We host the Uncommon Book Club as a gathering place for community builders to learn from community authors. We welcomed Carrie Melissa Jones to discuss some of the in-depth community-building strategies she highlights in her book, Building Brand Communities. Our conversation focused on a few key topics, including the important work of establishing a community's 'why,' useful ways to assess next steps for the particular stage of a community, and how to encourage meaningful engagement in both digital and physical settings.
Our next Uncommon Book Club is on March 2 with Richard Millington, where he'll be discussing his book, Building Community. Register to join us.
We've highlighted an excerpt of our conversation with Carrie below, and you can hear all the details in the video.
You've worked with clients like NerdWallet, Patreon, Google, Buffer…Can you talk a bit about when a brand is “ready to build community”?
I don't even just work with software companies. I've worked on presidential campaigns and I've worked [with] nonprofits and consumer goods companies, like Glossier. So these principles apply no matter what kind of organization you are talking about or working within. Generally, how these conversations go is someone calls me or emails me and says, “You know, this is something that we know we need. We know that community is important." We've kind of gotten over that hump, I would say, in a lot of the conversations that I'm having, of [needing to prove] why community is important. If I have to prove it to you, then we probably shouldn't be having a conversation.
So generally they'll come to me in that [community-is-important] stage and they'll just say, “I know we need this, but I'm so overwhelmed - where do I start?” Or, “I already have a community, but where do I start improving it? We know we could be doing better, but we don't know how, and we don't know what we're going to do to actually implement changes.” Some questions that I always ask: If you have done research yet - have you talked to either the members that you're currently serving or the ones you'd like to serve or your ideal members who maybe don't even know your community exists yet?
If they haven't done research, there’s one of two things I either say: Okay, go do research. Or my team takes on that role. So we're actually doing a really big research project now with members in the US and Japan for one organization. And we're just having these really in-depth conversations about what their goals are and how they can achieve them and things like that.
So if you haven't done that, that's got to get clarified. If an organization refuses to invest in that, that is a major red flag that they're not ready. The other thing that I always ask is, “Who’s going to resource this effort?” Who's going to be the actual human being behind this because we form relationships with other human beings, not with brands. So we need to know who's going to be leading the charge and who's going to be, for the earliest days, the point person. And there's usually one point person. If they don't know the answer to that question and refuse to resource the effort, then I also am very concerned about their success.
It comes down to those two things: Humility to do the research and the patience to do the research, and the willingness and commitment to resource the effort and help create or help offer leadership to whatever kind of community needs to be built.
Christopher asked, “What’s the best tech platform to use to create and online community?” And I'm guessing that this answer might be different at different stages and per community, but I'm wondering if you have a specific point of view on the ones that you've seen work best or that you recommend people to start off with?
I just made a YouTube video about this. It's a huge question - what’s the best software? There are all these sub-questions I need to throw back at you, which are, well, are you trying to do something to improve the front end or the back end of your community? Because the software I'm going to recommend for backend customer relationship management or your member relationship or automations is very different than what I might recommend if you're building a course community or something like that.
That's the first thing to figure out: Is this front end, backend, is it both? Maybe you need a full all-in-one solution. You also need to know what you plan to invite members to do in that space.
So you have platforms like Slack that are really discussion oriented, synchronous communication. Then you have platforms that are like Circle or Mighty Networks, which are more asynchronous and lean more toward the forum kind of build. All of that just really depends on what your goals are and who your members are and what their needs are. The other consideration is, do you want to be able to own the platform and the data, or do you want to use a third party platform like Facebook Groups? The only time that I recommend going with something like a Facebook Groups, because they give you so little of the information that you need about your people, is when you are just getting started, to prove that there's a need for the community.
Or if you're really concerned about distribution and getting the word out about the community, because people are already on Facebook. A lot of people aren't, but a lot of people are. It gives you that advantage, but otherwise I almost always recommend going with a platform that you can get the data out of and that you integrate with other platforms. You want to look really closely at which platforms integrate with other systems that you're currently using.
So if you use HubSpot and you use ConvertKit and you use Airtable, you want to look at platforms that are going to integrate with those down the line. Now what integration means, and if it's push or pull APIs, all that stuff, we can get into at a different time. But these are just some of the considerations. It’s a really big question. There are over 80 community platforms out there today. That's where I would start: Asking these sub-questions and then doing some further research.
So now let's say we have a platform in place. What metric(s) should we really worry about?
