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How to Find Your Community

How To Find a CommunityA couple of months ago a colleague poked his head into my office and asked, “How do you find your community?” He was charged with helping foster community in a certain area, and while he had extremely deep subject matter expertise in this area, he didn’t know who else at the company shared this interest and expertise, or how to find them. I quickly answered off the top of my head:

Go out and do stuff and see who comes.

By “do stuff,” I mean design and facilitate an in-person gathering, host an online meetup featuring an expert talking about a tool or process or experience, hold a special event like a film screening, or do any other activity that will draw the attention of people at the company who might be interested in whatever topic your community is about.

Invite people via aliases, Yammer, your personal network, your colleagues’ personal networks, and any other means you have. Encourage people to forward the invite–it’s 100% sure that you won’t be able to reach your potential audience yourself.

Remember the mantra: “Plan. Do. Plan. Do. Plan. Do.” As you start to foster your community, don’t overengineer it and develop a bunch of complex plans before you actually do anything. People are unpredictable, and you don’t know what will work. Decide what you want to accomplish, try it, measure the results, and adjust before you try something else.

My second piece of advice was:

Find a way to engage further with those who show up.

When you put your time and effort into arranging something of value for people, don’t be shy about asking for something back. Get feedback on the event itself. Ask what other events people would be interested in. Find out what problems they’re dealing with. Discover the best idea they’ve heard this week. Or even, give them special advance notice the next time you put something together for the community.

Your ask doesn’t have to be heavy-duty–but make it clear that their response adds value back into the community that you are starting to form. This reciprocal investment into the community will tie you closer together than if you simply provide something without asking for something in return.

If anyone offers a standout response, figure out ways to engage deeper with them–these people will probably end up being to core of your community. So, you send out a signal, and if you get a response, you focus your future signaling most strongly on those people.

After I talked to my colleague, I realized that there are two important caveats to my advice.

First:

Don’t be so uninformed that you don’t know what you’re talking about.

This wasn’t an issue for my colleague, but many community managers may not have deep knowledge in the community’s area of interest. You don’t necessarily need deep knowledge, but you need to have some knowledge, so make sure to do basic research. If you don’t feel like you can answer tough questions, at least make sure you can ask smart ones.

And then finally:

Don’t act so smart that your community members feel stupid by comparison.

Your goal in fostering community isn’t to provide all the expertise yourself, and if you don’t leave room for other people to show their expertise, you’ll never attract the kind of experts who will help your community grow. So even if you do have deep knowledge, consciously dial it back and allow others to share the limelight.

So that’s:

  1. Go out and do stuff and see who comes
  2. Find a way to engage further with those who show up
  3. Don’t be so uninformed that you don’t know what you’re talking about
  4. Don’t act so smart that your community members feel stupid by comparison

What did I get right? What looks wrong? LMK in the comments.

 

Photo Credit: Philip Chapman-bell 

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About the author

Alex Blanton

Alex Blanton is a senior program manager in Microsoft's Engineering Excellence group. He provides community consulting services, runs social learning campaigns associated with engineering events, and helps engineers learn from one another in a variety of ways.

8 comments
remybinias
remybinias

About point 2, I think a great way to engage people is to involve them in the community. You can do it by asking them their feedback about what they need, and which kind of meetup or event would interest them. A small survey could do the trick: show people your interest in organising something for them, and at the same time, identify which topics could be popular among your audience.

JPedde
JPedde

@alexknowshtml  Good question.  Start talking to individual people and doing personal personal invitations would be my start.

jeffhora
jeffhora

@alexknowshtml If you do outreach and invitations at the really hands-on level Alex describes, I feel someone is likely to turn up, If it's fewer than you thought/expected, circling back with the people that showed up and those who said they would but didn't to discover the gaps would be interesting...

alexblanton
alexblanton

@alexknowshtml I think jeffhora and JPedde have good responses. You will probably have a good sense from the response to your invitation whether people will actually show up. And if fewer people show up than you expect, then you can turn part of the gathering into a discussion of why that happened, and what the potential community members who did show up want to do next.


You also have to give yourself permission to fail fast, and to view the "failure" as a learning experience. If only a few people or nobody shows up, can you figure out why? Can you re-scope or pivot what you are doing so that it becomes more attractive for people to show up?  Or, maybe you just misjudged the appetite for community interaction in the first place.


One example: I used to manage an in-person talk series located in a certain building, but attendance started declining. I investigated, and it turned out that the core audience for this type of talk had mostly moved to work in different buildings further from the location of the talks. The community was still there, but it was harder for them to get to the talk location. So we fixed that by changing where we held the talks.  Just a simple example of digging into the "Why" behind non-attendance.