This year, on average, a new community was created on reddit every 2.4 minutes. More than 1 billion people are participating in Facebook groups every month. In the 5 seconds it takes you to read this sentence, it’s safe to assume at least one new community formed somewhere in the world.
In fact, communities have been forming, evolving and dying consistently since the beginning of humanity. Building community is part of being human.
But we aren’t just local tribes gathering around a fire anymore. Today, people participate in many different communities concurrently and much of our community experience lives on the internet. This means your community is fighting for the attention of members in an endless sea of options and distractions.
While the environment is different, the fundamentals of how communities form have always been the same. Whether you’re building a community for a tribe, a city, a hobby or for a brand, you can use the same social psychology.
In CMX Training, we teach community professionals how to use the community engagement cycle to fuel engagement in their community. But what if you don’t have a community yet? How do you get a brand new community off the ground?
I’ve been building online communities since I was 13, and at CMX, we spend every day studying and teaching organizations how thriving communities are built.
Here are the six things we’ve learned for getting a new community off the ground:
1. You don’t “launch” a community
Communities don’t launch. They start small and grow organically, eventually turning into a movement.
Eventually, you might have an “announcement” letting people know they can join, but this should never be your first step. Before you open up your community to the world, you’ll want to make sure you’re building the right foundation.
A community is like a party. Any good party organizer knows that the key to a good party is a good pre-party. The preparty lets you put the right people in the room and sets the tone for the rest of your guests. This way when everyone else shows up, it’s not a quiet, awkward room. This is how The League, an exclusive dating app, built a community and got thousands of signups before opening up the app to the world. They threw parties to build up their foundation so that when they finally “launched”, the environment was ripe for success.
If you’re imagining your launch as a big grand unveiling where you open the floodgates and a thriving, healthy community forms…think again. The only way that approach drives any activity is if you have an existing, large following. And even then, when you dump a lot of people into a room you’ll have no control over the culture and quality of interaction that develops.
2. People join communities to feel safe and validated
Why do humans seek community? Because in the days of the earliest humans, those who collaborated survived, and those who stayed alone died. As a result, our brains evolved to seek community, because it increased our chances of survival. Communities make us feel safe.
We have the same brain today. But for most of us in western civilization, surviving is no longer about fighting off a lion or hunting for food, it’s about our status in society and emotional safety. We want to be part of a group that makes us feel supported and validates our identity.
This is why when people feel isolated from others who share their identity, they’ll naturally seek out community. You have a golden opportunity to build community when you can identify a group of people with similar identities or interests, who feel isolated from each other.
When we started CMX, we knew there were thousands of people who identified as community professionals but there was no central place for them to come together and share that identity. They were isolated. When we launched CMX Summit, people flew out from all over the world and the event sold out in 5 weeks. We created a space where their identity was validated and they felt supported, and a thriving community formed.
3. Curate high-quality members to start things off
I know, it’s weird to talk about the quality of a person. But the truth is we all have limited time and we have to choose who we spend time with.
If you give someone an opportunity to spend time with people that they respect and whose company they enjoy, you’ll have no problem getting your community going.
Today Product Hunt is one of the fastest growing online communities in the world. But when it started, it wasn’t a platform for thousands of people to share products. No. It was brunch. I went to every Product Hunt brunch I could from the day Ryan Hoover started hosting them. Why? Because I knew that at every one of those events, I could walk up to anyone and they would be interesting to me. Somehow, most of the people I would meet there also shared my sense of humor and had similar lifestyles. They were my people.
Remember, your community is competing for attention with thousands of other communities and events. People are drawn to curation. Curation makes each member feel special (because they were chosen) and increases their trust that they’ll enjoy interacting with the other members since they too were curated.
Good curation will also make non-members envious. People love to be a member in a community that other people envy.
4. In-person and live online experiences create stronger bonds
In order to be a community, your members have to develop relationships with each other.
In a study conducted by The Economist Intelligence Unit, they found that 4 out of 6 of the most important attributes for developing relationships required in-person interaction.
Online communities are almost always asynchronous and text based. That means members can only form relationships one message at a time, often across the space of many hours. It also means they’re lacking the context of facial expressions, tone of voice and body language.
This is why live and in-person experiences are so powerful for creating a strong foundation for your new community. These experiences will strengthen the asynchronous online interaction members have later. They’ll know each other more intimately and will be able to enjoy more conversational language.
Most large online communities you know today all have “live” experiences to compliment asynchronous interactions. Reddit has in person events and AMA’s to bring members together at the same time offline and online. Airbnb hosts big events and meetups for their hosts. Yelp hosts Yelp Elite events on the regular.
5. You’ll need to manufacture the first interactions
When you first start organizing a community, people have no idea what to do because there are no examples. And they don’t care about their reputation amongst the community yet, so they’re not going to be motivated to help others. That’s why in the early days you have to facilitate everything.
Your goal is to create examples, even if they aren’t completely organic. Reddit is one of the largest and most active communities in the world. When they started, they actually made fake accounts so that when other users went there, they would see other people, and there would be content to interact with. This is known as “astroturfing”.
It’s not the most transparent way to get engagement going, but it got the job done for them.
Remember, people don’t like to be the first mover. Just like in school, most of us wait for someone else to raise their hand first.
To overcome this, one thing I did when launching the CMX community was ask members that I knew personally to post a question. And then I’d ask other members I know to post answers to that question. It wasn’t all “organic”, no. But it created the foundation for organic activity later.
Event organizers do this all the time with speaker Q&A. You know that awkward silent period every time a speaker says “okay I’ll open it up for questions!” and no one raises their hand? A good event organizer knows to seed a couple questions in the crowd to get things going. Then everyone else will want to ask a question too.
6. The most important factor is you
None of this is easy.
It takes a lot of hard work and persistence. There may a considerable amount of time where it feels like nothing is working. You’ll have awkward silences. You’ll have events where no one shows up, or posts that no one responds to. You have to just keep at it. Rome wasn’t built in a day and your community probably won’t sprout up over night.
I’ve started many communities that never got off the ground and looking back, it’s always because I didn’t care enough. I had the idea, tried a couple things to bring people together, and when the community didn’t just start growing on its own I gave up.
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.