not asking for feedback: You may get information that could transform your business.
You can build a sense of community
A sense of community, at its core, is about users feeling like being a member is a good use of their time. That connects to how they feel, what they get, who they meet, and how they engage. All of these things can be tested and iterated on, especially if you’re open to feedback from users who opt to try things out.