Get The Big Decisions Right – Then Make Sure Everyone Knows What They Are!
When communities struggle, it’s not usually because the tactics are wrong, it’s usually because there have been some strategic mistakes which need to be fixed.
If you don’t get the critical decisions right at the beginning of the project, everything else is going to feel like an uphill battle.
When creating a community strategy it’s important not just to do the research to make the right decisions, but also to ensure everyone else is aligned on these decisions and why they were taken.
Collectively we call this set of decisions about the community the ‘community concept’.
The community concept is the foundation stone of a community. It’s the result of a comprehensive community discovery process.
All other activities and decisions about the community should trickle down from the concept.
The concept is not the roadmap, launch plan, or playbook. Instead, it’s the summary of the decisions made and everyone has agreed on. Your concept might vary, but these days our contain the following:
1. One-Page Overview / Theory of Change
It’s a good idea to have a single summary which outlines the critical community decisions in a simple, coherent, way.
Your overview might differ, but I’d like something which includes the vision, goals, target audience(s), key behaviours, programs/initiatives, and must-win battles.
You can see an example of this here:
Theory of Change
An alternative approach to this is to have a ‘theory of change’.
A theory of change is commonly used by non-profits, those working with smaller groups, or those building an internal community. This usually focuses on a desired change in the audience rather than increased profitability.
The theory of change is essentially a summary framework which outlines the steps you take and the assumptions you’ve made to achieve clear goals.
In many ways, a theory of change inverses the typical framework which begins with goals and then trickles down into initiatives.
It’s a tool which clarifies the cause-and-effect relationships between your actions and the intended outcomes.
It’s often a useful way of summarising your strategy and strategic plans into a single slide as you can see here:
This will usually include a combination of:
- Inputs: Some theories of change include a column before activities outlining the inputs. These inputs include the resources and investments being made into the project. We don’t tend to skip these.
- Activities: These are the actions or initiatives you will undertake to achieve key outcomes. If you have an input slide, you might wish to show how the activities leverage these inputs.
- Outputs/Outcomes. Some have an ‘outputs’ column between activities and outcomes. Outputs highlight tangible results directly caused by the activities. We typically go straight to outcomes which highlight the changes in behaviour, mentality, or improved performance as a result of the activities.
- Goals/Impact. This is where you highlight how achieving the aforementioned outcomes helps you achieve your goals. This is where a reduction in support cost, improved loyalty, or more informed customers appear.
- Ultimate vision. This is where your vision will appear. The only difference now is that you’ve put in place a logical chain of events for you to get there.
The theory of change works well as a ‘one sheet’ demonstration of what needs to be done to achieve the desired goals and everyone can see the inherent assumptions in the process.
Like an executive summary, the community vision/theory of change should be the last slide of the presentation you create. You should be able to flesh out every other aspect of this document before creating the final overview of the full document.
2. Guiding Principles
The guiding principles should add clarity to the vision.
A good set of guiding principles would cover:
- Which audience(s) are you targeting? Who is the community for and who is it not for? The community can’t be for everyone – so create some boundaries. You can even clearly specify who it’s not for if you wish.
- What is the unique benefit of the community to the organization? What does the community offer to the organization it couldn’t get from elsewhere? This is a simpler ROI question. It should be clear what the broad goal of the community is and why the community achieves this better (cheaper, quicker, more effectively) than any other channel.
- What is the unique value to members? What will members get from this community that they can’t get from anywhere else? This is a positioning question. Is it speed/quality of responses? Unique connections?
- What is your unique advantage? What is the unique value you or your organisation brings to the table that no one else building a similar community can match? Why couldn’t this be a fan-hosted subreddit or Facebook group? What can only you provide? (e.g. access, verified sources of information, scale/resources, or influence etc..)
- How will the community thrive in a changing environment? This is where we flag the trends to watch out for and how we will adapt to them over time. This often outlines the platform, people, or goals which might need to change as the environment changes.
- What is the key challenge which must be overcome? Most communities have a key challenge they must overcome to succeed. It might be getting questions, competing for experts, or budget issues. What is yours and how will it be tackled?
Every principle should be built on solid research – not remarkable bursts of creativity.
Here is an example of a set of guiding principles here:
3. The Community Vision
The vision is the desired outcome if everything goes well.
Some people like to have a mission, vision, goals, and values statement. That’s totally fine but we prefer to take a slightly different approach. The first part is simply to define the broad vision for the community.
