As David Spinks said in a recent Twitter chat: The magic of community happens when members create value for each other. Sure, people can tweet at you or double tap on your latest Instagram post, but the real a-ha moments often come when someone else with a similar pain point offers up a new solution or when someone shares a resource they think will benefit the community at large. Knowledge-sharing, FTW.

So how do you best facilitate that?

For an increasing number of community professionals, the answer to this question is initiating a Slack community. Slack is a real-time messaging platform in the same vein as GChat, which has seen exponential growth since its inception in 2014. In fact, a recent VentureBeat article cited a daily active user count of four million. Slack brings back the best of old-school online chat rooms with more control over who gets in and what they can access. People can create public channels based on a certain topic, talk privately in a group, or send direct messages to each other — all for free.

As Head of Community at Trello, a visual collaboration tool based in New York, it’s my job to explore new ways to connect and serve the group of folks who are passionate about our product. Our users care about the product and they care about productivity, and they love seeing how other people organize their workflows. For me, Slack stood out as a potential solution to allow them to share advice, ask questions, and connect with each other in meaningful ways.

But before diving into any new tool or platform, doing your research and laying the proper groundwork is paramount. Here’s our playbook of steps to take before launching your own external Slack community: Questions to consider, how to secure internal buy-in, how to create guard rails for members, pitfalls to avoid, and much more.

In The Beginning

This is the time to analyze yourself and the community you run.

The first and most important question to ask is: Do you really need Slack (or any community platform, for that matter) to achieve your goals? A Slack community is a time commitment, and you don’t want to stretch yourself too thin.

Secondly, think about whether or not a presence on Slack will provide value to your user base. What will they get from Slack that they can’t get from, say, your Twitter feed or your help forum?

This is also the time to evaluate user demand and potential size. At Trello, we knew that even a small percentage of our 19 million users meant we could connect a meaningful amount of people. Even more significantly, we knew that many of them were looking for ways to get the most out of the tool and that, at the time, other than the information we provided, there wasn’t a way for them to bounce ideas off other users. Problem, meet Solution.

In addition, I found it useful to observe the habits and best practices in active Slack communities I was already a part of — CMX and Buffer are two great examples.

Talk to Your People

Launching an external Slack community not only impacts you as a community professional. It will also inevitably begin to involve other departments within your organization. You must educate internal members of your team on the goals of the project and given the chance to ask questions, voice concerns, and, most importantly, feel excited about the opportunity.

To allow for this, I scheduled meetings with key departments in the planning stages, including:

  • Support: If people bring up support issues in Slack, what’s the best way to route those requests? Should we have someone from the team always on-call?
  • IT: Are there any security concerns? Who should set it up? Who should be an admin on the team?
  • Product: How do developers feel about members being able to provide real-time feedback? How can we best filter and elevate user requests and questions about the product?

After all of my discovery conversations, I created a document with best practices and rules of engagement because I knew many Trello team members would want to observe and participate in the Slack community. Key items in that document included:

  • Nomenclature for usernames: We wanted members to easily identify Trellists, so each person was asked to include the company name in their handle (i.e. erica-trello).
  • Discretion when sharing information: Our Slack community is public-facing, so it was important for the team to understand that anything shared there could then be posted on Twitter for the world to see. A good rule of thumb: If you wouldn’t want it printed on a billboard in Times Square, don’t share it.
  • When to jump in: To help foster an environment in which members help each other, I asked the team to let general comments or questions sit for awhile in order to allow other people to jump in with their insight and experiences.

Stay Organized

I’m biased, but keeping myself and relevant stakeholders on track is key for this project, and the tool I use is Trello. On my project board, I have a To-Do list, an In-Progress list a Done list and a Reports list.

If a certain task requires help from a team member, I add them to the relevant card. If a task is timely, I add a due date. This board is also the best way to provide my manager with a bird’s eye view of what is being worked on and what is done. As a side benefit, it helps expose any holes or missing information.

Create Guard Rails for Members

The mark of a healthy community is one in which expectations are clearly defined and rules are adhered to. I used HubSpot to quickly set up a guidelines page that included answers to anticipated questions, things we value, and things that would not be tolerated. (Props to CMX member Margot Mazur at Wistia for the inspiration!)

An important note: I wanted to establish from the get-go that the Slack community was not a place to receive typical support help. It was established as a way to learn and grow, and, therefore, we explicitly stated that the best place to receive individual help for technical issues and beyond was through the traditional support channels (email or contact form).

Establish KPIs

Before launching any major initiative, you always want to establish metrics that will help you gauge whether or not what you’re doing is working. Even in the free version of Slack, they provide a weekly summary of your team’s activities, including how many messages were sent (publicly and privately), how many people became inactive, and how many people joined.

