If your community efforts live within a mature ecosystem, you should follow a leader-led approach to community.
In a leader-led strategy, your role becomes less about driving people to an environment you control and more about nurturing leaders to grow environments they control.
This looks very different from the traditional community approach.
You shift your efforts away from responding to discussions, creating content, and dealing with tech issues, and towards nurturing, supporting, and influencing a growing group of leaders in your sector.
In this post, we’re going to break down what a ‘leader-led’ community strategy looks like.
The Real Reason Leaders Emerge
In community mythology, the key to success is to engage superfans.
These are people devoted to your brand who perform all sorts of acrobatics to show their devotion and spread their enthusiasm.
There are certainly a handful of brands that attract this sort of devotion from a small number of their audience.
The problem is these are outliers. Unless you’re HarleyDavidson, Supreme, or Zappos, you’re unlikely to have a large group of volunteer leaders.
Leaders today are far more pragmatic. They might like the brand, but they usually want to have influence or a reputation which they can leverage for their own benefit in the future.
Most of the leaders of Sony groups on Facebook, for example, also work for organisations which sell products to Sony customers. This doesn’t mean they relentlessly spam the audience. But it does mean they benefit directly or indirectly from running a group for that audience.
This has an important implication.
The majority of people creating their own groups or channels in support of an organisation today are doing it for a desired benefit.
Don’t Crush The Motivations Of Leaders
One surefire way to undermine the motivations of any leader is to put them in a straightjacket. This happens when you force potential leaders to create content or launch a group on platforms you control.
This is great for your metrics, but terrible for their motivations.
Leaders want to lead in their own way.
They want to use the tools and approaches they are most familiar with. They want to use the technologies they see their peers using every day.
Some want to launch newsletters or blogs. Others create product-specific groups on Facebook, LinkedIn, or group messaging apps. Many want to become influencers by creating their own YouTube channels and Instagram accounts.
Some want to share basic 101 advice, others are interested in pioneering and showcasing new approaches using your products/services.
Others might take on a bigger lift. They might write books, create comparison sites, or develop their own website devoted to the topic.
Your role is to help them do whatever they want to do.
I can’t stress this enough. The role of the community professional in a leader-led approach is to help leaders do what they want to do.
Even if you think the idea is bad, as long as it’s not obviously harmful to your brand, it’s better to support them than not. You never know what ideas might work until they’re tested.
You imagine someone creating videos of themselves dancing while giving Excel tips would never work, but Miss Excel will soon surpass 850k followers on Instagram.
This is a huge win for Microsoft (and for her). Microsoft gets a devoted brand advocate sharing advice on using their products with a big audience. Miss Excel (Kat Norton) benefits from selling courses on her website.
But until you see actually see it, it’s hard to put ‘dancing’ and ‘Excel’ in the same sentence.
Your leaders know the preferences of your audience better than you do. They probably know the latest trends and how to use each platform better than you do.
The role of the organisation in a leader-led approach is to support dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of leaders to test out ideas for you and the best will naturally survive and rise to the top.
You trade control for an explosion of creativity and activity.
How You Can Motivate Your Leaders
The key challenge is to support leaders without suffocating them.
This support can take several forms. But I’d include:
- Helping leaders reach a critical mass of activity. Most leaders fail to attract an initial audience and quit. Brands can play a role in helping new leaders attract their initial audience and be on their way to success. I’d recommend including a section on a community homepage or the newsletter to feature ‘exciting new voices’. This is where you can help your new leaders reach a critical mass of support.
- Added to a directory. There should be a searchable directory of leaders which increases discovery and provides a channel for leaders to build their audience. This also lets customers search for the kind of support they need and find leaders they should follow.
- Providing resources for people who want to lead. If I wanted to start a blog or video series about my journey using a Sony camera for the first time, there is nowhere on the Sony website or community to help me. Wouldn’t it be ideal for Sony to publish a set of resources to help make that happen? There should be a set of best practices to get my channel started, find relevant peer groups I can join, and a contact at Sony I can turn to for help.
- Providing leaders with a sense of access and community. Similar to current top member programs, leaders who meet a certain threshold should be invited to join a private group to engage with one another, have direct access to the brand, and otherwise help support each other.
- Editor’s picks. The best contributions from leaders should have the opportunity to reach a huge audience. This might be through the newsletter, the brand’s social media, or through any combination of other channels.
For example, a month or two ago, Substack promoted this Twitter thread by Stew Fortier (annoyingly I’ve lost the post).
Here Substack is promoting Stew’s Twitter account sharing advice on how to use Substack.
This helps Stew build his own audience on Twitter, but helps Substack’s audience get useful tips. It’s a win-win for both parties. By supporting leaders on their platforms, Substack gets a good win.
