Tips for Community Builders
The word community is incredibly overused these days. It’s what everyone seems to want but nobody can actually provide.
Without high-functioning communities you get depressing graphs like this:
That’s why I’ve put this list together.
A community should be built around something that its originators are palpably, infectiously passionate about.
Getting people to buy-in to anything is tough. If a potential community member shows up and feels like there’s not an overarching purpose, if they can’t feel the why, they’re probably not coming back. You should be able to walk up to anybody at any community event and ask them “what’s the point of this?” and get an immediate, confident answer.
A real community with a real purpose offers its members the rare opportunity to transcend their personal identity for something bigger, freeing them from their own minds (which is a problematic place to be stuck in) and shifting them upwards, towards something bigger. How often is it that we come across something that genuinely does this for us?
The purpose of a community also determines what kinds of people the early adopters will be. Building your foundations carefully is critically important.
A community really starts growing when its purpose can be easily communicated. I think it’s pretty well know at this point that stories are the perfect medium for this. They’re shareable, emotional, memorable chunks of information. Almost all other formats of information get lost in the noise.
The best stories have viral attributes. People should feel like they gain something by sharing it. Try sharing the story in public—how do you feel mentioning it at a social gathering?
A good starting point is usually the history of why or how your community started — especially if it involves overcoming a challenge. You’ve got to be the world’s leading expert at telling your story effectively & quickly.
Tip: if you ‘defied the odds’ to start your community, you’re sitting on a story-pile-of-gold.
I see a lot of “community” builders make decisions that are inconsistent with things they’ve led people to believe, or values they’ve communicated. Actually, this happens a lot.
Unfortunately for them, people are shockingly good at detecting this. Inconsistencies quickly devolve into conspiracy theories and general toxicity, which spread like wildfire.
Conversely, being overly congruent has the opposite effect. Almost nobody prioritizes being overly congruent, which is why it’s an opportunity to stand out and earn trust from your community.
People are always asking, “Is this person in front of me the same on the inside as he or she appears to be on the outside? Is there congruence between what’s within that person and the words and actions I’m viewing and hearing externally?” Children ask that about their parents; students ask it about their teachers; parishioners ask it about their pastors and priests; employees ask it about their bosses; and in a democracy, citizens ask it about their political leaders.
— Parker J Palmer
Test everything for congruence, especially in areas where your decision making is reflexive. Why are you charging for membership? Because that’s what you’re “supposed” to do? In my experience, communities that challenge conventional wisdom and break norms in favor of congruence attract amazing people, resources, and attention consistently.
This concept is highly extensible. The design, language, rules, members, events, imagery, rituals, etc. should all evoke feelings that are congruent with the essence of the community. The more alignment across the different the attributes of your community— down to the little details — the more people feel like they’re part of something that’s out of this world (think Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, etc).
Tip: members that don’t share the values or believe in the purpose of a community are incongruent.
A community that doesn’t have to overcome challenges as a group is like a sports team that never plays any games. Challenges are the reason we evolved to form communities in the first place.
Challenges synthesize connections by providing the emotional ingredients — fear, pain, pleasure, excitement — necessary to crystallize complex social bonds. When a community overcomes a challenge together, a wave of these emotions flows through everyone, reinforcing connections.
Universities, Sports, Religions, Fraternities, etc. use challenges as a binding agent and as a filter for new entrants. I’m not endorsing some of the geekery that goes on in fraternities — there are bad ways and good ways to do this. But, when it’s challenging to join a community, you feel a hard-earned sense of belonging, once accepted. This is key because when a new member feels like they belong, they’re more likely to stick around. Most open-door communities, as a result, are fragile and loosely bonded.
Challenges also give the senior members of the community a great excuse to engage the newcomers, which is super important. Newcomers have ‘earned’ it.
How many times have you felt completely ignored by established members of a group? New members that don’t feel like they belong are unlikely to stick around. For senior members, it’s all too easy to ignore newcomers. Challenge barriers are the remedy to this.
The worst communities are ones in which members feel unappreciated or ignored. If you can, you want to be closer to the opposite end of the spectrum. The best community leaders repeatedly recognize members like a functional family would.
One of the greatest things about being a part of a community is getting to share wins. When one community member wins, it should legitimately feel like everybody is winning. Communication of these wins is the key.
You should be spending more time and energy focusing on recognition than housekeeping, announcements, and organization combined.
Tip: some communication is better in a public setting [celebrating wins], and some is better in a more private environment [complaints]. Be thoughtful about how you structure community discourse.
6. LEADER / ICON
Communities that don’t have a figure-head are prone to pandemonium. There must be a leader (dead or alive) or an icon to serve as an anchor or reference point during tough times. Keep in mind, this leader does not need to be present or even be an active part of the community. But, person/icon needs to either be a fundamental part of the story or communication of that story.
Tip: most people mistakenly think leadership is about figuring out how to steer the ship. In fact, it’s about wrangling the chaos of groups well enough to bring the best out of people, they’ll do the rest.
It goes with out saying that people avoid discomfort. Communities where people don’t feel comfortable crumble in the long-term. Groups created by selfish, attention-seeking leaders frequently suffer from this type of problem, they’re not aware enough to sense the discomfort.
Here are three ingredients to build comfort:
Nothing is more comforting than getting vulnerable and NOT regretting it. Encourage people to open up and share their real thoughts.
Ideas shared in confidence with the group should remain within the group. Trust needs to be continuously reinforced as a priority.
Shared experiences → connection → trust → comfort
Well planned events that are congruent with the community’s purpose are critical. Make sure there’s always a good turn out. It sends a bad signal if the turn out is low.
Tip: share an object or a secret that’s meant to be kept inside the community with new members. This makes them feel important, included, and comfortable (think Fight Club).
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Communities are powerful. Don’t be an evil asshole. Use community building for good.
Juyan Azhang — Co-founder @ Chalk