The first thing I'll say is that we shouldn't worry about any metric, especially not in early days. We shouldn't ever build community in a place of worry because that's going to show up in all kinds of harmful ways. In our communities, we should build from a place of deep service. So any metric that you're using should tell you how well you are serving people. It should tell you [if you] are accomplishing your purpose. Say your purpose is helping increase people’s learning around a certain subject. You could ask survey questions like: How has this improved your understanding of X, Y, Z subject? And if you're doing that, then great. Those are the things that you should be concerned about. Are we actually helping people do the things that we've said we would help them do?
There are plenty of metrics that I know a lot of communities look at from a health perspective, as well as the outcome perspective that we need to be looking out for. Looking at growth is one way. It's a vanity metric in many cases, but we still want to know if [a community is] growing and if it’s growing in the right way. We always want to look at retention. I don't know a single community that shouldn't be looking at retention. If you have 20% of members coming back on a regular basis, by which I mean weekly or monthly, you’re doing an incredible job.
It's not a hundred percent retention that is success. It's 20%. So that's something you need to be considering because if people aren't coming back, that means that you're not forming a community because endemic to the definition of community is a sense of commitment to it. So if people aren't coming back, then they're not committing to it. I [also] look at one-to-one connections. How are we doing in terms of people having one-to-one conversations with each other?
And I always look at some outcome metric. So if it's about product innovation, how are we going to measure that? Maybe it's number ideas just to begin with, but maybe over time you can mature that metric and look at the number of qualified ideas. And you can determine what that means, the criteria for it, and you can mature it over time, but I think you have to start somewhere. So looking at growth retention, one-to-one connections, and at least one business outcome metric is really important to get started.
How do you think about and assess community maturity at different stages? Are there specific ideas, activities, or metrics that you might pin to those stages that community builders should be thinking about?
When I'm looking at the maturity of a community, I use a framework in my own work that I call the community renovation model, which is this concept that we are consistently renovating our communities.
We are not building a fixed structure on day one or day 35, however long it takes to build. We are throwing the foundation and all of the walls up and all that. And then we're improving and renovating all the time in our communities. So in a really mature community, you'll see that the foundation is really, really strong. This is often the case in communities that appear mature from the outside in terms of size and activity. There might be a ton of activity going on. It might be a huge community, but if the purpose is not clear, that community will not be able to sustain itself and regenerate over time and grow. So even those communities that look mature by size and engagement standards can be immature by other kinds of foundational standards. So for me, the number one thing is the foundation.
In terms of metrics, you might look at, as you're moving up into higher stages of maturity, one of the top things that you'll notice is that you as the community builder can step back more and more in your role because you'll see more participation from members. So if you have a way to track staff contributions or moderator contributions versus member contributions, that's always something I recommend looking at because you should see that ratio. It should rise over time toward more participant contributions. And if it's not [rising], then you're not building a community. That’s what I would say is one of the biggest indications.
Monica asked, “What is one way you found success in encouraging engagement amongst online community members using gamification?”
That's a really good question. [And I offer some helpful] free worksheets [about facilitating engagement]. In many of my communities, I don't use gamification - at least not for a while and especially not in the earliest of days. Encouraging engagement is much more about being a steward and the number one thing that we need to do to encourage engagement without gamification is to focus on getting to know our members and bringing them into the conversation. And what that looks like often is you posting questions in the community or someone else posting questions in the community. And then instead of you answering them, you go send a bunch of emails to people who you know have a great answer to that question.
And you say, please answer this question in the community, or please show up for this conversation. I know you have something to add. If we skip that part, we never get the baseline of engagement that we need to create the sort of vibrancy that we often associate with successful communities. You're going to create a megaphone effect toward [the idea that] you have all the answers. I don't think we talk about that enough, that ~90% of the work of building community in the early days is you sending messages to people, DMing them, emailing them and saying, “Here's a link to a thread. I would really like your contribution on this.” [People] often don't know where to jump in and how to begin to help other people, but they want to be part of something larger and they want to help.
So when we are pinging people and asking them to participate, we're not doing it because we're being annoying. We're doing it as a way of making it really clear. “Here's a way you can contribute to something larger and help someone today.” I would love to get that message versus, you know, “Here's another marketing email I'm going to throw at you.” People will (respond)…I know because I send these emails all the time for my own community. They respond at an extremely high rate to these messages. [It’s] usually a 90% response rate when I send these. And it often turns into also, "How are you doing and what's going on in your life?” That's how we build relationships - no gamification needed for that at all.
You talk about delivering values-driven events and experiences and you walk readers through some key points and moments, everything from creating a very specific event to sending the right invitations. You also talk about principles, like the Campfire Principle. I want to ask you first about the basics - how specific should I be for my event and what should that invitation look like?