At Trello, our goal was to get folks in the door, encourage discussion and track clicks on the content we shared there, so we decided our three KPIs would be:

  1. Number of total messages sent
  2. Clicks on content shared (using Bitly)
  3. New users joining each week

I knew I would also track any anecdotal wins, such as folks sharing resources with each other, expressing positive sentiment about the community, or anything else that might demonstrate its impact on brand sentiment and user engagement.

Setting Up Your Team

There are a few housekeeping items that should be taken care of before you start inviting people in.

  • Secure a name and URL: Don’t complicate this one. Our name was simply Trello Community and our URL was trellocommunity.slack.com.
  • Select channels and create descriptions: There are certain channels that every Slack community should have (think: #general, #announcements and #introduce-yourself), but also consider adding your own. For us, we added a handful based on Trello use cases (think: design, engineering, and marketing), as well as a #good-reads and #best-practices channel. Add short, quippy descriptions for each channel so that members know what’s relevant to share.
  • Consider copy for greetings in each channel: Channels feel more welcoming if someone from your team sends out a hello and a short blurb about who they are or what they’re working on. Example: “I thought I’d help get this party started — my name is Jessica, and I work on the content team here at Trello. I am responsible for showcasing how our awesome users, well, use Trello! I do this through blog posts, case studies and other types of content. I live in Boston (go Red Sox!) and love to travel, go hiking and Instagram (@jessicawebbica). So excited to meet you all!”

Invite People To Your Party

Often the best way to build excitement is to offer early access to a select group of people. For our first round on August 30, 2016, we invited a list of about 1,700 people — a combination of active Trello users and those who had been some of our biggest cheerleaders on social media.

The button linked to a form where they filled out their name, email, company name, and job title. Submitting the form would trigger a follow-up email with instructions for signing into Slack (remember: not everyone uses it every day), a copy of the guidelines and a directive to say hello in the #introduce-yourself channel. Those who didn’t respond to the initial invite received one more friendly reminder.

When we felt like we had given that initial group time to sign up and explore the space a bit (about three weeks), we wrote a post for our Medium blog that encouraged people to join, followed by a post on the main Trello blog a month after that, which was then promoted on social.Our final big push came with our email newsletter in late October, which is distributed to millions of Trello users. From there, our only promotion has been through occasional social media posts.

Here’s a look at our member growth over time:

Most notable here is the significant boost in sign-ups our email newsletter provided. And, of course, we set out to track much more than just a pure user count each week. We also wanted to look at messages sent back and forth.

Things to Consider

Easy, breezy, right? No issues here!

Not so fast.

We did have a few unanticipated roadblocks that popped up along the way. Most notably: Despite the fact that we were only adding people who had requested to join, at one point very early on, Slack prevented us from inviting any more people until those who had unaccepted invites signed in. They do this, presumably, to prevent spammers from bulk-adding a large list of email addresses.

Thankfully, Slack has an amazing support team, and shortly after sending them a note, the ban was lifted and we were back in business.

Something else to think about: Similar to Buffer’s Slack, we decided to keep our #announcements channel comment-free, meaning only folks with admin privileges can post there. Why? It keeps it clean, and as new members join, they can visit that channel and see all recent announcements without any of the back-and-forth. We made it a point to explain this to the community (after all, we didn’t want them to think we were trying to stifle the conversation!) and encouraged them to move any related comments to the #general channel.

What content has worked well for us to grow and engage the community? Content exclusive to the Slack community. We heard from members early on that a big value-add is learning about features or updates before the general public, as well as direct access to our team members. We took this access one step further by hosting a monthly “Ask Me Anything” session, first with our CEO and then our director of product. The conversations proved to be lively and a great snapshot of the questions and ideas that are top of mind for our members.

Reasons to Love It

Many of us choose the path of community because we live for those lightbulb moments in which we’re able to connect the dots in some meaningful way for our members. With Slack, you get to experience them in real time. Here are just a couple of examples of what we’ve heard:

Feeling warm & fuzzy yet? Me too. These stories are just as important — if not more important — than the number of users we’re adding per week.

Next Steps

The bottom line here is that a Slack community isn’t right for every company. It requires a healthy level of homework, internal buy-in, adequate promotion, and a roadmap for maintaining momentum.

However, when executed properly, it can be one of the most effective ways to bring folks together around a common interest and then get the heck out of their way.

Erica Moss

Erica Moss

Erica Moss currently marries her background as a professional storyteller with her passion for connecting people as the community manager at Trello, a visual collaboration tool. Outside of work, she enjoys theater, photography and all things pop culture. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram: @ericajmoss.