Some examples might include:
“Build a thriving community of advocates who help us and each other achieve our goals.”
“Create powerful, authentic, content which puts our diverse clients at the beating heart of our marketing efforts”
“Use the power of community to equip every customer with the skills, knowledge, and resources to thrive”
“Foster a work environment where every team member’s individuality is celebrated and harnessed to create a collaborative, innovative, and inclusive workplace”
The language of this should serve as a rallying cry that you’re happy to share with members and stakeholders.
This should be based on interviews with stakeholders, members, and past experience.
You can come up with several different messages if you like and test which seems to resonate most strongly with the key audiences if you wish.
If you message 20 members with for their feedback, you should see one option emerging above others.
4. Prioritised List Of Goals
The next step is a prioritised list of goals. These are the top two to three things stakeholders want to achieve. This should be clear and specific.
The goal here is to relentlessly clarify what the outcome will look like if the community is a success.
How will they know the community is a success? The goals should clearly link to the vision as you can see here.
These should be sourced from your stakeholder interviews and the result of connecting your community goals to desired member behaviours (see below).
You should complete this section after you have undertaken the target audience analysis below.
Based on your research (see Appendix) you should be able to identify the broad goals and prioritise them by their level of importance.
5. Target Audience(s) and Behaviors
In this section, we describe who the community is for. This begins with the summary of our research.
You will usually be able to identify multiple different groups. This might mean segmenting them by:
The key rule is if you’re segmenting an audience in a particular way, it should be practical (i.e. you should be able to segment and communicate to them differently).
This is often hard to do with psychographics. Most platforms, for example, don’t easily let you split your detractors from your promoters and send different messages to each.
So whichever means you have of segmenting the audience should be practical in how you can identify them and communicate differently with each of them.
You might have multiple groups here and you can use persona templates if you wish. I’m less of a fan of persona templates than I used to be. I increasingly find a simple list of needs and desires is fine in most situations.
You can look at our simple member segmentation template here if you want to dive deeper into this.
If you have multiple audiences (location, job roles, needs, relevant demographics), you might wish to have a unique slide for each of these.
The goal is to be clear about the needs, the severity of each need, the frequency of each need, how that need is satisfied today and why not the community.
The outcome is a list of needs for each segment which looks like this:
This should give you a clear list of needs prioritised by severity and frequency – which you can then also use to guide how you communicate and position the community later.
Listing The Critical Behaviors
If the goals from this aren’t obvious (or you’re concerned they won’t be supported), you can then host a workshop (ideally in real-time, but asynchronous is possible) to connect the goals to desired member behaviours and then rank goals by their importance to the organisation and feasibility to members.
You can do this via the workshop format as shown here.
Feasibility here is based on whether members have stated they want to do this and whether there is fierce competition for that behaviour.
If you have multiple audiences you can color-code the responses by type of audience.
Slide each behaviour along the horizontal axis to determine the feasibility of the behaviour. This should help you prioritise goals which are at the top-right.
6. Community Type
Once you know the behaviors you need your members to perform it usually becomes relatively easy to decide the type of community you’re building.
Our thinking on community type has evolved over the past decade.
While we initially used interest, action, place, practice, and circumstance, we’ve found it more practical to use a different set of definitions based on purpose.
- Peer groups.
- User groups.
At this stage, we want to be clear about which genre of community we’re building because each genre entails a different set of goals, values, and expectations, and challenges. You can see this here.
The main benefit of this is to have clarity on the value of the community to members, the key success factors, the main challenges, and the type of platforms you might be looking at here.
This should also create a healthy discussion about what to expect when you build a community. I.e. if you’re building a support community, you shouldn’t expect the vast majority of people to hang around and chat casually. However, if you’re building a peer group, that’s precisely what you want and should aim for.
The community type should naturally follow from the behaviours you need members to perform.
7. Community Positioning
A community should be positioned along two axes.
One axis should relate to the primary value members want from the community (belonging, support, learning/exploration, influence).
This is a broad approach, you can be far more specific than this in practice with what members need (e.g. latest sales templates, up-to-date news, good case studies etc…).
The other axis should relate to how they will get this value better from the community than any other channel. This is what makes the community unique. It could be speed of response, quality of response, trustworthiness, exclusivity etc…).
This is usually where we want to summarise how the community will compare against existing places where members will get that value and ensure the community has its own uniqueness.
