Once your community strategy has been created, it’s time to map out your rollout activities and timelines. At this stage, there is still a lot of work to be done before officially announcing your community. Begin by hosting what is known as a pre-party.
This involves selecting a small group of people (first members) and curating a community-like experience for them. During the pre-party, you are creating a mini-version of your community that focuses on validating test members and engaging them in the co-creation. Identify a few attendees who will set the tone for others during the pre-party, and to role-model the values and behaviours of the community. Having role-models in place also avoids new people arriving at your pre-party to find an empty room or digital space.
As you move through the phases of community building, it’s important to remember that things will not always work on the first try. Your determination as the community builder is what will continue to drive the process, especially in difficult moments. Stay focused by remaining connected to your community’s purpose and overall strategy.
“Every community that exists today only exists because someone cared enough to bust their ass and make it happen. If you have that drive, nothing else really matters.”CMX
The six phases for initiating a community
Operationalise your virtual community strategy by turning it into achievable goals, tasks, guidance materials, and resources.
Private beta phase
Get input and feedback from a small group of first members to ensure your community will indeed add value, and that people will identify with and trust your community.
Introducing technology and roles
Introduce your virtual community platform to first members, validate its purpose, and assign content creation and engagement roles among your first members.
It’s finally real! Your virtual community is ready to be shared with the public. It’s time to invite new members to join you in achieving your purpose.
Expand your membership base in organic and strategic ways. In-person events can play a crucial role during this phase.
Make an ongoing effort to ensure your community continues to add value for members and that it is healthy, iterates whenever needed, and closes when its purpose is achieved.
During each phase, your primary goal is to move potential members through the engagement cycle. Identity and trust do not exist in the early stages of a new community. But, eventually, members will move through the cycle organically because of their relationships and the community platform.
Until then, you must create this trust “manually” to get things started. During this time, you as a community builder will represent the identity and the trust you want to see in your community in the future.
Customer versus co-creator mindset
Sometimes, members join a community with a customer mindset and an expectation that they will be served. Members with a customer mindset will attend events to listen or read and react to posts, but only when it is useful to them. If they don’t like something in the community, they will often complain or disengage. Customer mindset members typically feel that leading the community is someone else’s responsibility and most join the community for opportunistic reasons. When they invest time, energy or money into a community, they expect to get something out of it in the short-term.
Members who join a community with a co-creator mindset help to shape and organise events. During discussions, they actively contribute new ideas and initiatives without expecting immediate gratification. If they don’t agree with something, they bring it up and provide new ideas and suggest solutions. During conflicts, members with a co-creator mindset are willing to work through it. They invest their energy, time, and money into the community because they believe it’s their responsibility.
The goal during this phase is to
translate your virtual community’s strategy including its purpose, value-add, and personas into a real-life, fully operational community.
Activities in the phase
- With a group of friends, mentors, supporters, or co-initiators, review your strategy and identify how the different elements will translate into the daily life and activities of your community. For example, how will you and the members actually live the values articulated in your value statement?
Preparation for the next phase
- Who will be included in your test community? Ideally, the test group will mimic the real virtual community. Use your community personas to identify 10-15 testers you can reach out to, and who represent all segments of your community. This group of first members should have the skills, background, and intentions required to test the value proposition of your community.
- Design the onboarding and user journey to be simple and pleasurable. For example, prepare a simple version of the on-boarding materials and find a fun way to pitch them to your first members. What kind of activities and first events can you organise to help members build trust?
- Will you do all testing online or focus on a test group that can meet in-person to provide direct feedback?
“At this stage, the first members can’t trust the community as it doesn’t exist yet, but they can trust you, and they can trust the idea of a community that you aim to build. So you have to start building trust. If they don’t already know and trust you, that’s step one: connect with these people, take them out for coffee (virtually or in-person), bring them value. You want them to feel invested in the idea. Better yet, you want them to feel like it’s their idea.”CMX
Private beta phase of the community
The goal of the phase is to
test your ideas and activities with your community’s first members, validate your community’s strategy and concept, and begin to seed the community.
