How to build your community like a startup, and avoid wasting valuable time

by David Spinks on Aug 09, 2012

Originally published at The Community Manager

The Lean Startup Cycle by Eric Ries

The Lean Startup model created by Eric Ries has been applied to a lot of different industries.

Turns out, it’s the most efficient way to approach community building as well.

I’ve been taking a lean approach to building community after 4 years of learning from things that worked and, more importantly, things that didn’t work.

Just like the Lean Startup, the Lean Community framework allows you to accomplish validated learning early on in the community building process and avoid wasting time and resources down the line. It helps you to prove or disprove your assumptions about what your audience wants in a community.

The best way to explain the Lean Community model is with an example…

How We Applied the Lean Community Model at Zaarly

At Zaarly, I was asked to join the team as the Director of Community with the goal of converting the growing audience into a community.

When you have a large audience, you don’t want to just invite everyone to a community. I’ve tried it. Doesn’t work. People feel like they’re being marketed to, instead of feeling like a member of a community.

A much better approach is to start with an minimum viable community, test your assumptions and go from there.

In this case our assumptions were:

  1. Our users have common interests that they want to discuss.
  2. Our users want to interact in a Zaarly branded community.
  3. Our goals would be accomplished. By becoming a part of our community:

A. Our users will become more active on Zaarly
B. Our users will become ambassadors for Zaarly

So using the Lean Community model, we wanted to create as simple of an experiment that would allow us to prove or disprove these assumptions.

Step 1: Build

At its very core, to build a community you will need 3 things:

  1. Platform
  2. People
  3. Participation

1. Platform

We created a Facebook group called “Zaarly Nation”.

I almost always recommend to start off with a Facebook group.  A Facebook group is amazing for the Lean Community model because:

  1. You can set one up in 30 seconds
  2. It’s a very basic platform with minimal features that focuses on conversation (healthy conversation is the most important feature of a healthy community)
  3. People are already using facebook, so you can reach them where they’re already present

Instead of spending a lot of time and resources putting together a forum (even 3rd party platforms can take a long time to integrate), convincing people to come over to yet another platform and adding a ton of features without knowing if your community will actually want them, you can have a community up and running in one day.

Actually, most the communities I run are still primarily in a facebook group to this day. Turns out a lot of the features that seem really cool to include in your community aren’t all that necessary in the end. If they are, people sometimes get creative and use the docs feature in the group. Only when you get to the point where these basic features are no longer sufficient for the growth of your community should you even consider using your own platform.

So we had our platform.

2. People

How many people should you start with? At Zaarly, we started with about 10 users and 3 employees. Then we slowly added another user, and another until we started to see interaction happening a bit more naturally.

Remember, you don’t want to just add 100 people all at once to a brand new community. It takes away any sense of exclusivity. You want the first people in your community to feel really special, because they’re appreciated and were chosen first.

We started with the “early adopter” and “power user” types at Zaarly. These types of people are typically a lot more forgiving when it comes to bugs and lack of features in your product. They’ll also be more forgiving when it comes to getting a community started.

They’ll put up with the lack of features, the awkward quiet periods (you know what I mean, when you ask a question online and get 0 answers) and the growing pains of a new community. Also look for people who are outgoing, social and optimistic. I talk a bit more in depth about what to look for in a community member here.

3. Participation

Now you have to get the conversations started. This is where much of the learning will happen. Do people interact with each other?  What do they talk about?  What value are they looking for when they come to the group?

You probably already have some assumptions that you can use to guide initial conversations.

At Zaarly, we assumed that they’d want to talk about Zaarly, entrepreneurship, local commerce and tech. Based on our research, these were the interests of many of our early adopters.

So when we started to ask questions, we focused on those topics. We wanted to prove that they did in fact want to discuss these things, and so that would be the focus of the community.

Step 2: Measure

How do you know if it’s working?

Tracking the success of your community program can be a bit more difficult since it’s hard to get great metrics around user retention and interaction within your community. Facebook groups provide no metrics. I haven’t found a single community platform that really does community metrics well, if at all.

Actually, the only metrics you can usually find for communities are vanity metrics. For example, a lot of companies focus on number of members, number of posts, number of followers etc. These metrics can be very misleading when determining the health of your community.

The real metrics that you’ll want to look at depends on your goals. Remember, your goal isn’t necessarily to get more members or more interaction. Your goal is to learn. In the Lean Startup, this is called “innovation accounting”.

For Zaarly, I’ll reiterate our goals:

A. Our users will become more active on Zaarly
B. Our users will become ambassadors for Zaarly

We could test goal A by looking at users activity in your backend. Depending on how sophisticated your backend is, this can be a manual process.

We could test goal B by tracking our members’ social media activity and providing them with referral links.

When it comes down to it, you can tell when a community isn’t healthy. A good community manager can pick up on the ebbs and flows of a community, and work to keep it on track. Ultimately, a truly healthy community barely needs a community manager, as users will start their own conversations and will even self moderate.

Step 3: Learn

For the most part, we were right about their interests and our assumptions were confirmed. There were a number of things we learned very quickly though, that ended up shaping the future of the community program.