The more specific you can be, [the better]. Your community should be really clear about who it's for, but every time you design an experience, you should be even more clear, like, "Is this for the whole community or is this for one specific type of member?”
And if so, what are their needs right now? And how can we meet them? I did a workshop in November called Designing Meaningful Community Experiences where I walked through my whole canvas that I use with my clients. If anyone's curious about that, I can share it with you. But yeah, these are the questions that we need to ask.
I have a student right now who's building community for educators. And as you might imagine, educators do not want to be showing up on Zoom calls right now. They're completely burnt out in many cases. People aren't showing up. They're not even RSVPing at the rate that they used to RSVP at. So we need to design an experience for this exhausted community member.
So in her case I asked her, “Have you talked and done research with these educators beyond just gathering them in these calls?” She said, “Yeah, we did research in 2020.” And I said, “No, no, no, no, no. You need to be doing research every day - you should be talking with an educator and learning about what they're struggling with."
You can design based on what you know their needs are. So many things are changing that if you did research in March 2020, I highly recommend updating it for now. This is true in my community as well. I'm starting an internal research project with community builders in the next couple weeks, because so much has changed.
Now let's talk about that invitation.
It depends on the purpose of your event. I'm a community builder, and I still run webinars. So I can't send out a personal invitation to everybody I want to invite to the webinar. But if I'm doing a community gathering that is a smaller group gathering or that's really specific, if you can send personal invitations I guarantee your response rate and show rate will be better. In some cases, more than 50% higher if you send a personal invitation.
But again, if your goal is growth and not deeper engagement and relationship building, then you really have to think about whether that time is well spent. I almost always think it's a good idea. The more individual we can be, the better. People do notice because it's so very rare to get a personal invitation, especially from an organization that you respect or are a customer of that you might have feedback for. It's just so rare so it really, really stands out.
So personalization is key. Sometimes it’s daunting to think about personalizing something when the host has to send 10 or 20 or 30 messages, so I'm going to go ahead and hopefully say something where people are like, “Okay, thank you for that.” I try to personalize everything, but I start from a template. I think a lot of times people think templates and personalization can't go together, but they really can really help because they take away that blank email, which is super scary. From there, I get to swap in relevant information specific to my recipient.
Yeah, and I'll say you send very good emails. I don't respond to all my emails anymore, and I did respond to yours. I mean, [personalization] is really important.
[Let’s get back to the last part of the original question—you were going to discuss the Campfire Principle.]
The Campfire Principle is basically the concept that we need small group gatherings and we need space, time, and permission - explicit permission - to begin to share more intimately about ourselves. That does not happen in a large group atmosphere or what Charles and I call an arena event, like a giant concert or something like that.
Campfire moments can happen in a variety of ways. For instance, I went to an adult summer camp - which is this giant thousand people group - but we did small carpool groups with, like, five people in each carpool to actually get to the camp. Those were campfire experiences where they were actually organized by the central body [who enabled a] carpool app [for folks] to sign up for carpools. I don't think they realized how important that [small group] experience was…because those became in many cases people's buddies throughout the camp experience.
We can design campfires in a multitude of ways. These days they often look like small group discussions on Zoom or other tools that you might use to facilitate breakouts, but they can also be buddy programs or small group accountability programs. The sky's the limit.
Will you talk through a few things that should be top of mind when creating a digital event space for communities?
Crossing through that [digital] threshold, or gate, is really, really important. Many people don't take advantage of the gravity of that moment when people actually go from not being a part of something to whatever it might take to become a part of it - filling out an application or just inputting your email. That moment is really critical. It's just like first impressions, right? Our first impression of someone or an organization or a community is going to determine, in many cases, how we continue to interact with that person or organization or community.
You have to develop an on-ramp for this. So number one: Think really intentionally about what it looks like to become a member.
So if they’re filling in [their] email - how can you make that moment a little bit more intentional, more in line with your values as a brand? And then the other thing is, don't just drop people into a community, especially if there's no signage in a community. In a lot of cases, both physical and digital, there are not good enough arrows pointing people to where they should begin. [Offer intro steps like], “Here’s the first thing you should do after you've done 1, 2, 3.” All of that should be really clear and it shouldn't all just happen in one swoop.
I often encourage my clients to create email nurturing sequences for folks to follow up with them - up to a week or so, maybe even longer depending on the community - to onboard them into the experience so that they know there's a variety of ways that they can interact, and they're not just given carte blanche in this space where there's a lot of things happening and they don't know where to begin.
Find all of our Uncommon Book Club author Q&As on YouTube, and hear more from community and DevRel leaders across industries in our Uncommon Conversations series.