Activities in the phase
- You already have a list of potential first members and your pitch. During this phase, it’s important to show your passion. You may need to meet with and pitch to potential new members a few times and invest in the relationship. If you already know most or all of your first members, this step will be easier.
- Organise a kick-off gathering to generate excitement about your community among potential co-creators.
- If you can’t meet face-to-face, host online meetings. Schedule time when people can check-in, introduce themselves, and get to know each other. Whether it’s online or face-to-face, creating an event that is intimate and interactive is important.
- After this initial meeting, host a few activities for first members to give them a sense of the value beyond interpersonal connections. Extinction Rebelling, for example, hosts a first protest for new members. The WWF Innovation Community might host a virtual case clinic. In this step, aim to fuel participation by including people in the journey towards building your community. Ask members about their experience and listen to what they have to say. Interview a few participants or ask them to fill out a feedback survey. Remember, feedback provides you with a learning opportunity to improve the members’ experiences in the future.
Preparation for the next phase
- During this phase, you will become more familiar with your community’s digital platform. Take time to explore your platform’s features and boundaries.
- Identify possible roles within your community. Keep roles simple in the early stages of community development.
Example from OuiShare:
Connectors: Highly active members that put our mission into action day-by-day. They are community and project leaders who participate in the creation of the OuiShare strategy and take part in decision-making processes.
Active Members: Individuals who identify themselves with the OuiShare mission, values, and culture, and actively contribute to events, projects, and online discussions.
Friends: Those who are not a connector or a member are a friend. You support us, talk about us, spread the news and are interested in our activities. The first step towards becoming more involved in OuiShare is becoming a supporting member.
Alumni: Former connectors. People who are no longer involved in the community as direct contributions, but are still a part of the network. They still have a high commitment to make more passive contributions to Ouishare with contacts, content, knowledge exchange, etc.
“It’s incredibly important that you thoughtfully curate these first members. They will set the tone for your entire community. They’ll set the standard of quality and the tone for everyone else.”CMX
The lengths of the private beta phase is up to you, but make sure your test community creates value for first members before you launch.
If the test group did not get value, they are unlikely to return. When this happens, do not be discouraged. Make adjustments and run through the private beta phase again.
Introducing technology and roles
The goal of this phase is to
move your virtual community to its platform, its digital home. This is a move from one-on-one or group emails to a scalable digital solution. Your platform provides technology to help your community members interact more efficiently and easily find one another.
Activities in the phase
- Remember, new members are not yet familiar with your platform. They may not yet know how it adds value. Moving from relationships to a platform must be understood as an activity that adds value and not a burden. Involve core members in testing the platform. Ask them to use it and provide honest feedback.
- Roles assigned to your first members and future members will be especially important to proving your young community’s value. Think about the process of seeding or actively curating your power members from the first members. Seeding builds valuable social density when new members enter. Reach out to each person individually to show you are passionate about the topic and the community’s purpose, and talk with them about filling a seeding role.
Benefits for first members who take on a seeding role
- Increased access to resources or opportunities.
- Showing contributions and enhancing the viability of the community.
- Public acknowledgement of their role as a leader, inclusion in community direction.
Example from the WWF Innovation Community
The Catalyst group develops healthy social density within the innovation community on Workplace. They also create high levels of engagement within the community. The purpose of this group is to use Workplace as a dedicated space for generating more innovation and to foster engagement and knowledge sharing.
- Inviting new people into the innovation group by mentioning the group and by actively inviting others.
- Generating engagement (shares, likes, comments) on posts in the Workplace group.
- Sharing interesting and relevant content once a month and posting open-ended questions that support other members.
- Sharing relevant content from the innovation group with other Workplace groups.