For example, we learned that our small business users weren’t very comfortable sharing a lot of personal information. Our community adopted a very informal and playful vibe that made some of the more professional members uncomfortable.

When a lot of members who were young entrepreneurs or tech adopters spoke about their personal lives and started conversations that were more edgy than professional, our small business members would tune out.

We’d make sure to speak with the members of the communities individually as regularly as possible. When speaking with these small business members, their feedback showed us that we’d need to provide a different community experience that appeals to their specific needs.

It’s really important to speak with your community members not just within the community platform, but personally as well. A lot of my time was spent on the phone with users or exchanging emails to collect feedback on our product and community.

Another value that you get from this approach is that is lets you lay the groundwork for what will ultimately become much more formatted and strategic community programs. For example, eventually, you may want to launch a program specifically for power users that ties in rewards, events and badges. Or maybe you’ll want to launch an ambassador program where members become “ambassadors” for more niche communities online, or in their hometowns.

By using the lean community approach, you can start to bring together all the different kinds of users that would be a good fit for these more specific programs. From there, you’ll learn if there’s even any interest in those kinds of programs, and what they’d like to see you include in those programs.

Within 1-2 weeks, if you follow this model, you’ll learn a great deal about what direction you should, or shouldn’t be taking your community. Like a startup, if the community program you’ve tested isn’t working, pivot to try another approach.

Pivot your Community

There are a lot of different types of pivots that you could take with your community. Your pivot shouldn’t just be another complete guess. Use the learning that you’ve gained from your initial experiments to help guide the next iteration. Here are some different kinds of pivots for your community:

1. Pivot the people

Perhaps you had the right idea for your community, but chose the wrong people to invite. Try again but invite a different audience this time.

2. Pivot the platform

It’s possible that you got the idea and people right, but the platform just didn’t cater to the type of community you’re building. Some communities are better run offline at events. Some communities are actually better for a forum rather than a Facebook group. The kind of content that members are sharing can be very important when choosing a new platform.

3. Pivot the program

There are a lot of different kinds of community programs. If you’ve tested one and it isn’t working, you may want to consider changing. Talk to your members and learn more about their specific needs, then test the proper program for those needs.

Eric Ries wrote an entire book on the Lean Startup model.  This was a high level breakdown of how the same methodologies can be applied to community building. If there are specific aspects that you’re curious about, let us know and we can dig in further.

Email me, david (at) thecommunitymanager.com

If you’ve used the Lean Community model to build a community before, share your learnings in the comments.

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David Spinks is the CEO of LetsFeast.com and TheCommunityManager.com....

  • Socialish

    Interesting article! Good tips!

  • Jesse

    “When a lot of members who were young entrepreneurs or tech adopters spoke about their personal lives and started conversations that were more edgy than professional, our small business members would tune out.”

    How did you change the tone of the conversations to Be inclusive of small business while still allowing the community to maintain a culture all it’s own (independent of your moderation)?

  • Wandy

    Great article. I found the information provided beneficial for starting a community. I guess we usually start a group without really having a plan and being more focused on the number of members rather than the quality of conversations.

  • http://twitter.com/cherienb Cherie Braun

    Without knowing that it had a name or was a concept, this is how I started our smart center Cary FB page back in 2009. We have slowly added “likes” to our page, and have been closely monitoring to see which type of posts get the most community response. We are expanding to other platforms now, but still working at developing the base with loyal customers and other fans of the smart fortwo brand.

  • http://www.whatspinksthinks.com/ David Spinks

    hehe that’s what happened with me too. I had been taking a lean community approach without really having a name for it. Then after reading the lean startup, it gave it a name.

  • http://www.whatspinksthinks.com/ David Spinks

    Good question Jesse. We ended up realizing that at that point in time, the small business members didn’t have as much of a need for a community to socialize in. Their needs were more strategic around how to best optimize their use of the marketplace. So we created a position within the company for one individual to act as the point person for all the small businesses. THey could call or email this person at any time and get help. This person would also provide a lot of content and advice, then small businesses could converse around those topics.

    In my experience, it’s best not to try to force a community to change the tone or culture. If it’s creating a culture of it’s own, that’s a good thing, and you should support that. Your best chance, if you want to control the tone, is to set it early on. Even then though, a healthy community will take on a voice of its own. If you’re the leader of that community, people will follow your lead. If others develop as leaders, they’ll be the ones setting the tone.

  • http://twitter.com/mvsrikrishna Srikrishna

    Wonderful article. For one of the pages I manage, we tried to come up with a ‘ambassador of the month’ contest where the winner would be given moderator privileges along with a couple of prizes and a chance to interact with the CEO. Unfortunately the response was poor and the winners did not claim their prizes. Note that we have over 35000 fans. Exclusive facebook group is an interesting proposition. I always believed that facebook group was a powerful tool.

    Really useful tips. Thanks!

  • http://www.whatspinksthinks.com/ David Spinks

    Interesting. Thanks for sharing. Creating an environment where community members find enough value in the community to want to be a moderator takes time. I can imagine it would be tough to get a program like that going using contests. I’d focus on finding the people who really believe in the community and offer them the opportunity in a way that makes them feel privileged.