It’s important everyone understands how the community delivers unique value to members and all future actions reinforce this.
This information is sourced from research and needs and desires analysis. You can see an example here:
Once you have the positioning, you can develop the right messaging to match the positioning.
The messaging should generally include:
- Name. Is it simply [brand] community? Or will the community have a distinct name? As a general rule, support-only communities can adopt the [brand] community as it’s better for search traffic. Any other kind of community will usually benefit from having a distinct name and identity.
- Tagline (one sentence). This is a simple one-sentence value statement to members who are joining and participating in the community. It should be used on both the website and in all communications describing the unique value to members.
Often this is in the form of:
The [unique benefit] way to [desired action][value].
E.g. The quickest way to get your questions answered.
- One paragraph. This is where you outline the full benefits and value of the community in a paragraph.
- Key Messages. This is where you highlight the key messages you can distribute about the community. If you do this well, each of these can be its own mini-promotional campaign.
You can also think about how you might change this messaging to ensure consistency across multiple channels. For example, how will this be reflected on Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, and other channels?
You might share images on channels of the average time to first response, highlight the fastest responder of the day etc…
9. Key Programs and Initiatives
This is where you list the key initiatives to achieve your goals.
You don’t need to list the standard community activities you will undertake in every community here. That will come later. This is simply the place where you list the key initiatives which will make your community succeed.
These should directly match everything above – especially the unique positioning you adopting in the community.
You can find some examples of initiatives which match the positioning here:
The key is to push this to the edge. If speed is the unique positioning you can’t just say it – you have to do it.
This makes putting in place the programs and processes to ensure this is reflected in your community strategy.
In this example, we’ve highlight initiatives which are skewed towards trust and convenience with a group set up for newcomers, courses, and videos hosted on platforms which enable ease of use and several initiatives reflecting engagement with each other.
You shouldn’t have too many initiatives here – just the main ones which will highlight how you will exemplify the unique positioning you’re creating.
The number of initiatives should depend entirely on the resources available. What one person is capable of executing is very different from what a team of five are capable of executing.
10. Must-Win Battles (MWBs)
Must-win battles are the challenges you must overcome for this to be successful.
The core purpose of the ‘must-win battles’ is to highlight the difficult part of the process.
If it was easy, you probably would have already achieved your goal.
But there is going to be some part of the project which isn’t going to be easy and it’s useful to focus resources and skills on them.
You can see some examples here:
A must-win battle entails unpredictability. It can’t simply be an output you completely control. It usually relates to some change you hope to make in the audience. These are the areas which require skill, and effort, and where the difference between good and great community professionals shines.
MWB’s put strategy in the realm of probabilities rather than certainties. Common challenges relate to people, platforms, or processes. Often it’s a combination of changing minds and changing habits. At other times it’s about developing the right platforms and processes for capturing the results.
This section can be optional, but it’s good to highlight them so everyone is aware of what the hard part of this process really is.
This is where you can list all the background research you’ve undertaken to present this core strategy. Typically here we want to list
11.1 Summary of Stakeholder Research
This is where we include the summary of our stakeholder research process. You can usually any template you like, but here is an example:
You will notice here we put stakeholders in categories based on their level of interest in the project and their influence over the project. This helps us to identify who we need to proactively engage in the project, who we need to keep satisfied, who we need to keep informed, and who we need to monitor.
While this isn’t relevant to the concept, it is very relevant for ensuring the project is a success over the long term. But for now, it’s good to have this in the appendix for people to research how the goals were determined.
We might also include here a summary of survey results, stakeholder interviews, and other relevant background material.
Adapt Your Concept As Things Change
Remember a concept is just one aspect of a complete community strategy.
The concept should be an agreement on the critical decisions about the community. Everyone should be aligned on this before you proceed with building anything else.
However, as the circumstances change, you may need to continually go back and update the concept to reflect new information (we have clients who retain us once per year to do precisely this).
But you should at least have a concept which you can give to any stakeholder to quickly get them up to speed on the community.
Get Help To Build Your Strategy
It’s hard to build a strategy while also trying to manage your community at the same time. This is why it’s common to bring in a consultancy which can undertake all the research on your behalf and ensure you’re pursuing the right course of action in the future.
We’ve helped many of the largest organisations develop their strategies. This includes Meta, Google, Microsoft, SAP, Okta, Audi, Sephora HP, and many more. We would love to help you bring your strategy into line with modern practices.
If you want some help, drop us a line.