Time and activity investment
The Catalyst group spends one hour each month on the Workplace group. They use this time to comment, like and share one article, and post one open-ended question. For any role within a community, there should be clear opt-in and opt-out processes. This helps members begin and finish tasks associated with their role.
- Find new members by building stronger ties with relevant influencers, passion players, and people in your personal network. Connect with organisations working on similar issues and topics and advertise your community within their communication channels. Depending on your ideal number of members, you may want to go small or big on this activity.
- Update all of your assets and resources to reflect the feedback you receive from testers and first members. This will position you to begin hosting more effective member journeys.
Prepare for the next phase (announcement)
- How do you want to announce your virtual community? What impression do you want to make on the outside world? Ideally, you will co-create the community launch with your first members and supporters to show that your community is already cohesive and welcoming to others.
- With help from your curators, populate your platform with relevant content for new members accessing it for the first time. Don’t let new members arrive to find an empty digital space.
Congratulations! You’ve come a long way. Now it’s time to have fun, get your community growing, and have an impact.
The goal of this phase is for
your community to become fully public. Now, it’s time to let people know that your community exists and what it hopes to achieve.
Activities in this phase
1. In addition to your outreach channels, involve your first members in scaling your community and attracting new members. Ask each first member to invite 5-10 new people to join the community. This is an effective and cheap way to scale and potential members are more likely to join if someone they know recommended it.
2. Spend time on-boarding of new members. But be aware of how quickly you want to grow and how quickly you can grow. Do not attempt to attract 50 members if you cannot on-board and curate to them properly. It is important that members can connect to the community quickly and easily.
“Once there’s a good amount of content on the platform, begin to grow your community slowly. You don’t want to start adding new members too quickly. This can undermine the safe, high-quality environment you’ve created by curating the right people and building relationships between them.”CMX
A few weeks after your community launch, reach out to new members to ensure they are having a good experience,and ask if engagement with the community or the platform can be improved. Ideally, members will eventually form a habit and incorporate checking the community platform into their week.
“To get your online community started, much like in step one, you’ll want to choose the right people to kick things off. Curating the right group is extremely important because they’ll set an example for the rest of your community as it grows.”CMX
“These 50 people will help you to bring the next 450 members.”Dušanka Ilić, MUN Planet
The goal of the phase is for
new members to join your community, they must follow the same engagement cycle process as first members. They must identify with the community, build trust, be motivated to participate, and see value in their membership. Your activities should help members move along on the engagement cycle.
This can be true for online communities aiming to reach a large number of people. The number of members you need to recruit depends on how many members are required to achieve your purpose (movement vs. exclusive learning group). Growing your community can mean different things:
increasing connection between members, more activities, more members, higher reach. The question is: does your community need to grow its membership size or grow its maturity?
In most cases, it is more sustainable to grow your community organically over time.
An indicator of success during the growth phase is the
establishment of a critical mass of members. When you have the minimum required number of members to make the effort worth it and the community is able to work towards its purpose.
We never know how our small activities will affect others through the invisible fabric of our connectedness. In this exquisitely connected world, it’s never a question of ‘critical mass.’ It’s always about critical connections.”Grace Lee Boggs
Activities of this phase
Timing and order is up to you.
- Measure your impact and key KPIs.
- Focus on fixing unforeseen bottlenecks.
- Begin the decentralisation process.
- Begin positioning your community externally and build a brand.
- Set-up monetisation (especially if you are not part of an existing organisation that funds the community).
The goal of this phase is to build a
core group of highly-active members who add value for the more passive membersin your community. Iterate your approach as needed and continuously try new ways to engage members and to achieve impact.
Activities in this phase
- Ensure you are staying healthy as a community builder and you are not taking too much on. Ideally, you have a stable support team by now.
- Regularly reflect on your community strategy and on the impact you are achieving. Are you still working towards your purpose?
- Close the community if its purpose is achieved or if closure is necessary. Many communities eventually become a 2.0 version that is co-created by the bigger member base. Always ensure community closure is inclusive and allows for grief and appreciation.