5 questions to answer before building a community

5 questions to answer before building a community

Understanding the different types of communities and how they can help your organization is the key to successful community-building.

5 questions to answer before building a community
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I've talked to a number of business leaders recently about building communities for their company or product. While everybody recognizes the benefits of having a vibrant and active community, many are unsure about what it means and how to build it. Not knowing these details can mean wasting time and money on things that will not give you the results you want.

While interviewing for community management roles, I started asking for these details to determine whether company leaders understand why they want a community and what they want it to do for them.

Here are five questions I ask:

1. Who will be in your community?

This is a deceptively simple question, but you need to think carefully about the answer. If you're running an open source project, you might say "developers," or if a proprietary offering it might be "users," but that doesn't tell you much about the people you want in your community. Do you want high- or low-level language developers? Are you looking for people who can stabilize your product or expand its features? Professionals who get paid to contribute, or hobbyists working in their spare time? Reaching each of these groups will require different tools, messages, and channels. The same with users—those giving support and those doing evangelism have different needs.

Marketing teams often develop profiles to target with their messaging, each with a name, demographic, and backstory. It's a useful approach because it lets marketers ask, "How does Amy react to this ad?" and consider how different perspectives, opinions, or experiences will affect how well the message works. It also forces them to clearly define their target audience and distinguish it from the rest of the population. This approach works for community building for the same reasons: It forces you to be specific and mindful about what you're doing so that you can be both effective and efficient. Beware of vague, generic answers to this question—trying to reach and excite everybody will spread you thin and exhaust your resources, and it will be very difficult to measure your success.

2. Do you want the community to lead, support, or promote?

A healthy community can do a lot for a company or project, but establishing early what kinds of things you want community members to do is important. Having mismatched expectations will inevitably lead to misunderstandings, tension, and disappointment on both sides. An important part of defining what kind of people you want to have in your community is determining exactly what you want them to be doing.

Community contributions can be broken into three categories: leading, supporting, and promoting.

A leading community is one that sets the direction for your product or project, contributes directly to its features, and takes on responsibility for its success. Linux distros are a good example, where developer communities are usually the ones planning and implementing each release. That's not to say a company doesn't have any control; Canonical has a significant influence on Ubuntu's development, for example, but the community can and will contribute directly to it as well. A leading community will also contribute to supporting and promoting the project, but as a secondary objective motivated by their feeling of ownership as they lead the project's development.

A supporting community's contributions are no less valuable, but instead of leading the way forward, they focus on supporting the product or project as it grows. They provide a foundation users and customers depend on, allowing your company to concentrate more resources on growing and developing your project. A supporting community will answer questions on your forum, test your beta releases, write documentation, report bugs, and advise you on the direction or features you should consider. To retain motivation, it's critical that the supporting community feels the same sense of ownership as a leading community, so you will need to make sure their contributions are seen, supported, and appreciated both within your company and the wider community.

Finally, a promoting community will help you grow awareness, mindshare, and positive feelings among your company's target demographic. They might submit some patches or write some documentation, but their main interests are talking to others about your project and generating interest and excitement. These bloggers, social media influencers, and event organizers serve as your voice in their community. They can get your message into social circles, professional networks, and geographic locations on a much larger scale than you could reach on your own. Access is a key part of what motivates a promoting community. You need to connect them directly with people and resources inside the company to effectively represent you and promote your message.

Having more than one kind of community around your company or project is possible, but to be effective, you must be able to give each one the time, money, and resources it needs to thrive. If your community program has limited resources (human and monetary), focusing on just one and make it the best it can be works best.

3. What value do you want from your community?

This goes hand-in-hand with the previous question, but it digs deeper and deserves its own answer. Too often, people approach building a community like Field of Dreams—"If you build it, they will come"—but they don't really know what "it" is. Remember: Mismatched expectations cause problems, and without an answer to this question, there will definitely be a mismatch.

This question is difficult to answer for companies with no experience building a community, so if you are interviewing for a community manager role, don't be discouraged if a prospective employer doesn't have a specific answer; you may be able to help. It's up to you, the community expert, to identify the company's needs and which of these needs a community can address, and then to explain how to accomplish that. This process is essentially project management, but your project is a new community rather than a new product or feature. For example, managers at one company I spoke with knew they wanted a developer community, but they didn't know specifically what they wanted that community to do. With some additional questions, I was able to determine that they wanted developers to build awareness and mindshare within their professional community so potential customers would already have engineers on staff who had positive experiences with the product.

When interviewing, I am flexible with this question because answering it is as much my job as theirs. Still, it's helpful to probe to see how deeply a company has considered the question. Ask if they've considered their requirements and the scope of community involvement they're comfortable with. Many times, they can't say exactly what value they expect from the community, but they can tell you what they don't expect, and that will give you a good idea of where the borders are. Firming up this answer and making sure there's broad agreement within the company is an important first step, so make sure it's a priority when you get started.

4. What company goals do you want the community to contribute to?

This may sound like a repeat of the previous question, but the two are quite different. Every company has a set of goals to guide what it does. Making sure that your community aligns with one or more of these goals allows you to show how the value described above contributes to the company's objectives, not just its products. This is important for allocating budgets, expanding the community team, or generally showing why the resources being used to build a community are a worthwhile investment.

In a startup, most employees understand the company goals because they use them constantly to help focus their time and energy. But employees at larger companies may not be as familiar with company goals, or they might have goals that are specific to their division or team.

Knowing what company goals your community should focus on will not only help you decide how to spend your time and money, it will also tell you what you should be measuring. There's little value in showing an increased number of participants on your forum if the company goal you're trying to meet is increasing the number of users of your product.

5. How much is this community worth to the company?

To put it more succinctly, what is the budget for building this community? Don't expect to get the actual dollar amounts if you're just interviewing; that's confidential information that they probably can't share with you. But they can tell you whether it's "well-funded," "has a small budget," or "no budget for community specifically, but we can use someone else's."

Knowing how much the company is planning to invest in the community will tell you how much they think that community will help them achieve their goals. This, by the way, includes your salary as a community manager (your job is an investment in the community). As a rule of thumb, your community should aspire to a 10x multiplier: For every dollar spent, the return value should be roughly 10 times that amount. If one person can give four presentations a year, for example, aim for 40. If one person can write one article a month, you should aim for 10 articles a month, etc. It's a lofty target, and you probably won't often hit it, but that's how high you should aim. (Of course, as any grade-school student can tell you, 10 x 0 is 0, and a company that isn't willing to invest financially in building a community isn't going to get the kind of return they probably want.)

I usually ask this question last, not only because it's a bit uncomfortable to ask in a job interview, but also because it's where the answers to all the previous questions either come together or fall apart. Once you've roughly established the type and scope of the planned community, what value it will provide, and how that will directly help the company, the final piece of the puzzle is making sure you have the resources to accomplish that goal. If a company says a community is critical to their success but doesn't offer the resources to enable it, then something is wrong.

About the author

Michael Hall - Experienced Community Manager, Develop Evangelist, and Technology Advocate with a highly technical background in software development