This is what the future of community strategies at larger organisations is going to resemble.
You’re going to promote the work of people who are doing great work regardless of where they do it.
If You Help Leaders Grow Their Brand, They Will Help You Grow Your Brand
The needs of leaders are fairly clear.
- Help getting started.
- Growing their audience.
- Getting access to the brand.
- Being connected to others like them.
The more you align you can use your organisation’s unique advantages (reach, access, expertise) to help leaders achieve their goals, and the more leaders you’re going to have.
You will notice this is a lot closer to brand advocacy engagement efforts than traditional community efforts.
Implementing A Leader-Led Community Strategy
The process of creating a leader-led community strategy isn’t too complex.
We can isolate three key steps.
Step One: Find Existing Leaders.
The first challenge is to find existing leaders in your ecosystem. These are the people already doing support which builds an audience or connects people in your ecosystem. This includes people who are:
- Hosting events, meet-ups, and other activities.
- Hosting groups (Reddit, WhatsApp, Facebook etc…).
- Publishing content to a significant audience on social media.
- Sharing or creating something unique and interesting about the brand.
For almost every major brand there will already be individuals who are leading their niche corner.
If you’re not sure where to find these people, you can always ask your audience in surveys or interviews where else they go to learn or discuss the topic. You should quickly be able to build up a good-sized list.
Step Two: Create A Resource To Help People Become Leaders
In addition to finding existing leaders, make it easy to become a leader.
Invite your customers to come to you with their best ideas and you can help them get going through your resources and promotion. The more successful they are, the more you will promote them.
If someone wants to create a blog, YouTube channel, Instagram account, or Twitter account, to talk about you or your products, that’s great. You can share a resource pack and advice for getting started to make it successful. You can feature them on your homepage and promote them in your newsletter to your audience.
The Wikimedia Foundation, for example, highlights what they want their audience to do (create an ‘edit-a-thon’) and then takes people through a training course to do it well.
If someone wants to create their group or meetup, that’s terrific! You can offer them a similar getting started guide, and some key principles, and then help them get up and running.
Guide them through the process to get whatever channels a leader is using up and running. Create a rich resource destination for these people.
You can even highlight the kinds of projects you want to support and let people put themselves forward to support them.
“We’re looking for someone to host an Instagram dedicated to sharing beautiful sunsets”
“We’re looking for someone to create a Facebook group for our customers in Milwaukee”
You can provide some support and resources to whoever takes the role and still retain a reasonable degree of control.
There should be a place in your community anyone can visit to learn how they can become a leader, what support is offered, and what is expected.
The goal here is to influence without control. If a leader begins behaving in a way which is not acceptable, you can cease supporting them.
Step Three: Help People Find Leaders To Follow
The final step is to help people find their place. This is where it helps to guide every newcomer to the right place to connect and learn more from others. You want a directory destination with separate lists which guide your audience to:
- Top influencers they should follow.
- Local or topic groups they should join (run by leaders).
- Events they could attend.
- Relevant books or resources created by leaders.
Your mission is to convert disengaged audiences into engaged audiences through whichever means works for you.
If we go back to this matrix we shared before.
Your mission is to engage as many of your audience as possible – whether they’re customers or not.
By engaging them you want to increase their sentiment in your favour. This approach helps turn satisfied customers into learners and superfans. It also helps turn leads into prospects.
You want to build stars into your ecosystem and ensure as many of your customers are following them as possible. You want to help each member of your audience find the group they can belong to and engage within.
You want to make sure every member of your audience is benefitting from the best resources regardless of whether they are shared on destinations you control or not.
Guiding your audience to follow the biggest names in your sector is a win for everyone.
They get great information, the leader gets a bigger audience, and you get expertise being shared without having to create the expertise yourself.
A Leader-Led Community Strategy Guides People To Get Involved
A leader-led community strategy might more closely resemble Wikimedia than the traditional approach today.
You might replace a central community platform (or accompany a central community platform) with a dedicated page for people to ‘get involved’ in whichever means best suits them.
Here Wikimedia shares how the individual person can get involved, host their own events, find their local group, or improve their skills by learning from others.
In this approach, you encourage people to share their ideas and goals for supporting the ecosystem, and then you support them to achieve those goals.
This will begin with a central location where the audience can learn about opportunities and get engaged. But it will enable each leader to suggest their own approach.
Is This For Every Organisation?
If a fire needs fuel, leaders need an audience. If there isn’t a big enough audience, there won’t be enough attention available to sustain a leader’s interest.
Leader-led strategies are only suitable for organisations in a mature ecosystem.
Otherwise, you need to take one of the other three approaches you can see below.
However, if you do have a large audience which is already connected to one another and has a diverse set of needs then this is the approach you should follow for the Community Everywhere era.